Secular Humanism and the Separation of Church and State

A Church steeple

The Secular Humanist Idea of Separation of Church and State

Secular Humanists believe firmly in the principle of the separation of church and state. A Secular Humanist Declaration says:

Because of their commitment to freedom, secular humanists believe int eh principle of the separation of church and state. . . . Any effort to impose an exclusive concept of Truth, Piety, Virtue, or Justice upon the whole of society is a violation of free inquiry. Clerical authorities should not be permitted to legislate their own parochial views—whether moral, philosophic, political, educational, or social—for the rest of society.

Nor should tax revenues be enacted for the benefit or support of sectarian religious institutions. Individuals and voluntary associations should be free to accept or not to accept any belief and to support these convictions with whatever resources they may have, without being compelled by taxation to contribute to those religious faiths with which they do not agree. Similarly, church properties should share in the burden of public revenues and should not be exempt from taxation (Paul Kurtz, A Secular Humanist Declaration (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1980), p. 12).

A Statement in Defense of Secularism declares:

American democracy draws its special vitality from the First Amendment, which incorporates the principles of a separation of church and state. In essence, the United States is a secular republic; this means that the government cannot establish a religion. It cannot favor religion over non-religion.

[The document chides former President Clinton for citing] crime statistics and [suggesting] the answer lay in an “honest reaffirmation of faith” by which Americans might “seek to heal this troubled land.” (In Defense of Secularism, Free Inquiry Spring 1994, vol. 14, p. 5; quoted in Robert L. Waggoner dissertation, p. 143).

The American Founders are often credited with creating a separation of church and state. The First Amendment to our Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, a religious minority in Connecticut who feared that their religious freedoms were not permanent. They had written to Jefferson expression their concern (Steve Mount, “Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter,” (accessed October 7, 2005). Jefferson wrote back and said, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god [sic.], that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reference 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 (Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association,” January 1, 1802. (accessed on October 7, 2005). Emphasis in the original).

Tonight, I want us to explore the secular idea of separation of church and state and see the consequences of that belief.

Why Do Secular Humanists Want Separation of Church and State?

The first answer to that question is that they do not believe in Deity. “We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of new thought” (Humanist Manifest I, Sixth). From Humanist Manifesto II:

As non-theists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity. Nature may indeed be broader and deeper than we know; any new discoveries, however, will but enlarge our knowledge of the natural.

We can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species. While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves (Humanist Manifest II, First).

From Adolf Grunbaum, a secular humanist and the Andrew Mellon Professor of Philosophy of Science, Research Professor of Psychiatry, and chair of the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburg, said, “I have remained a lifelong atheist for two reasons: I do not know of any cogent argument for the existence of God, and I think there is telling evidence against it” (Adolf Grunbaum, “My Exodus to Secular Humanism. (Brief Article),” Free Inquiry 19 (1999): 25.).

Because they do not believe in the Divine, Secular Humanists want to be fully free from any divine obligations. “Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values” (Humanist Manifesto I, Fifth).

We appreciate the need to preserve the best ethical teachings in the religious traditions of humankind, many of which we share in common. But we reject those features of traditional religious morality that deny humans a full appreciation of their own potentialities and responsibilities. Traditional religions often offer solace to humans, but, as often, they inhibit humans from helping themselves or experiencing their full potentialities. Such institutions, creeds, and rituals often impede the will to serve others. Too often traditional faiths encourage dependence rather than independence, obedience rather than affirmation, fear rather than courage. (Humanist Manifesto II, First).

From In Defense of Secularism

  • “It is divisive to imagine that the moral prescriptions of any single religious faith alone can serve to raise our diverse nation out of a real or imagine malaise.”
  • “We regret Clinton’s repeated statements that ‘freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion,’ which seem to defend the propriety of treating the non-religious as second-class citizens. We question his stated for spiritual lead-taking in place of ‘some purely rational solution of a problem.’ On the contrary, we submit that if America discards rationality we are truly rudderless, helpless against sectarian strife when differing groups may seek to impose their peculiar spiritual visions on American life.”

Secular Humanists also remind us of the disaster wrought by totalitarian regimes in the name of religion. For example: “The lessons of history are clear: wherever one religion or ideology is established and given a dominant position in the state, minority opinions are in jeopardy” (A Secular Humanist Declaration, p. 12). Here, they have a valid point: One only need look at the Taliban in recent memory to recognize that here they have a very valid point. You can also recall the history of the Spanish Inquisition and the papal control over European states.

What Shall We Christians Say

We must recognize that God, not man, establishes government. Remember what the voice from heaven told Nebuchadnezzar when he was filled with pride? “You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Dan 4:32). “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Rom 13:1).

That is quite different from our national tradition. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Declaration of Independence, Emphasis added). “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfection Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” (Preamble of the United States Constitution, Emphasis added). We need to remember, contrary to our national heritage of government’s powers’ coming from the people, power for government comes from God.

What is the purpose of government was God ordained civil authorities? (Important in the formulation of my thinking are two works: Robert L. Waggoner, pp. 48-63; and Dennis Woods, Discipling the Nations (Franklin, TN: Legacy Communications, 1996), pp. 121-179). God expects civil governments to punish wrongdoers. Speaking of governmental authorities, Paul wrote, “He is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Pet 2:13-14).

How should governments punish wrongdoers?

They need to have laws based upon God’s standards.

Here is where the wall of separation between church and state becomes problematic. The Secular Humanists do not want any religious basis for our laws. They don’t want abortion to be wrong because God values human life, they don’t want homosexual marriage to be wrong because God says homosexuality is wrong, they don’t want pornography to be wrong because God says it is.

Notice however what Paul and Peter both say about the role of government. Government, they say, is to punish those who do wrong. How are we going to define “wrong?” Since we read of “wrong” in the context of Scripture, shouldn’t we expect “wrong” to be defined by God’s standards?

They should exact the death penalty.

The death penalty, according to many, denies dignity to condemned individuals. However, that penalty upholds the dignity of man made in God’s image.

Notice what God told Noah after the Flood: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen 9:6). Notice that Paul said governmental authorities do “not bear the sword for nothing” (Rom 13:4). When Pilate reminded Jesus that he had power to crucify or release him, Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no power over men if it were not given to you from above” (Jn 19:11). Jesus, although he had committed no crime, recognized the state’s right to put to death.

We need to argue forcefully for the death penalty—God himself believes in the death penalty. There are many who say that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent to crime. In the current way it’s carried out in this nation, it doesn’t. But if we gave people speedy trials, speedy appeals, and speed death, I’m convinced that the death penalty could truly serve as a deterrent to crime.

They need to expect restitution.

Restitution—the restoring of what was lost through theft or fraud—is a biblical principle. “If the stolen animal is found alive in his possess—whether ox or donkey or sheep—he must pay back double” (Ex 22:4). “If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and he does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held responsible if the other gets up and walks around outside with his staff; however, he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed” (Ex 21:19).

Granted, those passages come from the Old Testament, but the principle of wrongdoers giving restitution is carried over in the New Testament. After Jesus entered his house, Zacchaeus said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Lk 19:8). This follows somewhat on what Jesus had said in Matthew 5:25-26. Notice the one you’ve wronged is going to throw you into prison and “you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” This principle is also seen in what Paul said about thieves: “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (Eph 4:28).

God expects civil governments to reward the righteous. Again, the principle is demonstrated throughout Scripture. “Rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you” (Rom 13:3). Governors are sent by the king “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Pet 2:14).

How should governments reward the righteous?

They must keep law and order.

Paul urges Christians to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2). This would include several things:

  • In order to provide “peaceful and quiet lives,” government needs to provide an active, well-trained police force.
  • In order to provide “peaceful and quiet lives,” government needs to provide for national defense.

They must fairly tax the righteous.

Christians are to pay their taxes: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matt 22:21).

However, taxes must not be used for activities which Scripture has not authorized. Notice that the only thing God has authorized government to do is to punish wrongdoing and reward the righteous—In other words, the administration of justice is the only God-ordained function of government. Therefore, our taxes should only go to the administration of justice—We should not then be paying taxes to support welfare, government subsidies, and the like.

Granted, that sounds quite radical. But if you examine Scripture, God has not authorized the government to provide for the poor, to pay farmers to grow corn, and the like. We use the argument from silence all the time in church-related matters, but we don’t apply the same principle to the state. Since God ordained the state as well as the church, should not the same standard apply?

Let us encourage the government to stay within its proper bounds—to administer justice by punishing the wrongdoer and rewarding the righteous!

Do you need to come tonight and escape God’s justice and receive his grace?

This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.

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