My wife and I will be leaving on vacation in a few days. I’m looking forward to visiting with friends and family along the 6,000 mile loop we’ll make from Minnesota to New Mexico to California, then Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and back home.
One of the highlights for me will be a visit to my alma mater, Sonoma State University in northern California. I was there when the school was quite new and at first had no organizations of any sort. I started a Christian fellowship which affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In July I’ll be meeting with some of today’s students who are active in IV at SSU. It is deeply rewarding to know that I was involved in the foundation of a group which is going strong after 52 years.
One of the challenges we faced in the early days was an attempt by a sociology professor to get us kicked off campus in the name of separation of church and state. He and I had two public debates, one before the student council and one before the faculty senate. Today’s flourishing group at SSU is proof that the professor’s views did not prevail.
That experience was the beginning for me of a lifetime of returning again and again to the relation between church and state in America. There are two documents that are especially relevant in this on-going discussion.
The first is the First Amendment to the Constitution, which state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . .” History sometimes twists words to mean something quite unlike what they meant at first. The religion clause is a case in point. A great many people in our day hear those words and yet do not hear them. They hear instead something like, “Congress shall make laws disrespecting religion.” A state university allowing a Christian group to be one amongst all the other groups on campus is clearly fulfilling the letter and intent of the First Amendment. There is no favoritism, no preference given because of the group’s religious position. The religious dimension of the group is, in effect, invisible to the authorities. That’s just as it should be according to the plain sense of the First Amendment.
The second document is a letter written in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson to a group of Baptist pastors in Danbury CT. They had expressed to him their worry that, in a state dominated by Congregationalists they were a minority and worried that the state might discriminate against them. No, replied Jefferson, the First Amendment had built “a wall of separation between Church and State,” a wall which guaranteed that the government could not interfere with religious freedom.
It is amazing that these words have in recent years become reversed. To many people in our day — including a few of the judges in our courts — they have come to mean the opposite of what Jefferson and the First Amendment prescribe. They new twist lies in thinking the wall of separation is a protection not of church from state but of state from church. Christians, in the minds of some, are to be silent and secretive about their religion, never speaking up for their views as equals in our democracy but as persons of lesser rights. The Wall which was intended to keep the state out of the business of the church has become for some the imprisonment of the church, keeping people of faith out of the life of the state.
There is no legitimate way to interpret the First Amendment or the phrase coined by Jefferson as being some form of exclusion of faith from the life of the state or its institutions. The attempt to do so not only misunderstands the original documents but perverts them into saying the opposite of what they actually say.
At my alma mater during the past year, another attempt has been made to remove IVCF from the campus. I will learn soon how the matter stands. I am eager to encourage the students and be encouraged by them.