American Jews have thrived because the separation of church and state has protected our freedom. The Jewish commitment to separation of church and state has been shaped by thousands of years of Jewish history so significantly that we may forget our biblical roots. Our children may know the stories in the book of Daniel better than their parents. However, stories like the fiery furnace are relevant to modern problems of church and state.
The book of Daniel begins by recounting how Babylon humiliated Judah in a series of invasions between 605 and 586 B.C., during which many captives were taken. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego found themselves strangers in a strange land, where they were thrust into prominence by their obedience to the Most High.
Daniel 2 tells of King Nebuchadnezzar’s disturbing dream. Sensing its significance, he commanded his wise men and counselors to discern the dream and its interpretation. But the men insisted that no one could interpret a dream unless they knew its content. Enraged, the king commanded that all the wise men be killed. When Daniel and his friends devoted themselves to prayer in response to the king’s edict, the Almighty revealed to Daniel the king’s dream of a statue made of different metals. Each metal signified a great world empire.
Nebuchadnezzar was grateful to learn the meaning of his dream, but its contents were still troubling. The statue’s head of gold signified Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. His kingdom would be followed by other world empires, represented by less costly metals. In the end, all earthly kingdoms would be superseded by a kingdom that the Almighty would establish, represented by a stone that destroyed the image. In the pagan ethos of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar was more than a king, he was a representative of the gods. He resented being told that there was a deity greater than his own gods. In defiance of the Almighty, he erected a ninety-foot statue of solid gold and commanded that the citizens of Babylon bow down and worship it. Standing nearly ten stories high, the statue was an impressive rejection of the sovereignty of God and a rebellious declaration that Nebuchadnezzar intended his kingdom to endure forever.
Daniel’s three friends were among those commanded to bow down and worship the image. When they refused, they were accused of refusing to participate in the pagan rite. They did not deny the charges, but replied with uncommon courage: “Our God, whom we serve, is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O King. But if not, let it be known to you, O King, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Dan 3:17).
Enraged, Nebuchadnezzar commanded the furnace to be heated so hot that the guards who cast the three Jews into the flames were themselves consumed by the heat. The three fell down in the fire, having been bound with ropes. But then, suddenly, the king was astonished to see not three, but four men walking about in the fire. “The form of the fourth is like the Son of God,” the king exclaimed (Dan 3:25).
Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by the divine power that delivered Daniel’s three friends. He issued a decree commanding respect for their God, and imposed the death penalty for blasphemy against God (Dan 3:29). But whatever good the decree wrought by requiring all people to respect God was offset by the assertion of state power to force religious belief and conduct. In place of idolatry, Nebuchadnezzar forced respect for the Almighty.
State coercion has no legitimate place in matters of faith. Enforced religion in any form, even if it is “true religion,” is repugnant to the spirit of freedom. Actually, true religion can never be coerced, because it is a matter of the heart and the spirit; it cannot be compelled.
This principle of noncoercion in religion is essentially biblical. Historically, noncoercion has affected both Jewish and Protestant conceptions of church-state relations. The Protest of the Princes of 1529, which outlined the fundamental principles of Protestantism, declared that “in matters of conscience, the majority has no power.” Today, many American Christians insist that the majority should rule in matters of religion, that prayer and Bible reading should be restored to public schools, the Ten Commandments publicly displayed as a revered religious text, and God’s name invoked in the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. Conservatives are not alone in seeking to exert state authority over matters of religion. Some liberals want to deprive religious institutions of the freedom to live by their own religious principles.
Too many Americans on either side of the political divide reject religious neutrality and want the power to invoke their own brand of religious ideology in the public sphere. Religious freedom is not threatened by politicians who publicly praise the Almighty, whether or not they are sincere. Religious freedom is at risk when the state actively promotes or restricts a particular set of religious ideas. Today, the left wants to restrict the religious ideas of the right by having access to practices such as abortion and gay marriage. The right, on the other hand, wants the state to promote its own religious agenda in public schools. Both approaches deny our constitutional guarantee of no establishment of religion.
For American Jews, a vigorous defense of the separation of church and state seems linked to our cultural security. If the state places itself firmly behind conservative Christianity, Jews may well become “second-class citizens.” Our only real safety is to defend the constitutional principles that keep government out of the business of religion, of deciding whose religious ideas are “true” or whose religious schools or social service agencies are good enough to be funded by the state. It is enough for the state to protect religious liberty without becoming a judge of religious content.
If our national sanity is to be restored, we will stop seeking favors, advantages, funding, and promotion from the state as if religion were a special-interest group. This form of idolatry is just as offensive as commanding the worship of a golden statue and seems to indicate that dependence on God alone is not enough.
Christa Reinach Attorney and Freelance Writer
Alan J. Reinach Seventh-day Adventist Church State Council