"Separation of church and state," ranks high among phrases frequently misused in politics. It typically appears in the context of trite allegations that some poor soul has created an unconstitutional establishment of religion by mentioning God in a valedictory address or praying "in Jesus' name." Such hysterical misapplications of the First Amendment trivialize the nature of the substantive separation of church and state that characterizes the American conception of government.
The proper separation of church and state is rooted in a distinction of roles. The most important implication of this, as Thomas Jefferson expressed when he first coined the phrase, is that man's conscience and the work of the church in training it must be protected from government interference. But there are more general implications, as well.
In a society where church and state are acknowledged to have separate, distinct roles, they also have varying levels and types of duties in addressing the needs of society. The current debates over immigration policy and health insurance provide examples of how modern-day Americans sometimes forget this.
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In petitions urging a reversal of the Trump administration's efforts to halt or limit the influx of Middle Eastern refugees, church leaders have repeatedly referenced the scriptural mandates to welcome strangers and to love one's neighbor. Without question, the willingness to offer support, friendship, and aid to refugees and immigrants who arrive in our communities is a virtue. Christians are specifically called to love these "neighbors" regardless of their skin color, religion, national origin, or immigration status. These scriptural mandates are personal mandates, given to all individuals who profess the Christian faith.
On the other hand, the primary purpose of government, recognized both in Scripture and in our founding documents, is to protect its citizens. Receiving refugees who turn to us in genuine need and without malice, developing and maintaining appropriate immigration policies and providing aid to foreign nations are all proper, constitutional functions of our national government. But each must be performed in light of government's primary role: to protect the safety and rights of the people who instituted it. We compromise our government's ability to fulfill that mandate when we misapprehend its role.
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Similarly, in the context of health care, many Americans (indeed, many of the same Americans who proclaim such passion for "the separation of church and state") seem to conflate the biblical virtue of personal charity – caring for the sick and the poor – with the functions of government. While it is appropriate for state and local governments to provide a safety net for those in dire need, it is a fact that our federal government was never intended nor empowered to be responsible for individuals' medical care. Nevertheless, those who look to Washington, D.C., to provide it label those who don't as greedy or uncaring.
The reality is, when the federal government misuses its power by redistributing wealth, the most it can do for the poor is to indiscriminately throw money at them. It is utterly incompetent to address poverty in the holistic way that can truly benefit people. This is exactly where the church, and those who are faithful to fulfill their scriptural mandates, can truly shine. Health-care professionals can provide free or low-cost services to those who really need them in community-based clinics – or even in their own offices. Members of every community can work together to help provide material resources that are genuinely needed, but along with them the personal counseling, mentoring and practical helps that can eventually lead the poor out of poverty.
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The attraction of a government that does it all is understandable. But ultimately, it is a dangerous mirage. It dilutes our own sense of moral responsibility and gives us an excuse to tune out the needs around us once we have paid our exorbitant taxes. A government that does it all is also a government bound to fail. When it takes on functions that are beyond its proper realm, it will be distracted from the protective functions that only government is competent to perform.
We should all strive to do even better in our communities at fulfilling the Christian mandate to welcome the stranger, love our neighbor as ourselves, and care for the sick and the needy – not seek to delegate those duties to a distant, centralized government that was never meant to perform them. We should also stop criticizing that government for being uncharitable when it simply strives to focus on the job it was actually designed to do.