If you don't know your history, you're doomed to repeat it: Separation of Church and State

I’ve been really disappointed in the current discourse on the separation of church and state. I’m not disappointed that people do not agree with it. I’m not disappointed that some people believe America should be a Christian nation. What I am disappointed about is the fact that we are not teaching our history to our children, and as we all know, those that do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. As a fifth-generation ordained Baptist minister I am incredibly frustrated with my brothers and sisters that do not know their own history. The separation of church and state, the freedom of conscience, is one of the basic Baptist principles. Even among some of my own family, all Baptists, whom with a few I have disagreements with on political and social issues, we always agree that the government should not control the church, that America was not founded as a Christian nation with Christianity as the official religion. Because in my family, we know our history:

Roger Williams, fleeing banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony where he had protested the Puritan-controlled colonial establishment, established not only the colony of Rhode Island on the basis of the separation of church and state, but also founded the First Baptist Church in America in Providence in 1638. The Puritans may have come to America in search of religious freedom for themselves, but among their laws was a ban on celebrating Christmas and working on the Sabbath. It was clear that religious freedom meant a freedom only for those that believed the same way they did, and that they believed the government should regulate religious beliefs. Roger Williams believed that religious freedom must mean everyone had the right to worship as their conscience directed, that this freedom could not be regulated and controlled by the government. There should be no interference between the individual and their relationship with God—not from a pope, a priest, and certainly not from an official state religion. Williams and other Puritans had already experienced the suffocating hold of the Church of England, and they were destined to repeat their mistake in the “New World.”

Now fast forward 138 years. Thomas Jefferson received a petition from the Virginia Baptists to disestablish the Church of England in Virginia. The Baptists in Virginia experienced the same crackdown against their freedom to worship that Roger Williams and others experienced in Puritan Massachusetts, which was what they had experienced less than a generation earlier in England. Same thing happens in Connecticut, another Puritan (now Congregationalist) colony at the turn of the nineteenth century, and once again Thomas Jefferson speaks out on behalf of the Baptists for religious liberty. Jefferson, accused of being an atheist by some, an agnostic by others, and one who cut out the parts of the Bible he didn’t agree with, was a champion of religious freedom for the Baptists in America.

Now, fast forward again to 1960 and JFK’s election campaign. Kennedy is poised to become the first Catholic president of the United States. There is great concern that Kennedy will “take orders” from the Pope and foster legislation based on his Catholic beliefs. Kennedy addresses a large gathering of Baptist ministers to assure them that the church and state will remain separate as he believes it should—and as they believe it should. Baptist principles, which include freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state, were alive and well among most Baptist in the 1960’s.

But we have forgotten our principles and our history today. We look back at history and take the snippets, the soundbites that prove our point or our view, and don’t look at history in its context. Some might accuse me of doing the same thing, but if you read the history of Colonial America through the Revolutionary War, watch the entirety of JFK’s speech and understand the political context of Kennedy’s election campaign, it’s hard not to draw similar conclusions: the history of religious freedom in America’s foundational principle is the separation of church and state. Baptists may lay claim to originating the idea, but it is foundational to all who believe in the freedom of the church and the right to worship God without the interference of government regulation.

This is what I find most disappointing: unless we are willing to learn our history, we are doomed to repeat it. And if we Americans want to forget our history, forget the foundation for the First Amendment, forget the ways we were once oppressed for our beliefs and the ways we have oppressed others with our beliefs, then we are destined to be oppressed again.

(For a great article on Roger Williams, see this article in the January 2012 issue of the Smithsonian. For more on Thomas Jefferson and his history with the Baptists in Virginia and Connecticut, I recommend the PBS special "God in America").