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The Wall of Separation of Church and State

One of the things I like about worshipping at 2BC is the respect given to the separation of church and state in our worship services. I’m very patriotic and love singing patriotic songs as much as the next person. But I also think it’s important to not confuse my patriotism with my understanding of God and my Christianity.

I grew up marching in at VBS and saying the three pledges. I was always proud to do so—and can recite them at the drop of a hat now. But my perspective about these kinds of displays at church has changed a great deal in the last fifty years of life.

It’s important on national holidays that in addition to celebrating our country we also spend time in gratitude for the freedom we have to worship without fear of persecution and to remember and thank God for those who sacrifice their lives for us. Our worship services, on those particular days and at other times, acknowledges that freedom and those sacrifices in our prayer times, in our spoken word, and on our regular prayer listings. I respect that our stand on separation of church and state at 2BC doesn’t mean that patriotism and freedom, given by God first and country second, is not banned from our services but is acknowledged in what I believe to be an appropriate way. This intentionality keeps the focus of the service on the worship of God and not our country or even our freedoms. 

One hymn we often sing on patriotic holidays is “This is My Song.” It is sung to the tune “Finlandia,” which Jan Sibelius wrote in 1899 as a patriotic tribute to his homeland. The song acknowledges that God is God of everyone and that peace, freedom, and blessings comes from God and is for all countries. The words are:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is,
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine. 

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

When I lived in Springfield, MO, there was a nativity on display that profoundly offended me. It had the baby Jesus swaddled in an American flag. This nativity offended me first as a Christian. My belief that God’s love is for everyone made me see this display as one that said that God loved Americans more than non-Americans. For too long we have perpetuated that misconception. Even in our early mission days, the effort was often clouded by the fact that our approach was one of power and superior knowledge, not one of partnership, which is what we strive for now. God doesn’t love Americans any more than any other country, and our understanding of the birth of Christ isn’t the only way to understand God’s love. The babe wrapped in the American flag seems entirely off focus to my understanding of the purpose of the incarnation.

The nativity display also offended me as an American. Our country was founded on the principle of freedom of religion. Throughout our history, people have fled to our shores looking for a place to worship in freedom. To use the flag in such a dominant Christian symbol offends my understanding of that right. I object to a public display saying that to be American you must be Christian, which is what I felt like the display implied.

Another example comes from a recent controversy in Dallas over a billboard ad that First Baptist Church Dallas placed. The ad promoted an upcoming sermon on “Freedom Sunday” entitled, “America is a Christian Nation,” that would be preached by Senior Pastor, Robert Jefress. The Dallas Morning News ran an article quoting the Mayor of Dallas, Mike Rawlings, who was critical of the billboard. In the June 7 article, the writer quoted Mayor Rawlings as saying, "That is not the Christ I follow. It's not the Dallas I want to be — to say things that do not unite us but divide us. I never heard those words, that voice come out of Christ. Just the opposite. I was brought up to believe: Be proud of yours, but do not diminish mine." The controversy became intense. The billboard company chose to remove the billboard. 

The “Free Exercise Clause” is part of the First Amendment to our Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, an American Founding Father, and Roger Williams, a Baptist Founding Father, are credited with the language of a wall of separation between church and state. Jefferson first used the phrase in an 1802 letter written to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut which was published in a Massachusetts newspaper. He was echoing words used by Roger Williams in 1644 who spoke of a “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” Baptists are known for their support of this critical part of our American law and the protection of our freedom to worship. 

To me, leaving the overtly patriotic practices such as “Freedom Sunday” and the nativity display for places other than the church building is respecting my rights as an American and my rights as a Christian. I come to church to worship a God who is bigger than my country and my patriotism. I strive hard to worship “no other God” at church and in my everyday life. Outside of church, I sing with gusto, “God Bless America,” because I offer it as a prayer asking God to continue to bless us and in recognition of the place of privilege I hold as an American. But I don’t wish to do so in my worship service. There I want to acknowledge that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,” (Galatians 3:28) for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Posted by Janet Hill at 6:00 AM
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