Separation of Church and State:

The Mirage of Secular State Neutrality

By Robin Schumacher

The separation of church and state has been a rallying cry for centuries. Those wishing to strip religion from the public arena and ensure that it has no sway over any public policy or matters of government oftentimes point to various Nordic and European countries as models for how good things can be when faith has no public voice. They work hard at trying to produce facts on the higher education levels, lower crime rates, and other various statistics that support their case of secularized societies being "better" than those where religion has a strong presence.

"See," they say, "how well these countries operate without superstitious beliefs that clearly afford no tangible benefit?"

Moreover, they lead us to believe that such humanistic-driven cultures operate with generous levels of tolerance where individual freedom is concerned (aren't atheists quick to identify themselves as "free thinkers"?), and that people can live their lives free from any kind of ideological impositions or restrictions.

That is, unless you want to homeschool your children in places like Sweden or Germany.

Case in point: Domenic Johansson, and his parents Annie and Christer. About four years ago, the Johanssons were on a plane bound for India – home to Annie's family – with the intention of making that country their new home. A primary reason for their departure from Sweden was the desire to homeschool their son (for non-religious reasons), which is a practice now banned in the Nordic country.

In a scene that epitomizes the term "unbelievable," Swedish police boarded the plane and kidnapped Domenic from his parents, not for any reason of abuse, but for the sole reason of his parent's intentions of homeschooling him…in a country outside of Sweden.[1] Afterwards, the Swedish state began restricting the parent's interaction with their son, and now have cut off all contact, making Domenic a ward of the state. As of this writing, the Johanssons are still battling to regain custody of their child and stop what attorney Michael Donnelly calls "Family Execution—Swedish Style."[2]

Or consider the case of the Romeikes, a German family who is seeking asylum in the United States for the sole purpose of homeschooling their five children.[3] Unlike the Johanssons, the Romeikes do have religious motivations for homeschooling their family and are hoping to not be deported back to Germany where they face certain hostility and legal action from the government.

The Responsibility of the State

Nearly all people believe that governments have moral obligations where their constituents are concerned. Few scowl at authorities who rescue children from physically abusive homes or enforce laws that protect people from thieves and loss of life (at least outside the womb).

The ground becomes a little more shaky when harm to a person appears to stem from an improperly held religious belief. For example, there are unfortunately more than a few cases of children being denied proper medical treatment because of an extra-Biblical or other flawed religious stance that is taken by the parents. Such situations can turn tragic, and are sad as well as disturbing to witness.

Whether it's the right to homeschool a child, the expectation of protection from physical harm, or the desire to express religious freedom, at issue is this: From where are a person's rights ultimately derived? And what should people expect from a supposedly ideologically neutral government? For Christians, questions also arise as to what they should do when that "impartial" State begins to intrude into their lives in a way that deliberately contradicts their faith-based principles.

From Where Do Human Rights Come?

It's a fact that a government big enough to give you your rights is big enough to take them away. The same can be said of any supposed deity that is capable of change; one that is mutable or capricious (e.g. Islam's Allah). This being true, how can human rights be ultimately protected?

While atheists and humanists tirelessly work to convince their prospects that the United States was not founded on the Christian God and constantly quote various secular early Americans in hopes of enforcing separation of church and state, the Declaration of Independence stands as a firm witness against such thinking:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

What you have in that statement is something not found in any other nation: moral rights and wellbeing dependent upon a supernatural creative act. Further, the term "self-evident" connotes the concept of those rights and morals being undeniable and objective (i.e. truths that are absolute instead of opinions that can change).

What this equates to is God providing the immutable foundation of human morals and rights, with the follow on conclusion being that no one should possess a civil right to do a moral wrong. This includes both individuals and the government.

Christianity and the Secular State

Yet, the Bible specifically states that "every person [is to] be subject to the governing authorities" (Rom. 13:1); that Christians are to "be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good" (1 Peter 2:13–14; cf. Titus 3:1).

The mixture of human rights being ultimately derived from God, and the commands in Scripture to obey the government with no statements existing in the contexts of key passages that limit that obedience to a government that is decidedly Christian, definitely give rise to a number of questions and confusion regarding what Christians should do and how they act in cultures that are secular in nature.

The two extremes on the issue are anarchism, which asserts that a person may always disobey their government, while its polar opposite – extreme patriotism – says a Christian is morally obligated to always obey the government in every matter.

Neither stance is Biblical.

Clearly, the Scripture verses above reject anarchism, while much of the Old Testament (and parts of the New) showcase prophets crying out against the deeds of evil governments, which demonstrate radical patriotism is not the answer either. Instead, Scripture paints a picture of Biblical submissionism that simply says a Christian should obey and respect their government, with the understanding that there may come times when they will have to disobey that same government.

Of course, the question that naturally arises is: When is a Christian permitted to disobey their government? The answer is: When that government commands evil.

Simply permitting evil (e.g. abortion) and commanding evil (forcing women to have abortions) are two different things. When a government compels evil actions in ways that negate the freedom given by the Creator, and becomes oppressive by directing evil to be individually carried out, then a Christian may disobey.

The Bible showcases a number of examples that support this position of godly people not bowing to an evil government's commands:
  • Refusal to murder babies – the Hebrew midwives refused to murder babies under the command of Pharaoh and were blessed by God because of their actions (Exodus 1:15-21).
  • Refusal to kill prophets – Obadiah hid 100 prophets from Jezebel who was murdering all of God's spokesmen (1 Kings 18:4, 13-15).
  • Refusal to worship an idol – Daniel's companions refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar's gold statue (Daniel 3).
  • Refusal to pray to a king vs. God – Daniel is thrown into the lion's den for refusing the king's mandate to pray to him and no other god (Daniel 6).
  • Refusal to stop preaching the gospel – the apostles refused the leader's requests to stop preaching about Christ (Acts 4).
  • Refusal to worship the Antichrist – during the tribulation period, believers will disobey the law to worship the Antichrist (Revelation 12:11).
Regarding the actions of the Christian toward a hostile government, the Bible gives three directives. First, we are told to pray for those in authority: "First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior" (1 Timothy 2:1–3).

Second, the Christian should flee the State if it is clear that persecution for following God is imminent (e.g. what the Romeikes are attempting to do). Finally, the Christian should accept the government's punishments when they are meted out if no option for avoidance is available.

The Myth of the Neutral State

The actions in Sweden and Germany toward homeschoolers remind us that there is no such thing as an ideologically neutral State. Contrary to what those think who decry the imposition of one person's morals on another, someone's morality will always be imposed; it's only a question of whose.

When it comes to humanistic governments permitting the free exercise of faith, atheist Richard Dawkins may believe "there is [not] an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca — or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame, the Shwe Dagon, the temples of Kyoto or, of course, the Buddhas of Bamiyan"[4], but history has clearly shown us that atheistic and secularist examples of the absolute opposite.[5]

With the exception of extreme Islamic theocracies, the belief that secular cultures permit and promote freedom more so than religiously grounded societies is just a mirage. Such thoughts evaporate quickly when you watch your children be abducted by the government simply because you are leaving the country and intend to homeschool them elsewhere. The church restricts the state from imposing on God-give human rights.

Indeed, what we see come to life in such places is an observation made by Ravi Zacharias: "Is it not odd that whenever it has power, liberalism is anything but liberal, both in the area of religion and politics?"[6]

5. From 1917 to 1969 the atheist Soviet Union destroyed 41,000 churches. In Communist China Tibet, secular humanists tore down 7,000 monasteries. In North Korea, all but 60 Buddhist temples have been demolished. See:

Image Credit: Wyoming_Jackrabbit; "The Intersection of Church and State"; Creative Commons

comments powered by Disqus
Published 5-30-13