I grew up in the south, where “separation of church and state” was understood as something akin to confessional allegiance to the emperor Nero. My southern, conservative, Christian community battled local school administrators over prayer at football games, 10 Commandments at the courthouse, and tried our best to get as many evangelicals elected to office in Washington as possible. We thought “separation of church and state” was the principality that stood in opposition to our efforts to preserve our influence in the culture.
We had little to no understanding that the separation of the power of the state over the church would be at the top of our collective wish list just a few decades later.
Now, in the wake of Supreme Court rulings like Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, evangelical Christians are digging deeper on the idea of religious liberty, and the concept of “separation of church and state.”
To be sure, evangelicals haven’t changed much on one issue; we still want to preserve the right to bring our faith with us into the public square. But now—perhaps more than ever, or at least since 1776—American Christians want to gain absolute clarity about the limits of power of the state over the church. Evangelicals are also learning that coercive power and influence are two different things; especially when you are in the religious minority.
One place American evangelicals are unlikely to look for perspective on religious liberty for all is Nazi Germany. But there in Pomerania—teaching at an underground seminary—Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an essay on American Protestantism and church-state relations.
Bonhoeffer viewed the American experiment as an outsider, first as a student in New York City, and later in search of political asylum. He only returned home to Germany in 1939—his second trip to the United States—because, as he said in a letter to his friend Reinhold Niebuhr: “I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of the Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
Two concepts, according to Bonhoeffer’s assessment, frame how outsiders perceive the church in a foreign context. First, a foreign observer “has the tendency to attribute the strangeness of another church to the peculiarities of its geographical, national, and social location, that is, to understand it in terms of its historical political, and sociological context.” There is a mix of both fixed, cross-culturally transcendent realities of the Church (God’s revelation, the real presence of the Body of Christ, etc.) and dynamic attributes that distinguish one context from another. An outside observer that fixates only on the universals or only on the particulars fails to understand the foreign church.
Second, Bonhoeffer writes that “[t]he observer of a foreign church is all too easily content with the current picture of the church’s situation.” Churches—like cultures—are supported by the momentum of history and set on a trajectory that requires inevitable change. They are fluid. Reducing another culture’s identity to a two-dimensional, static caricature is a real danger to the outside observer. Churches and cultures change over time.
Bonhoeffer was impressed, in many ways, by what he observed in America. He understood the separation of church and state the way Thomas Jefferson intended in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. Bonhoeffer’s observation was that the state’s power over the church was limited. The state’s power, in the American form of democracy, is limited by civilians that make up both church membership rolls, as well as voter registration lists. They have dual citizenship in Luther’s two kingdoms. The basis of this separation, Bonhoeffer explains, is why democracy and Christian principles have aligned better in America than in any other national government in the world.