On January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in which he famously stated, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Notice that Mr. Jefferson endorsed the “separation between Church and State,” not the separation between faith and state. Nonetheless, our secularized culture has become convinced that the former requires the latter.
Look no further than the firestorm that erupted when New York City Mayor Eric Adams stated recently, “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies.” Speaking at his administration’s annual interfaith breakfast, he added: “I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official. When I walk, I walk with God. When I talk, I talk with God. When I put policies in place, I put them in with a God-like approach to them.”
Adams explained: “That’s who I am. And I was that when I was that third grader, and I’m going to be that when I leave government. I am still a child of God and will always be a child of God, and I won’t apologize about being a child of God. It is not going to happen.”
"How I carry out the practices that I do"
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Dana Bash sought clarity from the mayor as she stated, “one of the fundamentals of the Constitution is a separation of church and state when it comes to governing.” Adams responded: “Government should not interfere with religion; religion should not interfere with government. That can’t happen and it should never happen.
But my faith is how I carry out the practices that I do and the policy, such as helping people who are homeless, such as making sure that we show compassion in what we do in our city. Government should never be in religion; religious should never be in government. And I hope I’m very clear on that.”
Like Mayor Adams, I am convinced that a free church in a free state is both the biblical and the American ideal. Jesus’ timeless words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21), set the model for us.
However, Jesus never intended that Christians keep their faith private. To the contrary, he insisted that we “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
"A time when we need all the help we can get"
Of course, to our secular critics, we have very little “light” that makes a practical difference in our post-Christian world. Let’s consider a secular response to their secular claim.
Writing for the Daily News, Bradley Tusk responded to Mayor Adams’ comments: “Government is not capable of solving every societal problem. Any institution with the kind of bureaucracy, governance, internal politics, and labor rules the City of New York faces is often going to be very limited in its efficacy.” He notes that “secular nonprofits help solve all kinds of problems from health care services to charter schools to better parks and playgrounds. But sometimes, religious institutions are better equipped to take on challenges.”
Tusk references a soup kitchen overseen by St. George’s Church in New York City, where he volunteers every Thursday. He notes that this ministry serves people “at a fraction of the cost of what an equivalent city-run facility would cost ... while giving our guests a place that enthusiastically welcomes them, a place that is inclusive, generous, compassionate, empathetic—all qualities not associated typically with government or for-profit services.”
He argues: “Failing to meet the needs of society because of a fear of violating the separation of church and state doesn’t make sense. Especially now. Look at any poll or just ask anyone who passes you on the street—this is a very unsettling time to live in. We are highly fractionalized. Highly polarized. Extremely uncertain. People feel lost. Scared. Lonely. They need purpose. Structure. Hope. Community. Organized religion provides that for many.”
Tusk concludes: “In decrying the mayor’s blurred lines between church and state, it’s easy to ignore all of the societal good that religious institutions can do and have done. And at a time when we need all the help we can get, let’s be careful not to let different—and often better—ways to help people slip away.”
The best argument for the relevance of Christianity
Tomorrow we’ll continue examining the practical difference religion makes in our secularized society. For today, let’s close with a fact Bradley Tusk’s soup kitchen ministry illustrates: the best argument for the relevance of Christianity to our world is for Christians to be relevant to their part of it.
Here’s how: “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
W. Tozer observed, “It is not what a man does that determines whether his work is sacred or secular, it is why he does it.”
Why will you do what you do today?
Publication date: March 9, 2023
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Michael M. Santiago/Staff
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
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