The short answer is “yes.” Unfortunately, that’s an answer to the wrong question. The real question for me as a pastor does not have to do with religious freedom but rather with religious coercion. In other words, the question is not, “Can I freely share my faith,” but rather, “Can I force others to share my faith?” As I said, the answer to the first question is “yes,” but the answer to the second is “no.” More importantly, considering that our schools and teachers are representatives of the federal government, the second question is not simply, “Can I force others to share my faith,” but rather, “Can the government force others to share my faith?”
In fact, these two questions are tied together, and the answer cannot be “yes” to both of them. If we live in a society where the answer to the second question is, “Yes, we can force others to have or express a particular faith,” then it is also true that, “No, we do not truly have the freedom to express our faith as we see fit.”
This should be of particular importance for Mennonites. First of all, we should be committed to the separation of church and state because it was our idea to begin with. Yes, the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” but that’s not the reason I hold this view. I’m more concerned with what founding documents like the Schleitheim Confession say: “The rule of government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the spirit … Their citizenship is in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven.”
The reason I want to keep church and state separate is not for the sake of the state but for the sake of the church. Besides inviting corruption when the two are joined, we would do well to remember that the persecution that our spiritual forbears suffered was at the hands of other Christians, empowered by the state in an attempt to force us to believe, pray and worship as they did.
I’m continually perplexed by Mennonites who argue vehemently that prayer and other religious activities should be mandatory in public schools. How is it possible that we have forgotten our own core values and history so completely that we can argue against those values that our people pioneered? What’s more, how is it possible that we have forgotten that Mennonites are still in the minority in this country?
I support a strong separation of church and state, not because I believe we should be ashamed of, or limit our faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I support it because if the government did start forcing our children to pray in school, the prayers they would be saying would not be our own.