Is church-state separation a liberal concept – or a conservative one?
In a recent column in the Lexington Herald Leader, Kentucky preacher Paul Prather says such definitions are malleable. They can even morph over time from one extreme to the other.
Prather, now pastor of Bethesda Church near Mt. Sterling, found himself caught in a culture-war crossfire a few years ago.
"In the early 1990s, as I recall it, after I'd become a religion writer for the Herald-Leader, I wrote an opinion column in favor of the strict separation of church and state," Prather recalls. "This was, to my understanding, an exceedingly conservative view."
Prather, who had been raised Southern Baptist, thought church-state separation ranked just below John 3:16 in theological importance for evangelical Christians. Baptists and other dissenters had been persecuted by the "established" clergy in the colonial era, and they wanted no part of church-state unions.
But times had changed.
"I sat back, waiting for congratulatory letters to roll in from my conservative, evangelical friends," Prather recalls. "I did indeed hear from many evangelicals, including a number of Baptists. They excoriated me as a pinko, a heathen and a tool of Satan."
In contrast, the columnist said self-described "Christian liberals" hailed him as their new local hero.
Prather, now a Pentecostal pastor, said he was shocked that such a transformation in viewpoints had taken place in only a few decades.
But public opinion surveys today confirm that the split Prather identified is wide and deep. A recent poll found that 81 percent of progressive religious activists say the United States "should maintain a strict separation of church and state." Only 21 percent of conservative religious activists agreed.
None of this is particularly surprising. Since the rise of the Religious Right in the early 1980s, evangelicals have been subjected to a constant barrage of vicious attacks on the church-state wall.
It's too bad nonetheless.
I think of church-state separation not as a liberal concept or a conservative one, but rather as part of the constitutional foundation of American life. It is a pragmatic and essential policy that Americans of all religious and political stripes ought to support. We have thrived as a diverse and free nation because we have kept the government out of religious matters.
Some Baptists and evangelical Christians still hold to the religious liberty traditions of their forbears. I wish they all did.