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Affluent Christian Investor | December 2, 2023

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The Only Proper And Righteous Civil Government is Never Separated from God

Old Salem Church in Catonsville, Maryland

Old Salem Church in Catonsville, Maryland

In matters of church and state, it is clear that We the People’s religious beliefs can and should impact their understanding and action of civil government. But the government cannot violate people’s conscience of religion. Theologian Leonard Goenaga writes “that compulsory Religion is wrong. God made man free, and to force upon man religion is both hypocritical and against God’s created purpose of Freedom. God had given man the freedom to accept him. He never forced man to believe in him, but instead created him with the free will to choose.”[1] Religious impact flows in only one direction – a citizen’s religious conscience as a means to give them virtue and strong character in public service and civil government; but the flow of religion cannot flow from the government unto the people as a matter of compulsory force for their belief and worship. Thomas Jefferson argued in the Notes on the State of Virginia, “our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”[2]

Several influential colonial clergy defined what would develop into the philosophy of the American freedom of religion. These preachers would also have an impact on Jefferson and his articulation of this philosophy and foundational right. In 1644, Roger Williams, pastor of religious freedom and founder of Rhode Island, would make profound statements in regard to the role of religion and state as a result of his expulsion from John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony.[3] In protest and rebuttal to his eviction Williams would pen The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. Williams writes:

So that magistrates, as magistrates, have no power of setting up the form of church government, electing church officers, punishing with church censures, but to see that the church does her duty herein. And on the other side, the churches as churches, have no power (though as members of the commonweal they may have power) of erecting or altering forms of civil government, electing of civil officers, inflicting civil punishments…yet this they do not as members of the church but as officers of the civil state.[4]

Williams, in his rebuke of the Bay Colony, sets the philosophy and pattern for religious freedom and the limit of government which transcends through the next century into the Revolutionary generation and the eventual Bill of Rights. He sets the flow of religious influence from the people into the civil government, but inhibits the flow from the government onto the people. Religion and government is like a one-way valve – flowing from the people to their position in government, but not from the government to the people. The analogy of a wall of separation would be better served phrased as a valve flowing in a single direction.

Roger Williams also argued that the government serves the people under God. “First, whereas they say that the civil power may erect and establish what form of civil government may seem in wisdom most meet,” contends Williams, “I acknowledge the proposition to be most true, both in itself and also considered with the end of it, that a civil government is an ordinance of God, to conserve the civil peace of people, so far as concerns their bodies and goods, as formerly hath been said.”[5]

Williams also articulates the right of one’s conscience as a center to one’s religious beliefs; thus, as a fundamental right, government has no jurisdiction over such matters. One’s religious beliefs are a matter between one’s self and his God. “The civil magistrate either respecteth that religion and worship which his conscience is persuaded is true, and upon which he ventures his soul; or else that and those which he is persuaded are false.”[6]

Williams was directly influenced by Sir Edward Coke, the legendary English jurist. Williams, as a youth, served as Coke’s assistant and scribe, taking notes for him everywhere Coke attended and spoke.[7] Williams was also considered an extraordinary pious man even by those who adamantly disagreed with him. In a letter to Puritan minister John Cotton, Williams wrote the now famous metaphor of a wall of separation. “First, the faithful labors of many witnesses of Jesus Christ, extant to the world, abundantly prove that the church of the Jews under the Old Testament in the type, and the church of the Christians under the New Testament in the antitype, were both separate from the world,” wrote Williams. He continued:

…and that when they [the church] opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made his garden a wilderness, as at this day. And therefore if he will ever please to restore his garden and Paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly to himself from the world, and all that shall saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of [the] world and added to his church or garden.[8]

Roger Williams found civil government, in any form, dictating religious practices or beliefs completely tyrannical, or utterly leading to tyranny. He had witnessed and studied this in England. He also based his argument, against civil government ordering conscience (religion) upon the people, on Scripture. He, as a completely Biblical moral man, know the absolute need to have a Biblical morality, but also he completely embraced liberty and felt any man’s religion was entirely between him and God. The right to one’s conscience. Even pagans and others with different religions had the right of conscience to their beliefs, as long as it did not impede on another’s conscience or liberty. Roger Williams set into motion the very struggle that the Shining City deals with up to the present. Godly men are needed for a just government but they get there on their own and through their own relationship with God.

Thirty-four years prior to the American Revolution, Massachusetts Pastor Nathaniel Appleton in 1742 would orate an brilliant description of exactly what the American civil government was – whether pre-Revolution or post-revolution – as he and so many other Colonial clergy (like Roger Williams) completely understood the proper role and Biblical alignment of civil government. Tying American civil government to the ancient Hebrews, Scripture, truth and justice, God’s Law, and God as King, Appleton states:

Granted, our government is not a theocracy, and we are not under the divine government so directly and immediately as the Jews were. We are not under the laws of Moses – neither the ceremonial nor the judicial laws – as they were. The laws and statutes that were calculated for that people in their particular and peculiar state are not obligatory upon us, nor are they to be looked at as necessary rules of government. Nevertheless, these judicial laws of the Israelite nation that are so founded upon the general principles of truth and justice as to suit every form of civil government – these are to be regarded as the Laws of God, and binding upon us as much as upon them. This is not because they were given to them, but from the justice and goodness of them in themselves. Upon that account, they are to be adopted into every constitution of civil government…The nature of these laws is not altered, nor our obligation to keep them weakened, by length of time or changes in circumstances. They are founded upon truth, justice, and goodness, and thus are as immovable as the mountains and immutable as God Himself.[9]

The American die is cast and is perpetual and incontrovertible. Not a living constitution, but from a loving and living God.

God allows His creation to believe or reject him – free will and freedom of choice, so must government allow the citizens to believe as their conscience sees fit. “That right to discriminate is the very essence of freedom,”[10] as Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute astutely writes. As much as God longs for His children to believe in Him, He gives freedom to them to choose. Williams believed that any government enforcing its power to coerce a specific religion or doctrine was irreligious. His very reasoning for the separation between government and religion was based directly on his theological beliefs. In this sense, the American compact is absolutely not secular as it must abide by God’s Law, Natural Law as it is articulated; and, therefore, it cannot assume God’s authority, but only, parallel God’s authority that men are free to choose or not choose God, and believe as their own conscience compels them to believe.

Roger Williams’ philosophy of religious freedom became the thread which Thomas Jefferson would address in his 1777 paper he sent to the Virginia Convention, which was introduced into the Virginia General Assembly in 1779, following the Boston Tea Party and England’s closing of the Port of Boston in 1774. Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom would eventually be passed into law by the Assembly in 1786. In this statement Jefferson opened with “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and continued with reference to “the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind…as was in his Almighty power to do.” He declares compelling a specific religion or practice of religion to be “sinful and tyrannical,” or compelling payment, thereof, and “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry.” Jefferson, all three times, refers to one’s “natural right” as the foundation to this religious freedom.[11]

The colonial view arising beginning with the Pilgrims at Plymouth and the Puritans of Massachusetts colony set the tone for Colonial America; albeit through strife, turmoil, and often strong disagreement (as noted above with Roger Williams). This faith forged the path which would lead to the Declarational and Constitutional generations and the building of a new type of society, but based completely on ideas which linked back directly for 150 years. Yet, they forged forward with a building, not just of a philosophy, but a practice in their lives, churches, and polity, a force which propelled their conscience of theology directly into their governance. Any government without a standard of God was not only ungodly, but doomed to destroy liberty and ultimately society. This very value, belief, and practice is perfectly and concisely articulated by Connecticut Pastor James Dana when he declared in 1779 Election Sermon that “a government which gives due encouragement to schools and public worship hath every way the advantage over one that neglects them in regard to civil order and happiness.”[12]

But Pastor Dana would also give a prophetical warning to this newly established confederacy on the dangers of separating the state and the church. “I see profusion and luxury coming in like a flood, corruption and bribery invading all ranks,” warns Dana, “public measures carried by influences, houses of worship forsaken, or frequented only by a few, the public support of religion withheld and its ministers despised, the Lord’s day devoted to amusements, family devotion almost universally laid aside, revealed religion generally disbelieved, the present infamy wiped off from the vices of intemperance and uncleanness, our children early taught to set their mouths against the heavens, personal revenge demanded for an inadvertent speech or little dignity.”[13] Dana foresaw the raise of the collective progressives of the 20th and 21st century as the Shining City has and is directly witnessing. He saw the Light diminishing without a pious people being perpetually diligent and the faith of the people underpinning the civil government and their own virtue. “We may not suddenly, but gradually, reach this pitch of degeneracy,“ foretells Dana, “Could we persuade the rising generation to remember our fears and struggle – Could we make posterity feel the distresses we endure to establish freedom, virtue and religion – Could we speak to future times, and make them shun the vices which have ruined other states.” [14] Let us return to the fire forged by our Forefathers and Founding Fathers. The fire of God’s Light.



[1] Leonard O. Goenaga, October 6, 2008, “Roger Williams and the Legacy of Separation of Church and State: An Analysis of the Views of Religion in Politics by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine,” Academic Research Paper for POT3024 American Political Thought, (Florida International University : Miami, FL).

[2] Thomas Jefferson, 2010, (Originally published in 1785), Notes on the State of Virginia, ( Lexington, KY), p. 188.

[3] Even though John Winthrop completely disagreed with Roger Williams, he had sympathy for Williams, knowing the possibility of execution due to William’s heresy, and warned him to give Williams time to flee from the area. Also, despite his strong disagreements with Williams’ preaching and theology, Winthrop knew that Williams was very pious and Godly man.

[4] Roger Williams, July 15, 1644, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution.”

[5] Roger Williams, July 15, 1644, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution.”

[6] Roger Williams, July 15, 1644, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution.”

[7] Roger Williams (James Calvin Davis, ed.), 2008, On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams, (Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA), pp. 5-6.

[8] Roger Williams (James Calvin Davis, ed.), 2008, On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams, (Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA), p. 70, except from, “Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered,” 1644.

[9] Nathaniel Appleton, 1742, “The Great Blessing of Good Rulers Depends upon God’s Giving His Judgement and His Righteousness to Them,” taken from Joel McDurmon, 2015, God’s Law and Government in America, (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, Inc.), pp. 53-54, Emphasis added.

[10] Roger Pilon, March 31, 2015, “Tim Cook’s Moral Confusion – and Intolerance,” (Cato Institute, Cato at Liberty).

[11] Thomas Jefferson, 1777, The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

[12] James Dana, 1779, “On the Providence of God in the Rise and Fall of Empires,” taken from Joel McDurmon, 2015, God’s Law and Government in America, (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, Inc.), p. 108.

[13] James Dana, 1779, “On the Providence of God in the Rise and Fall of Empires,” taken from Joel McDurmon, 2015, God’s Law and Government in America, (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, Inc.), pp. 112-113.

[14] James Dana, 1779, “On the Providence of God in the Rise and Fall of Empires,” taken from Joel McDurmon, 2015, God’s Law and Government in America, (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, Inc.), p. 113.


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