It was Williams who “developed the metaphor of the garden and the wilderness. The garden was the place where the people of faith would gather to struggle to understand God’s Word. The wilderness was the rest of the world; the world where the light had not yet been received. Between the garden and the wilderness stood a wall. The wall existed for one purpose only. It was not there to protect the wilderness from the garden; it was there to protect the garden from the wilderness.”
What does this mean to us today? Listen again to Prof. Carter: “The wall of separation between church and state is not there to protect the state from the church; rather, it is there to protect the church from the state. It stands as a divide to preserve religious freedom. And one needs to protect the church from the state because the latter will utilize its enormous powers to do what the state has always done – either subvert the religion or destroy it. If we continue our slide toward a state that breaches the wall of separation whenever it is convenient, then I worry about the great risk to religious freedom. In the end, such a breach could destroy our ability to form the communities of resistance that are crucial if we are going to have a chance to transform the nation.” (This quote is worth reading again and posting as widely as possible.)
Based, however, on modern misconceptions of the separation of church and state, there could have been no abolition movement to eradicate slavery, since it was led by Christians with the Bible as their principle ideological text, nor could there have been a Civil Rights movement (other than, say, the Malcolm X version), since it too was a church-based movement led by ministers quoting the Bible.
Dr. Martin Luther King, who was one of those ministers, expressed things succinctly when he said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.” But King also gave a sober warning: “If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
What America really needs, and what many of our country’s founders envisioned, is a vibrant, healthy, non-hypocritical church functioning as “the conscience of the state.” As John Adams famously wrote in 1798, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.