The Misunderstood Line of Separation of Church and State

“I won’t talk about my faith at work due to separation of church and state.”

“I keep my faith to myself while at work, because I don’t want to cross that line.”

Faculty, staff, and students who are employed in public colleges and universities often say such things. While I deeply respect their desire to abide by the law, I have learned that in many cases their understanding of the law is flawed.

Many who work at public colleges and universities are confused about their religious expression rights on campus. 

So, some remain unnecessarily silent about their faith while at work.

Much of their confusion is based on a misunderstanding of the phrase “separation of church and state” – a phrase that seems to regularly find its way into discussions of religion among employees in public higher education. Related to that sentiment is the idea of inappropriately “crossing the line” – referring to the “line” separating church and state.

Some have misinterpreted the phrase “separation of church and state” to mean that they are not allowed to talk about their faith in the workplace at all.

While people of other religious identities might be hesitant to express their faith in the workplace, Christians seem to be most likely to frame their reluctance in this way.

Let me clarify the meaning of the oft-repeated phrase.

Thomas Jefferson actually penned the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his 1801 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. His intent was to advocate for religious liberty that is free from governmental tampering, not to suggest that governmental agencies should be free from religious expression.

Thomas Jefferson suggested that the state should be kept out of the church – not vice versa.

In a previous blog post, I shared reasons why we should support the freedom of religious expression for all in higher education. In that post, I made brief comments about that constitutional right but did not take the time to thoroughly unpack it. Given the misunderstanding surrounding this important topic, some clarification is needed.

The First Amendment provisions related to religious expression in public higher education institutions are summed up in two clauses: the establishment clause and the free exercise clause.

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”

This is the establishment clause.

It means that public colleges and universities cannot advocate for one religion over another, nor should they advocate for religion over non-religion. They must strive to maintain religious neutrality.

This clause does not mean that we must all keep silent about our religious beliefs. Employees who talk about their faith at work are not “establishing” a religion on campus as described in the First Amendment.

That said, when we find ourselves in conversations about religion while at work, it never hurts to state that our views are our own views – not those of the college or university at which we are employed.

Congress shall make no law. . . prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

This is the free exercise clause.

It means that public colleges and universities are not allowed to create any policy that is designed to suppress the expression of religion on campus.

So, there is no hard-and-fast “line” that keeps those of us who work at public colleges and universities from talking about our faith at work.

However, because we are employees, there are some restrictions related to how and when we do so. In forthcoming blog posts, I will provide some practical guidance on those issues.

Those who are striving to follow Jesus in higher education should also consider biblical guidelines when thinking about sharing their faith at work.

For that reason, let me offer a few thoughts for consideration:

  1. Christians are called to obey God and to spread the message of Christianity.

There is not one place on earth where God does not want Christians to share their faith. By implication, our workplace is included in the “Go into all the world” directive.

As the late Dallas Willard so aptly stated, “If discipleship does not relate to your job, where you spend most of your time, you’ve left your life behind.”

  1. One way that Christians obey God is by submitting to the governing authorities.

The Apostle Paul wrote that “the authorities that exist have been established by God” and that “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.”

I believe that most of the opportunities that employees at public colleges and universities have to talk about their religious faith on campus can happen in ways that easily align with the directives of the “governing authorities” (e.g., the First Amendment and campus guidelines).

And, that is exactly what we should strive to do.

  1. There may be situations in which the biblical convictions held by Christians compel them to act in ways that challenge the directives of the governing authorities.

Recall that when Peter and John went before the Sanhedrin they were commanded not to speak or to teach in the name of Jesus. Clearly, they were placed in a situation where they had to decide whether or not to obey the governing authorities. To that command, they replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

And, there are a number of other examples in the Bible of people who were compelled, in certain situations, to obey God in ways that challenged the directives of the governing authorities. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are among them – as is Daniel.

So, while there is no hard-and-fast “line” of separation of church and state, we might find ourselves in situations at work where we feel compelled to share our faith, but we, or others, question the appropriateness of doing so.

In such situations, how should we decide when to talk about our faith and when to keep silent?

We should rely upon the wisdom and discernment that comes from the Holy Spirit.

And, we can remind ourselves that God will be with us and will give us the words to say as we speak when He leads us to do so. He will also be our defense if and when our zeal for others to know about the good news of Christ compels us to speak of Him in less-than-ideal situations at work.

As we walk in faithful obedience, we can trust Him.




Letting Our Voices Be Heard

When I was younger, a debilitating combination of shame and shyness frequently silenced me. While at school, I intentionally averted my eyes away from those of my teachers, and from most of my classmates, in an effort to discourage conversation. My actions at church were similar. The result was that some with whom I spent time in one or more of the same social circles probably never actually heard the sound of my voice in spite of the many hours we spent together.

It was only after I became a Christian, near the end of my first semester in college, that I had the desire to let others hear my voice.

It was only then – after I had experienced the presence and power of God in a way that freed me from my deep shame and extreme shyness and that transformed me in so many other ways – that I felt like I had something worthwhile to say. And, it was only then that I felt confident enough to say it.

I wanted others to know what Christianity is all about. And, I wanted to speak out about how my life had changed in such a profound way.

Christians should want to talk about those things, right?

Yes, we should. But, sometimes we are reluctant to let our voices be heard even when we have been invited to do so.

Why do we sometimes hesitate to speak up?

Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of every opportunity that we have to talk about the meaning of Christianity and to share about how our lives have changed because of Christ?

Recently, I spent some time reflecting on those questions in preparation for the recording of an upcoming podcast concerning Christian involvement in religious diversity activities on campus (e.g., interfaith dialogues). I remembered a time when God called Moses to serve as His spokesperson in what would surely involve several challenging discussions with others who might not eagerly embrace his message (see Exodus 3 and 4). Moses’ conversation with God demonstrates a few of the reasons why Christians might be reluctant to engage in religious diversity initiatives on campus.

1. We do not feel qualified to be a voice for Christ.

“Who am I that I should go?” asked Moses.

This was Moses’ initial response when God told him that He was sending him to the Israelites and then to Pharaoh. Later in the conversation, Moses reiterated his feelings of inadequacy when he said, “I’m not an eloquent speaker.”

Like Moses, some Christians might not feel qualified to be a voice for Christ on campus. Perhaps some believe that others on campus are better suited for representing Christ in religious diversity activities or that others would be more eloquent when speaking about Christ in such contexts. We must remember, though, that if God calls us to something, He will equip us for that work. And, sometimes, as in the case of Moses, He will provide others to assist us.

2. We are concerned that we will not know how to answer people’s questions.

“What do I say when others ask…?” Moses asked God.

In essence, he wanted to know in advance how he should respond to a particular question that would likely be asked of him.

Some Christians probably have a similar desire when thinking about engaging in religious diversity initiatives on campus. It would be so much easier if we knew how each conversation would progress prior to engaging in it. After all, such insight would give us the opportunity to prepare answers for challenging questions about Christianity that others might ask us during the experience.

While studying the Scriptures in an effort to have answers to those hard questions is an important aspect of Christian discipleship, we will never fully be prepared for every possible question that might come up. Even so, we are still called to share the Gospel and to speak up about Christ’s work in our lives and in the lives around us.

3. We are afraid that others will not take us seriously.

“What if they will not believe me or listen to me?” Moses asked. “What if they say, ‘God did not appear to you?’”

In response to Moses’ concerns, God demonstrated several ways that He would provide evidence to others that He had, indeed, spoken to Moses. If He provided such support and validation for Moses, He’ll surely do it for us. We are called to speak for and about Him. When we do, He will choose how and when to reveal Himself to others around us.

Perhaps more significant than the evidence that God said He would provide is the truth that He communicated to Moses during the course of their conversation.

God said, “I will be with you…. Who has made your mouth? I have! Go. I will teach you what you are to say.”

We can read example after example in the New Testament of times when the wisdom of the Holy Spirit came through in a profound way as people boldly spoke about Christ (e.g., Acts 6:10). Let’s review and reflect on those examples on a regular basis.

We don’t have to have special qualifications. We don’t need to shy away from structured discussions about religious diversity out of fear that we will not have answers to all of the questions that we might be asked. And, we don’t have to worry about whether or not people will take us seriously, because God can and will reveal Himself as He sees fit.

We just need to remember that the presence and power of the Holy Spirit abides within us and that He will teach us what to say.

Whether you are a student, a faculty member, an administrator, a campus minister, or someone else who is studying and/or working in higher education, take advantage of every invitation to let your voice be heard on campus. If asked to serve on an interfaith panel discussion or on a religious advisory committee, or when given the opportunity to speak with people representing diverse religious, spiritual, and non-religious perspectives, joyfully and humbly agree do to so, if possible.

Let’s be voices for Christ on campus.

The life-changing message of Christ – that we have experienced and that we want others to experience – can only be shared as we let our voices be heard.

Supporting the Freedom of Religious Expression for All in Higher Education

I can remember the first time I attended a training session about religious diversity on campus.

I was a new resident assistant (RA) preparing to start my third year as a student at a private, nonsectarian university. The residential life staff had gathered together to learn about and to discuss diversity on campus; one of the topics on the agenda was that of religious differences.

As I listened to others talk about their religious identities, I wondered whether or not I would be endorsing religious perspectives other than my own if I did such things as create a bulletin board to display information about various religions, plan an educational program about different religious identities, and/or make an accommodation for someone who embraced another religious worldview and who wanted to participate in a religious observance.

I genuinely cared about and valued my friends at the university who did not share my religious worldview and who wanted to express their own. At the same time, as a Christian, I wanted to remain true to my own religious beliefs. I wondered if it was possible to do both.

I came to believe that it is possible.

And now, as one who studies religion and spirituality in higher education, I am often asked to present training sessions about religious expression to groups of students and staff representing diverse religious identities and perspectives. As a Christian, I can confidently approach these discussions with the knowledge that the concept of freedom of religious expression aligns with biblical principles. And, as one who believes in an all-powerful God, I am certain that God will not get lost in the midst of religiously-diverse environments.

As Christians, we can believe that Jesus is the only way to God and still be supportive of the freedom of religious expression by others in higher education.

Joshua provides us with an example of how to maintain our own allegiance to God and to encourage others to serve God, while also respecting others’ right to choose their religious beliefs and expression (Joshua 24:14-15). The first thing that Joshua did when addressing the tribes of Israel at Shechem was to encourage them to serve God. Then, he reminded them that if serving God seemed “undesirable” to them, they had the right to choose to serve another god (e.g., to espouse a different religious belief system). Finally, he stated that regardless of their choices, he would continue to serve God. We, as Christians in higher education, can follow Joshua’s example.

In so doing, it is helpful to remember the following where religious expression is concerned:

  1. The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution grants people of all religious identities the freedom of religious expression.

Though many Christians know about this amendment and the implications of it, and I believe that most of us are well-intentioned in our use of this freedom, I am concerned that sometimes we might think and/or act as if it should only apply to us. It is helpful to remember that this constitutional right extends to all others, even those with whom we disagree. Moreover, because we enjoy and appreciate the ability to freely exercise our faith, it would be hypocritical of us to want to deny others the right to the same freedom.

  1. Choosing not to support others’ freedom to practice their religion is oppressive.

A certain degree of Christian privilege exists in higher education largely due to the number of people who self-identify as Christian. Most of the time, though not all of the time, this privilege paves the way for those of us who are Christians to practice our faith without much resistance. If we communicate a desire to prevent others from expressing their religious beliefs, or even if we remain silent when others are advocating for this right, we are, in effect, oppressing those who seek the same freedom that we enjoy.

  1. Supporting others’ freedom to express their religion is not the same as endorsing religious beliefs with which we disagree.

By supporting everyone’s freedom to express their religious beliefs, we are promoting something that God values: the freedom to choose what we believe. So, in essence, we are promoting human volition, not endorsing a particular set of religious beliefs that contradict our own.

As Christians, we have the opportunity to profess our faith in Christ by how we interact with those of other religious identities on campus. Let’s demonstrate how to genuinely love and respect others in higher education by supporting their right to express their religious beliefs – even if we disagree with those perspectives.

And, let’s remain thankful for the freedom that we have to express our faith in Christ.