United Methodist Church Resolution on Separation of Church and State

164. V.The Political Community

243. Separation of Church and State

We believe in the Christian church, the community of God's people founded on the confession of Christ. Jesus is the head of the body, the universal church, which is united by its common faith in Him. The church participates in the worship of God, the fellowship and training of believers, and the spread of God's love in the world. This ministry of God's love continues in the church as people are called to love and to bring together those who are separated from God and each other (Matthew 16:16-18; John 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 5:14-20). On the other hand, we believe that government is an institution established by God for the welfare of society. Government, as many other things in creation, is a part of God's common grace to humanity. This is a grace where all members of society benefit, whether they are Christians or not. Wayne Grudem has said, "Human government is also a result of common grace. . . . One of the primary means God uses to restrain evil in the world is human government."

There are several places in Scripture that help us understand this gracious act of God. In the Flood story (Genesis 9:6ff) God reestablishes God's covenant with Noah and sets forth the truth of the sanctity of life. The Bible does not speak much of the role of civil government; however, when it does it gives us a clear idea as to the reason God has for the establishment of governments and its leaders (see 1 Samuel 10:17-25). For the biblical tradition the role of the government (as seen through the work of the kings and leaders) was very clear.

The psalmist says regarding kings and rulers: "Endow the king with your justice, O God, / the royal son with your righteousness. / He will judge your people in righteousness, / your afflicted ones with justice. . . . / He will defend the afflicted among the people / and save the children of the needy; / he will crush the oppressor" (Psalm 72:1-2, 4, New International Version). Thus the prayer for the king continued by describing the task of the rulers (i.e., governments): "For [they] will deliver the needy who cry out, / the afflicted who have no one to help. / [They] will take pity on the weak and the needy / and save the needy from death. / [They] will rescue them from oppression and violence, / for precious is their blood in [their] sight" (Psalm 72: 12-14, NIV). And, thus, adds Isaiah regarding the ruler whom God will bring: "But with righteousness [they] will judge the needy, / with justice [they] will give decisions for the poor of the earth. . . . / Righteousness will be [their] belt / and faithfulness the sash around [their] waist" (Isaiah 11:4-5, NIV; see also Isaiah 3:14; 1 Kings 3:8-9; Proverbs 8:14-16; Daniel 4:32).

The fact that God allows for the establishment of governments cannot be interpreted to mean that they are all good, as we can see in Scripture. As a matter of fact many governments act contradicting God's will. The reality is that governments fail as human beings fail to live according to God's will. Nevertheless, God uses governments for God's purposes. In the New Testament we also see the important role that governments play according to Paul. When Paul speaks of those in authority he states: "For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing" (Romans 13:4-7, NIV).

The above in no way equates God and government, on the contrary there is no way to reconcile God's purpose for government with a government that acts contrary to God's will. There are many examples where governments pervert this God-given authority. It is in situations such as this where the prophetic voice of the church best honors its responsibility to the state, and its faithfulness to the gospel, by calling the state to accountability. Christians must become the conscience of government, in the best sense of the prophetic tradition. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated: "The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool." Over the years The United Methodist Church has come to a clearer understanding of this relationship. Hence, our church has historically supported the separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion because of our direct experience of exclusion and persecution, due to religious intolerance and bigotry. During the early years of the republic The Methodist Church was seen as a group of outsiders and as an inconsequential religious body that was not part of the Protestant establishment, thus resulting in the exclusion of the Methodist preachers from many towns and pulpits in many places around the new nation.

This experience, which the Methodists shared with the Baptists, Moravians, and a few other nonestablishment religious groups of the time, helped the Methodists to affirm the need to support the first constitutional amendment: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church assert: "We believe that the state should not attempt to control the church, nor should the church seek to dominate the state. 'Separation of church and state' means no organic union of the two, but it does permit interaction. The church should continually exert a strong ethical influence upon the state, supporting policies and programs deemed to be just and opposing policies and programs that are unjust" (Social Principles, ΒΆ 164B). The notion of the separation of the state from the church deals with the relationship of institutions that are independent of each other, although interrelated. Religion and politics are two spheres of activities in the life of Christians that cannot be separated. Citizens who belong to religious groups are also members of the secular society, and this dual association generates tensions. Religious beliefs have moral and social implications, and it is appropriate and necessary for people of faith to express these through their activities as citizens in the political arena. The fact that ethical convictions are rooted in religious faith, does not disqualify them from the political realm.

On the other hand these ethical convictions do not have secular validity merely because they are thought by their exponents to be religiously authoritative. They must be argued for in appropriate social and political terms in harmony with broad social values, including competing values. The appropriate place of religion in our society has been in a constant flux, its nature and relations have been clarified in ongoing social debates. "It may not be easy," James Madison wrote, "in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions." Clearly, collisions are what provide opportunities for careful deliberations of religious liberty issues, helping us to fine-tune this important pillar, in an increasingly pluralistic society.

Therefore, we should be prepared to deal with the complexities, ambiguities, and overlapping interests of church and state. We must discern workable principles that are compatible with fundamental constitutional imperatives, as well as our theological imperatives, in order to act morally and in accordance with God's will. As the Book of Acts reminds us: "We must obey God rather than any human authority" (5:29, New Revised Standard Version).

Thus, The United Methodist Church has supported that "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his [or her] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his [or her] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance" (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18).

In addition, The United Methodist Church also agrees with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18), which is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. Given our Church's history, the Church views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reasons, including the fact that they might be newly established or represent a religious minority that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community.

The United Methodist Church, in agreement with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, affirms that the freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others (Article 18, Paragraph 3).

Furthermore, The United Methodist Church has understood this to mean that government must be neutral in matters of religion and may not show preference of one religion over others, for religion in general, for religion over nonreligion, or for nonreligion over religion.

Therefore, be it resolved, that the General Conference of The United Methodist Church continue to affirm its historical position that government may not engage in, sponsor, supervise, aid, or lend its authority to religious expressions or religious observances.

Be it further resolved, that the General Conference urge rejection of any attempt of legislative bodies at the federal and state levels to bridge this important separation between church and state by providing direct financial assistance to houses of worship and religiously affiliated organizations in order for them to evangelize or proselytize. The state should not support any religious group's interest to evangelize or proselytize, the state is not the defender of the faith, whichever that faith might be.

Be it further resolved, that the General Conference reaffirms its historical position in opposition to any government legislation or constitutional amendment that would allow the use of public funds to support nonpublic elementary and secondary schools, or in regards to religious observances in public schools.

Adopted 2004

from The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, 2004