Church and State

by Brad Cotton


Summer of 2009 it appeared my wife may have advanced ovarian cancer. Ann (not her real name), an RN I had worked with in the emergency department at Riverside Methodist Hospital years previous, saw me obviously distraught  in the lobby . Tears flowed as I told her why I was there. Without hesitation Ann took both my hands and she prayed out loud for my wife, our children and grandchildren and myself. That meant a lot. Fortunately my wife turned out to be OK. I hope I share a little bit of Ann’s concern with every patient I see in the emergency department.

Faith has inspired millions of folks like Ann over the centuries. A world without folks like her would be dark, dry and empty of meaning indeed. Qoheleth feared as such writing Ecclesiastes. However, religion coupled with state power has been and shall always be most dangerous. Our nation was founded by those escaping religious persecution. Sadly, many of the colonies, the Salem, Massachusetts Witch Trials being one especially lethal example, codified their own homegrown religious discrimination. Good persons of my own faith background, Quakers, were jailed, hanged, run out of town in both in England, and the Colonies. Quaker William Penn founded Pennsylvania on unquestioned, compete religious toleration. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison held Pennsylvania’s separation of church and state in high regard as they crafted our US founding documents. Let’s examine below some early U.S. documents and declarations by our founding fathers reflective of their respect for reason characterizing the Age of Enlightenment.

Thomas Jefferson( author of the Declaration of Independence, Third U.S. President): “Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear. “ Jefferson further wrote: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as they are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket not breaks my leg.”

Thomas Paine (author of “Common Sense”, the pamphlet that inspired the revolution): “Of all the tyrannies that attack mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst.”

John Adams: (second U.S. President, battled Thomas Jefferson on many of the foundations for the new nation, except the separation of church and State): "The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover  for absurdity. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find a precept for Creeds, Confessions, Oaths, Doctrines and whole carloads of other foolish trumpery that we find in Christianity.”

James Madison ( principle author of Constitution and Bill of Rights, 4th  U.S. President) “During almost 15 centuries the legal establishment known as Christianity has been on trial, and what has been the fruits, more or less, in all places? These are the fruits: pride, indolence, ignorance and arrogance in the clergy. Ignorance, arrogance, and servility in the laity, and in both clergy and laity; superstition, bigotry and persecution.” 

Treaty of Tripoli (passed by the House and Senate, signed by President John Adams 1797. Many sources attribute the same or very similar statement to George Washington): “The government of the U.S. is in no way founded upon the Christian Religion.”

To be sure, in a defining moment of humility and true Christian spirit an evangelical Pastor I know , when asked by the Religious Right  to lead his Church to join in battle against the federally ordered removal of Judge Moore’s multi-ton stone inscription of the Ten Commandments from his  Birmingham, Alabama  Courtroom , answered his congregation (approximated quote): “If we were living as a Church, fully as Christ asked us to, we would not need that monument in Court or need special protection by the government.” That is, a vibrant living powerful faith doesn’t need state support, such a commitment to live as Jesus taught witnesses wonderfully on its own.

As a universalist Quaker I feel the peace and compassion of Buddhism, the surrender to God that names Islam, the many manifestations of the unknowable Brahman of Hinduism, the respect for all life of the Jains, the close relationship with nature and all things of many native religions, the acting of God through a poor man’s son born in the meanest of  circumstances of Christianity, the quest for the ethical life of Judaism, the struggle for meaning when there may be none of Ecclesiastes and the existentialists. As a American I believe it is we, the people, not God, Buddha, Allah , Vishnu or Sartre , that decide our civil affairs. We need remember that Jesus was prosecuted as a political prisoner by the Church/state complex of his time. When God, Allah, Buddha, Vishnu or Sartre gets special treatment in the laws, then all the rest of us risk treatment as infidels.

The Religious Right inspired Texas School Board, again by having such a large market share of school texts, threatens  to teach our children the dangerous to democracy  welding together of Church and State that our Founding Fathers warned us against


Brad Cotton

Member, People for the American Way