“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the Spider to the Fly,
“‘Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.
The Way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many pretty things to show when you are there.”
— “The Spider and the Fly,” Mary Howitt, 1829
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Very few people on either side of the debate seem to understand what “separation of church and state” is really all about. The original intent was to protect poor Pilgrims against the corrupting influence of entanglement with the power establishment – not the other way around.
Ever since the Emperor Constantine conquered his rival Maxentius “by the sign of the cross” at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312), most of Christendom has assumed that it is not only possible but even proper and necessary to maintain a solid connection between the government and the kingdom of God. The Radical Reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries – the so-called “Anabaptist” followers of Conrad Grebel, Menno Simons, and Jacob Amman – disagreed. They were convinced that the gospel had been sullied and the church corrupted by this unholy alliance. As a result, they adopted a principled and conscientious stance apart from the state. Many paid for it with their lives. It is primarily to them that we owe our modern concept of “separation.”
Fast forward to the present. On January 20, 2017, on the occasion of the inauguration of the forty-fifth President of the United States, Franklin Graham stood up at the podium and praised the new American Head of State in the following words: “Mr. President, in the Bible rain is a sign of God’s blessing. And it started to rain, Mr. President, when you came to the platform.”
The tragic irony of this spectacle is not lost upon some of us who remember the pilgrimage of Graham’s father, the Reverend Billy Graham. During the early days of his ministry Billy maintained personal ties with many governmental and political figures. It was his habit to invite presidents and governors to share the platform with him at his evangelistic crusades. In the late 1960s he kept up a fairly close relationship with President Richard Nixon. All this came back to bite him in a big way after Watergate.
In 2011, at age ninety-two, Billy Graham was asked if he had any regrets over his long career. His response? “I would have steered clear of politics.”[i] This wasn’t a new idea for him at the time. As a matter of fact, it reflected a conviction that had taken hold of him as early as 1979 when, in an interview granted to Sojourners magazine, he said:
I have gone back to the Bible to restudy what it says about the responsibilities we have as peacemakers. I have seen that we must seek the good of the whole human race, and not just the good of any one nation or race.
There have been times in the past when I have, I suppose, confused the kingdom of God with the American way of life. Now I am grateful for the heritage of our country, and I am thankful for many of its institutions and ideals, in spite of its many faults. But the kingdom of God is not the same as America, and our nation is subject to the judgment of God just as much as any other nation.[ii]
The words of the elder Graham ought to give us pause – especially at a moment when his son appears to be granting unqualified support to a government leader whose mantra is, “From now on it’s going to be America first!”
“Franklin Graham,” says Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “seems determined to repeat his father’s mistakes.”[iii] Perhaps so, but the rest of us don’t have to follow in his footsteps. Far better to embrace his father’s change of heart. Like Billy, we’ve all been tricked and trapped and co-opted by the political establishment too many times in the past. Let’s pray we don’t get fooled again.
[i] “Evangelist Billy Graham Says He Now Regrets Involvement in Politics,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State, March 2011.
[ii] “A Change of Heart: Billy Graham on the Arms Race,” Sojourners magazine, August 1979.
[iii] See footnote 1.