The answer came from the pen of John Locke, the Enlightenment philosopher whose work greatly influenced the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and even the Restoration Movement. He wasn’t the first to urge religious toleration, but his famous Letter Concerning Toleration, written in 1689, so clearly and brilliantly explained the necessity of religious toleration that his views eventually became law.
Since you are pleased to inquire what are my thoughts about the mutual toleration of Christians in their different professions of religion, I must needs answer you freely that I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church. For whatsoever some people boast of the antiquity of places and names, or of the pomp of their outward worship; others, of the reformation of their discipline; all, of the orthodoxy of their faith — for everyone is orthodox to himself — these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the Church of Christ. …
First, because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another as to compel anyone to his religion. … All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing. …
In the second place, the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. …
Locke concludes that the state can’t enforce obedience to God, because God only accepts obedience that’s from the heart. And if we were to make Christianity the official religion of the state, just which version of Christianity would we choose? Do we let the government decide for us?
Just so, if the state is allowed to express opinions on religious matters, history shows that the church submits to the state, rather than the other way around —
But, to speak the truth, we must acknowledge that the Church (if a convention of clergymen, making canons, must be called by that name) is for the most part more apt to be influenced by the Court than the Court by the Church. How the Church was under the vicissitude of orthodox and Arian emperors is very well known. Or if those things be too remote, our modern English history affords us fresh examples in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth, how easily and smoothly the clergy changed their decrees, their articles of faith, their form of worship, everything according to the inclination of those kings and queens. Yet were those kings and queens of such different minds in point of religion, and enjoined thereupon such different things, that no man in his wits (I had almost said none but an atheist) will presume to say that any sincere and upright worshipper of God could, with a safe conscience, obey their several decrees. …
It may be said: “What if a Church be idolatrous, is that also to be tolerated by the magistrate?” I answer: What power can be given to the magistrate for the suppression of an idolatrous Church, which may not in time and place be made use of to the ruin of an orthodox one?
In short, if we get the state the power to prohibit non-Christian religions, the state will have the power to prohibit unorthodox religions — which today or tomorrow will be your religion.
But there is absolutely no such thing under the Gospel as a Christian commonwealth. There are, indeed, many cities and kingdoms that have embraced the faith of Christ, but they have retained their ancient form of government, with which the law of Christ hath not at all meddled. He, indeed, hath taught men how, by faith and good works, they may obtain eternal life; but He instituted no commonwealth. He prescribed unto His followers no new and peculiar form of government, nor put He the sword into any magistrate’s hand, with commission to make use of it in forcing men to forsake their former religion and receive His.
Did Locke favor a Christian nation? No. He favoured a nation filled with Christians. And this is the central historical background of the First Amendment.
Thus if solemn assemblies, observations of festivals, public worship be permitted to any one sort of professors, all these things ought to be permitted to the Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers, and others, with the same liberty. Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan nor Mahometan [Muslim], nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing.
Here we find the tap root of the First Amendment.
Locke argued forcefully to separate the church from the state so —
* The churches would stop using the power of the state to persecute one another
* The churches would be free to pursue God according to their own understanding
* The state would not suppress religion.
And he builds his argument from the gospel — finding the behavior of the church in centuries past to be in clear violation of the gospel.
This means that the church cannot look to the state for power. If we want our children to learn the Ten Commandments, it’s our job to teach them — not the job of judges and public school teachers. If we want people to acknowledge that this nation is “under God,” we need to teach them the gospel — not the Pledge of Allegiance — unless we want them to conclude that they should worship God because it’s the desire of Congress.
Prayer in school, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Ten Commandments in a courthouse do not save souls, do not persuade the lost, and will not make the world a better place. Only Jesus in our hearts will do that — and that comes from people persuading people one on one in coffee shops, not from statuary in state buildings.
Is it offensive for atheists to seek to remove all Christian symbols from public places? Yes. Does it painfully remind us of how poorly we’ve done at converting people to Jesus? Yes. Is it the reason this nation is becoming less Christian by the day? Not even close. Rather, people bring these suits because we’ve already become less Christian.
You see, it’s not the ACLU’s fault. It’s the church’s fault. Had we taught our children at home and in our Sunday schools, rather than expecting a devo over the public school PA system to convert our children, we’d not be in this mess. Had we lived Christianity before our neighbors rather than expecting them to find Jesus in a Ten Commandments monument in the Judicial Building, we’d not be in this mess.
The early church didn’t grow by gaining control of the schools and the city squares. The early church grew by leading sacrificial lives of love, by works of sacrificial charity, by treating all classes and races as equals, and by being Christian even if it meant their own death. And that’s a plan that’ll still work.
In fact, had we been anything like the early church in the 20th Century, we’d be living in a nation of Christians today — and we’d not be worried about whether this is a Christian nation.
Rather, we’re looking for an easy solution. We want the government to build our monuments to Jesus for us and require people to say “under God” at school. We want the government to solve the church’s problems — as though goverment were the solution to a lack of Jesus. We seem to start with the assumption that we can’t even convert our own children unless the government endorses our beliefs. It’s a deeply mistaken way to think. It’s very nearly idolatrous.
We need to get over being mad at the ACLU and the courts and Obama and instead get back to our roots. Rather than trying to vote Jesus into office or write him into the laws, let’s be such sold-out, radical, convicted Christians that Christianity is once again so admired that people will risk death, torture, and imprisonment to become one.