March 2020 Church & State | Viewpoint

By The Rev. Charles Foster Johnson

We are all grateful for Americans United’s tireless vigilance in safeguarding religious liberty in the face of incessant attacks today on this fundamental human right. The constitutional and legal arguments upholding church-state separation are airtight, and AU articulates them in powerful fashion.

But in light of a case now before the Supreme Court called Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, perhaps an argument against religious school vouchers from precisely a religious viewpoint, by a working pastor, might have some benefit.

I believe God has created human freedom as a reflection of God’s own freedom, God’s own non-contingency, as the theologians would put it. The individual liberty accorded every person is a work of God in creation and an integral feature of human worth and dignity.

A core component of this freedom is at work in the realm of religion. Religious liberty is the right and choice of the human – the “inalienable” right, as Thomas Jefferson immortally put it – to worship God according to the compulsion of his or her own individual conscience, or not to worship God at all.

To say the term “religious freedom” is to speak a paradox of immense power and implication. The very impulse of religion is submission to a power outside oneself, to cast oneself in categorical terms upon God in a posture of what German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher called “absolute dependence.” The project of any religious concern is the relinquishment of one’s own autonomy to the hegemony of God.  

In a world full of authorities that vie for our submission, the individual made in the image of God is the only entity competent to participate in this submission. There is no other legitimate and competent authority other than the individual conscience to make a religious decision.

This is what we mean when we speak of “soul competency,” as the Baptist minister and educator E.Y. Mullins put it in The Baptist Conception of Religious Liberty (1923): “Religious liberty excludes the imposition of religious creeds by ecclesiastical authority. Confessions of faith by individuals or groups of men [and women], voluntarily framed and set forth as containing the essentials of what men [or women] believe to be the Gospel are all right. They are merely one way of witnessing to the truth. But when they are laid upon men’s [or women’s] consciences by ecclesiastical command, or by a form of human authority, they become a shadow between the soul and God, an intolerable yoke, impertinence, and a tyranny.”

Therefore, all religious activity must be strictly voluntary on the part of the individual. There can be no coercion in these matters, and certainly no collusion with the state in them. In fact, no institution, whether the church or the state, possesses any competency to make any religious decision on behalf of an individual.

Virginia Baptist preacher John Leland put it this way: “Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse, or loss of property, from his religious opinions.”

The corollary to this God-given religious liberty is the principle of the strict separation of the church from the state. In our work in Pastors for Texas Children, we refer to religious liberty as a gift from God to all people – and wryly add that James Madison did not make it up! Madison took an eternal spiritual truth and wrote it down in an extraordinary sentence that comprises the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Leland’s influence over Madison is well-known. When Madison learned that Leland might challenge him for his seat in the House of Representatives, Madison forged a compromise with Leland that resulted in the popular preacher’s standing down from his electoral challenge in exchange for Madison’s championing of the principle of church-state separation. And the rest, as we say, is history.

It is not an overstatement to say that religious liberty is the principle upon which our nation was founded – a free church in a free state.

The public school is the local proving ground for religious liberty and the principle of church-state separation. Here our children witness firsthand that their own religious experience is not given preference over anyone else’s. Here they see early on the tremendous power of voluntary and personal faith, that faith is something expressed and brokered by them – not by some official institutional leader.

Is this the reason why forces that oppose religious liberty want to enlist the power of the state to dismantle public schools through voucher programs?

Private school vouchers inherently violate religious liberty. I live in Texas, where the state constitution is clear on this question. Article 1, Section 6-7 states: “No man shall be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent. No money shall be appropriated, or drawn from the Treasury for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary; nor shall property belonging to the State be appropriated for any such purposes.” Clearly, using tax dollars for religious private schools violates this principle.

Some provocative but honest questions are in order: Do Christians want their tax money funding Muslim private schools? Do Muslims want their money underwriting Baptist church schools? Do Baptists want their tax money funding Roman Catholic parochial schools that teach the infallibility of the Pope?  Do Catholics want their tax money funding Baptist schools that teach the priesthood of all believers? These sensitive questions go on and on. They make the point that government should stay out of religious schools.

Let us rededicate ourselves to our public education system that makes sure public dollars do not establish or advance any religious concern.         

The Rev. Charles Foster Johnson is foun­d­er and executive director of Pastors for Children, a nationwide net­work of faith leaders advocating for public education.