Separation of Church and State

There is a lot of confused thinking about the concept of separation of church and state in particular, and the role of faith in public life in general. The former is often used by secularists to insist that religion should have nothing to do with politics, and that the public square should be a religion-free zone. Moreover, it is argued that Australia is a secular nation, and all religious influence must be rigorously guarded against.

But is this in fact the case? Although this entire discussion is a complex and multi-layered one, it is worth looking at in some detail.

Historical Background

Perhaps the best place to begin is to explore the origin of the phrase in question. It of course arises out of the founding of the United States. As is well known, many of the people fleeing the old world for the new did so for religious reasons. People came to America looking for religious freedom. Many religious minorities were ill-treated back in Europe and the UK, and they came to the new land looking for freedom to worship as they saw fit. Indeed, religious liberty was a central issue in the colonists’ dispute with Great Britain.

Thus many regarded America as a “shining city,” a “light set on a hill” – a place where faith could be fully allowed to flourish. It is the idea of a single state church, or an established church, that many of these believers were seeking to escape from. However, some of the original American states did have established churches. Thus early on in the Republic’s history, religious matters such as these needed to be sorted out.

Part of the response took the form of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Ratified in 1791, it reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

The first ten words are known as the “Establishment Clause” and the last six words are known as the “Free Exercise Clause”. The first says the Federal Government should not establish a national denominational church, while the second says it should not interfere with religious freedom. In effect it promotes a freedom for religion, not a freedom from religion.

The authors of the First Amendment certainly did not have in mind the notion that religion should have no influence or bearing on the way public and political matters were conducted. Far from it. Indeed, it can be argued that the Founding Fathers spoke with one voice on the importance of religion in civic life. They did not see religion as a threat to democracy, but as essential to it.

It was Thomas Jefferson who first coined the now-famous phrase, “wall of separation between church and state.” And this was much later, in 1802. The phrase itself is nowhere to be found in the US Constitution. Jefferson used it in a letter to a group of Baptists in Connecticut with whom he was having a dispute. But in later correspondence and political rulings he clearly affirmed the thrust of the First Amendment.

The Scene Today

So just how do we understand this separation idea? Again, the main idea was that no one denomination become the official national church. Religious freedom was the aim, along with the prevention of sectarian strife.

But some might ask, Is not Australia a secular society? Yes and no. Various researchers have documented the many religious strands that went into the founding of Australia. Admittedly its history is much different from that of America, but it certainly was built on the Judeo-Christian worldview in varying degrees.

I was once asked by a journalist from a homosexual newspaper, “Is Australia a Christian nation, or should it be?” The answer is somewhat complex. In one sense no nation is or can be Christian. Only individuals can be.

But, as I asked the journalist, are there Christian principles that could be applied to this nation, that would make it a better place? Absolutely. If we simply focused on a few of the Ten Commandments, such as, Do not lie, Do not steal, Do not kill, that would certainly be a good thing if it were reflected in our laws and were part of the national psyche.

Indeed, a good case can be made that much of Western law is just that: based on Judeo-Christian principles. Our legislation did not come out of a vacuum, but was, to a great extent, clearly informed by biblical morality.

Most nations have laws on the books about murder, theft, rape, and so on. Those happen to coincide with biblical principles of morality. Thus it is interesting to hear secularists argue that religion should have nothing to do with our laws and politics. Nothing? What then do they intend? Should we repeal all laws on murder, theft and the like because they have a religious basis?

Virtually all law and legislation is based on some sort of morality. Even seemingly moral-free laws, like working hours legislation, are based on deeper moral principles. We set labour laws because we affirm the dignity of man, and believe it is immoral and unethical for employers to abuse employees. This comes straight out of the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Moreover, if these religious principles are to be prevented from informing and flavouring our laws, then other principles surely will. The question is not, should morality influence politics and law?, but whose morality? If we quarantine Christian values from influencing the public arena, that just means that secular values will influence it.

Indeed, no government can be value-free. Nearly all governments, laws, and policies, presuppose, and are based upon, various values, beliefs and moral considerations. Seeking to separate politics and legislation from morality or values is a pipe dream. It simply cannot be done. The real question again is, whose values and which values will prevail?

Assessing the Secularists

Thus the secularists are being disingenuous here. They do not really want a value-free Australia. They just do not want religious values. They are quite happy to promote their own values however.

But even that point can be further teased out. What the secularists really seem to get bent out of shape about is not religion per se, but the conservative variety. That is simply because most secularists adhere to the left side of politics, and they dislike conservatism as much as they do religion.

This case can easily be made. When the civil rights movement was in full steam in the US late last century, it was largely driven by the churches. Martin Luther King’s speeches on segregation were soaked in Scripture. Consider just one representative remark: “Our hard challenge and our sublime opportunity is to bear witness to the spirit of Christ in fashioning a truly Christian world.”

Strange, but I do not recall the secularists insisting that King keep religion out of politics. I do not recall hearing the secularists claim that America was on the verge of a theocratic takeover.

And as I have written elsewhere, the secularists did not go apoplectic when a Uniting Church minister was also a Democrat Senator here in Australia. Must have had something to do with his strong left-wing political views. And resident atheist Phillip Adams did not cry “theocracy!” when Kevin Rudd, from the left side of politics, made his recent pleas for Christian involvement with the Labor party. Instead, Adams actually praised Rudd.

The clearest indication is just to look up the various secularist web sites. They say straight out that what they detest is the Religious Right.

Thus the paranoia about a religious takeover in Australia is really a case of selective outrage on the part of the secularists. They do not get too concerned about the religious left, only the religious right. But this is not the only double standard of the secularists.

While they rail hard and long about the dangers of religion, they seem to be dismissive of the fact that they too may in fact be religious. Indeed, the US Supreme Court rightly ruled some years ago that secular humanism is a religion. It too is an all-encompassing world view, with a set of beliefs and values. Instead of worshipping a transcendent God, they worship themselves, or the State, or power, or whatever.

They have their own sacred texts, such as the three Humanist Manifestos, and so on. They have their own religious dogmas, like the inalienable right to have an abortion, etc. They have their own core principles and beliefs, such as philosophical naturalism and moral relativism, which are viewed as sacrosanct and not allowed to be criticised. They can be as dogmatic as any religious person, in other words.


The fact that the overwhelming majority of Australians consider themselves to be Christian means we should not be surprised to see Christian influence and ideas seen in public life. The Christian majority has every right to voice its concerns, seek to lobby governments, and make its case in the political and public arenas, just as secularists do.

But increasingly we are seeing the vocal secularists demand that religious folk simply shut up, and keep their religion to themselves. That might be an option if the secularists would shut up and keep their beliefs to themselves.

But in a democracy religious folk can and should speak their minds and seek to influence the political system. If secularists don’t like it, then let them work harder to make their own case. But simply seeking to shout down and shut down the religious majority is not the way to proceed.

Just how and to what extent believers can and should influence public policy is the stuff of another article. Suffice it to say that in a democracy, there should be room for people of faith to make their case just as secularists seek to. We should not be browbeaten by the secularists with their distorted views of what public life should look like. We do not need to let the secularists lay down the rules as to how religious people should act in the political and social arenas.

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23 Replies to “Separation of Church and State”

  1. Perhaps I am not clever enough to understand the intricacies of this debate, but the vociferous insistence upon “separation of church and state” from secular humanists is grossly hypocritical. The application of the principle is clearly detached from it’s earliest history – perhaps it is being approached from the position of the Manifestos?

    The separation of the church and state that Secularists are arguing for is not separation of the church and state but separation of the church from the state, that is, the state may freely dictate matters of life and faith to the church and enforce them with law (case in point: ICV vs. CTF Min), but the church must remain silent about matters of state (case in point: response to views expressed by churches in euthanasia, abortion, marriage debates).

    If the Secular Left were genuine in their conviction that the church should be separated from the state in the way in which they argue for it, they would need to concede that the church should be free from any obligation to listen to or comply with the demands of the state.

    God has already forbidden his people to do that (Rom 13:14) – lets hope the state continues to do likewise!

    Also… no matter how godless we become, Australia has never been and is not presently a secular society. Our head of state is “Queen and head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith”, sworn to “maintain (to the utmost of her power) the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel” and to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England”.

    Surely a truly secular society wouldn’t tolerate a Head of State with such a blatant conflict of interest?

    Damien Carson

  2. Bill,

    You keep harping on about a Democrat being an Uniting Church Minister. However, you forget the Unting Church minster who was Deputy Prime Minister under Hawke. Bran Howe might have resigned as a minister in the Unitng Church. He never used the title Reverend.

    Michael Boswell

  3. Hey Bill
    I was just wondering if you believe that we are coming to the point where the religious right will decline in power more and more over the next decade or so. And, if so, do you think that that would be as bad a thing as many conservatives assert, something that humans will eventually adapt to?
    Also, its not right to say “We should not be browbeaten by the secularists”, and then go on and browbeat them by saying that they have a “distorted view of what public life should be like” – such a comment is just as immature as me saying that you have distorted views, which you have taught me against saying.
    Matt Page, Melbourne

  4. Excellent article Bill. You said “there should be room for people of faith to make their case just as secularists seek to”, but as you also said, the secularists are people of faith too. They have their faith in philosophical naturalism. (I am aware some ‘religious’ secularists may object and claim a belief in a god, but the political views of such people differ in no practical way from the rank atheist therefore I don’t believe it necessary to make such a distinction.)

    The other point I think is useful in trying to educate Christians that it is their duty to influence politics for Jesus Christ, is that the institution of civil government should not be seen as an invention of man, but rather as having been established by God for the purpose of restraining evil upon the earth. The first implicit mention of which is found as far back in history as Genesis chapter 9.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  5. Thanks Michael
    You of course make my point. Howe was part of a left wing political party, and the secularists did not get agitated about that fact. It is only when politicians have conservative religious views that the secularists complain about church influencing state.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. What are you on about Matt? Bill is not saying that secularists should stay out of politics (which is what the secularists say Christians should do), rather he is saying that their views are wrong and distorted. I happen to agree with him on that.

    And yes it would be a disaster if the secular humanists completely took over the State. The result would mirror a Marxist State in many ways. Assuming democracy continued under such a regime, we would have tyranny of the majority.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  7. Congratulations Bill on a well researched and truthful article. Actually secular humanists are far more dogmatic than Christians. Christian beliefs are proposed, not imposed. Secular humanism imposes. To say that Christians should have no say in politics is nothing short of discrimination. We Christians expect our Church leaders to make comments on various issues. This is their role after all.

    Madge Fahy, Victoria

  8. Ewan,
    I actually cant recall ever writing that Bill thinks “secularists should stay out of politics”, so I have no idea what you are on about – all I wanted is another good article from Bill that outlines exactly where he thinks our culture would be heading if the religious right lost power. I meant no insult, I just want Bill’s opinion.
    Also, the word “distorted” is still a very immature word used by you even – the question is, distorted from what? Just because a viewpoint is different from your core beliefs does not make that viewpoint inherently distorted, it just makes it different to your opinion. I don’t go around saying your views are distorted and wrong, I just believe they very very different to mine.
    Communicating in this manner will make others more likely to actually listen to your points, rather than them just turning their back and ignoring you.
    Matt Page, Melbourne

  9. Thanks Matt

    One way to answer your question is this: we live in an increasingly secularised West. It seems at least a loose connection can be made between the raft of problems we are facing – secularist totalitarianism (Marxism, Nazism, etc), breakdown of families, decline of values, erosion of freedom, disrespect for human life, and the general coarseness of contemporary life – and the expulsion of God from public life. I do not say that the one is caused by the other, but many have noted real connections between the two.

    Another way to answer this question is to ask what would life look like if Christianity had never existed. Many books have treated that question, directly or indirectly. I have three book reviews on this site that you might consult to see that case being made:

    I don’t mean to promote myself, but these three reviews show what a tremendous impact Christianity made for good in world affairs.

    That is not to say that Christianity has never been without fault. It has made many mistakes and done many un-Christ-like things. But on the whole, those who have sought to model Christ in this world have made a profound and lasting difference.

    Interestingly, one does not find many hospitals, and other philanthropic works founded by atheists and secular humanists.

    I hope that in part answers your question.


    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. I think the use of the term “distorted” to describe secular humanism is appropriate. Secular humanism is in many ways a parasitic worldview – that is it borrows much from the Christian/biblical worldview. Because it has no foundation of its own on which to build such concepts as morality and ethics, it picks and chooses from the biblical worldview those morals that suit its hedonistic ethos. So for example the biblical ethic of a right to life is borrowed but then it’s applied arbitrarily (abortion) so that it becomes a distortion of the original.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  11. Thanks Bill for an informative article.

    As Damian responded, we still have the Queen as head of state and thank God for that.
    The spiritual dimensions and benefits of that fact are enormous and have shaped Australia in to what it is today.

    The argument given by those who want to see a separation from ‘Mother England’ is that it is about time we as a nation stood on our own feet. After all we have come of age.

    The rewriting of our constitution is part of that and the secularists do not want God mentioned at all.

    This shows that most of those who have been crying for Australia as a republic also walk behind the banner of secularism.

    God save the Queen and may God save Australia!

    Erik Werps, Melbourne

  12. Matt, you said you don’t think my views are “wrong” just “very very different” to yours. How can this be? If our respective understanding of the world is so different, how can we both be right? Either you are right and I am wrong, or I am right and you are wrong. To say that neither of us are wrong sounds like postmodernism.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  13. I agree with Erik that in his words “most of those who have been crying for Australia as a republic also walk behind the banner of secularism.” The Australian Democrats just released a discussion paper with the thinly veiled object being to completely expunge Christianity from Australian civil society under the guise of separation of church and state. One of their suggested “reforms” to achieve this is to call for a referendum on a republic. One wonders what the two issues have in common? It must be what Erik says above – the secularists want the opportunity to rewrite Australia’s constitution to get rid of any mention of God.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  14. Ewan,
    Your view of the world is only an opinion. My view of the world is only my opinion of the world. Since there is no such thing as a right or wrong opinion, then there is no point in me saying that your view (ie: opinion) of the world is wrong and my view (opinion) of the world is right.
    That isnt postmodernist at all – it’s just common sense
    Matt Page, Melbourne

  15. Matt. I don’t know exactly what your opinion is but for the sake of the argument I will assume it is some kind of secular worldview. If this is the case then your “opinion” says my “opinion” is wrong and vise versa. To say that there is no such a thing as a right or wrong opinion is not common sense. It is relativism.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  16. Matt, is the statement “there is no such thing as a right or wrong opinion” an opinion? If so, is this opinion right or wrong?

    Frank Gashumba, Melbourne

  17. Frank
    The statement, “There is no such thing as a right or wrong opinion” is a fact. There is no way you could possibly classify it as an opinion, but I would like to see your reasoning behind this ridiculous claim
    I just can’t understand how you could perceive that statement to be an opinion – this was taught to me in primary school!!!
    Matt Page, Melbourne

  18. Thanks Matt
    I guess it depends on how you define ‘opinion’. If you mean a mild belief about something, then surely some opinions are closer to the mark than others. And it also depends on what the opinion is about.

    If I say ‘In my opinion, Dr Pepper is the best soft drink around,’ I am stating my preference, my taste, and then yes, it is neither right nor wrong.

    If I say, ‘In my opinion, the moon is made of green cheese,’ then I am mistaken in my opinion. My belief is out of sync with reality.

    Thus if an opinion is a view or appraisal of a given situation, then one can ask how closely that opinion conforms to the facts. So it seems there may well be right and wrong opinions, or at least opinions that are closer or further away from truth and reality.

    I think in the context of this debate, you were talking about someone’s views as being neither right nor wring. But if there are strongly held views about important subjects, then one really can and should judge those views. For example it was the view of the Nazis that Jews were non-persons, deserving of death.

    I think most people would argue that such a view was wrong. If a person were to argue that torturing baby kittens for pleasure is OK, then most would argue that this is a wrong view or belief.

    Other opinions need to be argued for more clearly. If someone says, ‘I believe the Liberal Party is evil, corrupt and monstrous,’ then that is indeed an opinion, but an opinion that needs to be justified. One would ask, ‘what do you mean by evil?’, or ‘in what ways are they corrupt?’ and so on.

    I guess I am trying to say that in matters of taste, yes, there is no right or wrong, only personal preferences, but in matters of truth, there are.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  19. Thanks Bill for clearing that up for everyone – I agree with everything you have said, and maintain my stance that the statement, ‘secularists have a distorted and wrong viewpoint’ is only a ‘preference’ opinion
    Matt Page, Melbourne

  20. Sorry, I wrote that too fast. The statement made by Ewan about secularists is not a ‘preference opinion’ but a statement similar to the one you wrote about the ‘Liberal Party being evil, corrupt, and monstrous’ Bill – as I was saying from the start, it is immature to say something like that without justifying it, because it is just an opinion.
    So thanks Bill for articulating that for the benefit of all
    Matt Page, Melbourne

  21. Dear Bill and fellow bloggers,
    Here is an edited version of a piece I wrote in one of my newsletters that has helped folk understand the ‘secular-secularism’ divide.

    “Many people try to persuade us that Australia is a ‘secular’ society, without ever explaining what that means. ‘Secular’ means ‘of this world’ – of the things pertaining to the physical world we can taste, touch, feel, smell, and see. It includes the social forces governing human interaction. A secular nation is therefore one in which the laws pertain to the way we live in this world. In this sense, Australia is a ‘secular’ nation. The problem is, however, that ‘secular’ has become a weasel word for the promotion of ‘secularism’ = ‘secular humanism’ = ‘atheism’.

    “‘Secularism’ is the belief that only ideas, laws and ways of life that stem from the science-verified physical world are to be considered in making public policy. Thus the Secular Party of Australia definition of ‘secular’ is actually that of ‘secularism’. It excludes ‘religious’ beliefs by definition. But – as Bill points out – human interaction is also governed by transcendent beliefs and worldviews. Australia’s ‘secular’ laws – laws that affect human relationships ‘here and now’ – are often derived from the Christian worldview. For example, we have laws against murder. These are based on the command of God! Must they be excluded from consideration because of that? Of course not! Rather, if we can show from reasoned research that this law is for the common good – here and now – then it should find a place in a nation’s laws, especially if the majority of its citizens believe it. ‘Secularism’ should be seen as just one of many competing belief system in the public square, and not the sole resource of public policy for our nation. And we should let our leaders know that we expect them to adopt this attitude!”

    One other area which we have lost but need to regain is an understanding of ‘religion’. The root meaning of ‘religare’ is ‘to re-bind’. Thus any belief or philosphy that ‘binds people together’ can be considered a ‘religion’. Thus sociologist Peter Berger defines ‘religion’ as ‘man’s response to the cosmos’ – a definition which fits the many beliefs that abound today. Thus also the first Humanist Manifesto set out to establish a new ‘religion’ that excluded transcendent beliefs about the world (but not presented as such by the next two Manifestos). Unfortunately, the definition of ‘religion’ in common use today – and which has been verified by the Australian High Court – is the secularist defintion that reflects only transcendental faiths. Thus secularism is not regarded as a religion – but it should be, because it too is ‘man’s response to the cosmos’.

    Geoffrey Bullock

  22. My comment is as a U.S. citizen and from that perspective:

    Apart from the “separation of church and state” not actually being in the Constitution, what many people (especially the pro-gay Left) confuse–and I think often deliberately–is that it means Christians or their beliefs should have no place in government, legislation, or voting. What it, or rather what the First Amendment, does mean is that the government can’t establish a state religion (or the dreaded “theocracy”)–not that religious PEOPLE can’t exercise their legal right to vote, etc., just like anyone else.

    I often hear, “But not everyone believes the Bible” or “Not everyone is Christian” or even “Most Americans AREN’T Christian,” with the implication being that we have no right to “impose” our view on anyone. Of course, such philosophy is ludicrous, even apart from the ridiculous idea that “we can’t impose morality.” I don’t vote based on what most OTHER people think. I vote based on what *I* think–just as everyone else does. There’s no law (yet) that says we can vote our conscience *only as long as it’s not based on religion*. We vote our conscience based on what we ourselves THINK, as does everyone else, with no restrictions based on HOW our opinions came about. A “state separated from church” doesn’t mean that only godless atheists have a say any more than it means only Christians do. It’s the “separation of church and state”–not the compulsory “JOINING of ATHEISM and state.”

    Possibly worse (if only from the “useful idiot” angle) are those actual Christians who say we shouldn’t be involved in the government at all, as though the only people who have a legitimate source to tell us what God thinks should be the only ones not to exercise our rights to vote and take part in government. And as though our government were a “kingdom” with a sovereign ruler rather than the representative republic that, by definition, is meant to involve everyone who is willing to be involved. Why in the world would we throw away our chance to legitimately (and legally, no less) partake in setting policy? Even Paul exercised his rights as a Roman citizen. Why wouldn’t WE–as CHRISTIAN citizens–in a government specifically intended to ALLOW our participation?

    Developing “moral” legislation doesn’t necessarily change hearts–as it’s often pointed out–but it does restrain SIN. And if the example of Joshua 7 (regarding Achan’s sin) can be applied to us today, shouldn’t we try to restrict sin in our land and forestall (as much as God allows us to have a part in His plans) God’s judgment? In Ezekiel 21:2-4, God warned that in His judgment on the wicked, even the righteous would suffer. And if neither of those “Old Testament” passages applies, wouldn’t Romans 1:32 (about giving “approval” to sin–a passage that, in itself, would argue against voting for gay “marriage” as something that should be allowed, “even if we don’t personally believe in it”)? As many have pointed out, silence IS complicity–whether in Germany regarding the Jewish Holocaust or in America regarding the abortion holocaust, or even the perhaps lesser (though still great) evil of giving approval to sexual relationships that are an abomination to God. Not voting for the good IS voting for the bad (or, if there’s no “good,” even not voting for the LESSER evil over the GREATER evil, as a PREFERENCE given the only options available–not, as opponents of voting for an “imperfect” candidate would argue, as an APPROVAL of either).

    Kevin Moritz, US

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