Church and State:
Religion and Politics
By Dr. Jim Denison
Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Pulpit Initiative.” A group of ministers came together in Fall 2009 to challenge the IRS regulation prohibiting pastors from making political endorsements from the pulpit. More than 30 ministers took partisan messages to their congregations in flagrant violation of the IRS ruling, hoping to generate a legal battle.
What should be the relationship of church to state, religion to politics? Should I use a website essay to critique the candidates and even endorse one? Should my church? Should yours? How should faith and politics intersect?
On Thursday, April 30, 1789, General George Washington was presented to the United States as our first president. As the General walked to the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, thousands of people jammed into the street below gave him a thunderous ovation.
Suddenly the crowd became quiet as General Washington turned toward Judge Robert R. Livingston and placed his left hand on an opened Bible sitting upon a table beside him. He raised his right hand, and swore to “faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States.”
There was a pause. Then the nation’s first president added his own words, unscripted and unexpected: “I swear, so help me God.” The president bent over and kissed the Bible. Then Justice Livingston turned to the crowd below and cried out, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!” People cheered. Church bells pealed. Cannons at the nearby fort fired a salute.
From that day to this, every President of the United States has followed George Washington’s precedent, concluding the oath of office with the words, “So help me God.” But what do they mean by their confession of faith? How should Americans understand the relation of church and state, faith and politics?
This essay is only an introduction to an extremely involved and somewhat controversial subject. We’ll survey briefly the history of the debate, examine the question biblically, and seek relevant applications for our country and our lives today.
President Washington and the church/state relationship
George Washington became president of a nation still bitterly divided by its War for Independence. When the Revolutionary War started on April 19, 1775 with “the shot heard round the world,” at least a fourth of the colonists supported England. Patriots and Loyalists maintained tensions and bitterness for years after the conflict was ended.
It is a surprise to many to learn that Washington became president of a nation which was still not sure it was a nation. In April, 1507, Martin Waldseemuller, professor of cosmography at the University of Saint-Die, produced the first map showing the Western Hemisphere. He called it “America,” after Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine merchant. But from the very beginning, it was a question much argued whether the country which emerged on these shores would be one nation or many.
The Declaration of Independence dropped the word “nation” from its text, with all references made to the separate states instead. Its final heading reads: “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” The resolution which adopted the declaration states, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” Many felt that independence did not create one nation, but thirteen.
Interestingly, the word “nation” or “national” appears nowhere in the Constitution. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson warned soberly that “a single consolidated government would become the most corrupt government on earth.” New England threatened secession at the end of Jefferson’s first term over his economic and political stances. His response: “Whether we remain in our confederacy, or break into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I do not believe very important to the happiness of either part.” And he added, “separate them if it be better.”
Washington also became president during a time of enormous conflict regarding the role of the church in the state. Protestant ministers cried out against “foreign Catholics” and warned of the dangers of electing “papal loyalists” to public office. “No Popery” banners flew in parts of New England. Following the constitutional decision to avoid any state-supported church, many were concerned that the nation’s new leadership not endorse a particular denomination or faith tradition.
Despite such concerns, our first president made his personal faith commitment clear. He was a lifelong Episcopalian, worshipping regularly at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia. He rode ten miles to church (two to three hours on horseback) whenever weather permitted, an example which both shames and encourages us today.
John Marshall (Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and Washington’s biographer) described him as “a sincere believer in the Christian faith and a truly devout man.” He believed in God the creator, arguing that “it is impossible to account for the creation of the universe, without the agency of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to govern the universe, without the aid of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to reason without arriving at a Supreme Being. If there had been no God, mankind would have been obliged to imagine one.”
He trusted God as his helper. Washington encouraged his troops during the Revolutionary War: “The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own…The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army…Let us therefore rely on the goodness of the cause and aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble actions.”
Immediately following his first inauguration, President Washington and other officials rode to St. Paul’s Chapel on Fulton Street and Broadway for a religious service. However, since most of the crowd could not fit into the sanctuary, the president suggested that they walk seven blocks to hear prayers offered by Episcopal Bishop Samuel Provoost, just named Chaplain of the Senate. This was the only time a religious service has been an official part of a presidential inauguration.