The Anonymous God and the Separation of Church and State

For my write-up today on Circle of Life: Traditional Teachings of Native American Elders, I’ll use as my starting-point something that James David Audlin says on page 134:

“When the chiefs of the Hodenasaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) responded to the ‘Founding Fathers” request for advice, they said the newcomers’ idea of freedom of religion was just fine but the idea of separation of church and state would only lead to difficulty.  For the original peoples, no such separation is possible.  The individual or nation is always at the center of all things and the Creator; this attitude helps these people to see all things as living, sacred and filled with the presence of G-d, and all Creation as numinous.”

I enjoyed Audlin’s discussion of how certain Native American tribes view the Creator: that the Creator is a parent of creation and communicates to people through visions, dreams, and nature (i.e., we learn about God’s omniscience from the eagle, which soars the highest and sees the farthest, and we learn about wisdom and devotion to family from the bear).

Can one believe that God is present in all of life, while still being committed to the separation of church from state?  I believe so, in a sense.  Joseph did not try to cram the worship of the Israelite God down the Egyptians’ throats, but he still represented God by ruling justly and wisely.  God is not even mentioned in the Book of Esther, and yet God still appears to be present.  A pastor once told me that the lesson of the absence of God’s name from the Book of Esther is that you don’t have to explicitly mention God to represent him, for you can represent God by being a loving person or a good worker, and God can be at work, even when God’s name is absent.

But wouldn’t it be better to mention God explicitly than to beat around the bush?  When God is not explicitly mentioned and people are simply doing good deeds, why would anyone’s mind turn to God?  It’s like people’s knowledge of God is incomplete: they see good deeds, but they are not told about the God who is the author of those good deeds and exemplifies them.  They are looking at God through a veil.  Consequently, I can sympathize somewhat with the Native Americans whom Audlin discusses: Why not just cut to the chase and allow the authorities to explicitly honor God, without feeling a need to keep religion separate from official society?

That may work in a Native American tribe, where there is probably consensus about religion (or such is my impression).  In the early days of America, however, that was not the case, at least not as much.  Granted, most white Americans were Christians, but there were different denominations, and there were certain Founding Fathers who would most likely fail the tests of Christian orthodoxy or orthopraxy.  The roots of white America were in Europe, which had experienced a number of bloody religious wars, and there emerged a belief that, for the peace of society and out of respect for people’s consciences, the government should be neutral about religion, and people should be free to practice whatever religion they wish.  Was the United States consistent on this?  Not really.  There was still a national (and sometimes even official) respect for the Christian religion, and Thomas Jefferson supported state money going to missionaries to the Native Americans.  The religious right is not always pulling its narrative out of the clear blue sky!  But there was still some fear in the early days of the United States that the government, by embracing a religion, would seek to shove that religion down people’s throats and thereby violate people’s consciences.  That’s why James Madison opposed Congress having a chaplain, and it may have been why John Quincy Adams swore on a law-book rather than the Bible.

In a society that has different religions and belief-systems, perhaps separation of church and state is the way to go.  But that does not bracket God from the government, for God still exists, as do God’s principles of love, compassion, justice, mercy, and wisdom.  When it comes to the state and state-funded entities, God in the United States may need to be represented anonymously: leaders can stand for God’s principles, and they as individuals can pray to God for his blessing and guidance of America, but they cannot try to impose Christianity on people.  

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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