By Dr. Christian Overman
The United States is in serious trouble, and there is a good reason. At the heart of the problem is a virus known as “SSD,” or the “Sacred/Secular Divide.” It is a pandemic in proportion, and we’ve all been infected by SSD to one degree or another.
Simply put, SSD sees Christianity as relevant to one’s personal life but not relevant to what goes on in the public square. The idea of the “Separation of Church and State” is being confused with the “Separation of Christianity and State.” These two ideas are not the same.
Viewing Christianity as strictly a private matter, not being relevant to public policy, law, or civil government, may be accepted by many today, but American forefathers did not think this way. On the contrary, while early Americans did not want a State Church, as England had, they expected Christianity to affect society beyond the four walls of churches and certainly beyond the private prayer closet of individuals.
When the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831 to find out what made this country tick, he recorded the following observations in his book Democracy in America: “From the earliest settlement of the emigrants, politics and religion contracted an alliance which has never been dissolved. [p. 281] . . . I do not know whether all the Americans have a sincere faith in their religion; for who can search the human heart? But I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society. [p. 286-287] . . . The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other. [p. 287]”1
Tocqueville noted how different this was from his native France, where religion was relegated to private matters and not mixed with civil affairs. This French way of doing things was signed into law in 1905, banning all religious expressions in civil affairs. The practice has a name. It’s called laïcité [lay’-see-tay’], which literally means secularity.
But America is uniquely different. At least, we used to be!
As shocking as it might sound to our twenty-first-century minds, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1892: “Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of The Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise; and in this sense and to this extent, our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian.”2 [emphasis added]
Today, the biblical plumbline that Americans formerly used for assessing law, government, economics, education, marriage, family, and gender has been replaced by a different measuring stick. It often goes by the name “humanism.” Sometimes, “secular humanism.” Sometimes, “secularism.” One might call it “secularity.”
How’s this new measuring stick working out?
There has been a major sleight of hand in our land. America is turning French.3
The outcome of secularism has been the privatization of Christianity and the division of life into two separate realms: the “sacred” and the “secular.” But if Jesus is Lord of all, then where exactly is this so-called “secular” realm? Think about it. If Christ is irrelevant to any sort of governance, civil or otherwise, then He’s not really Christ. Can the Creator of everything be irrelevant to anything, public or private?
Our challenge now is to eliminate the Sacred/Secular Divide from our thinking. Especially from the thinking of pastors, Christian educators, and parents. Why? Because if it can be rooted from the minds of pastors, Christian educators, and parents, there is hope pastors can root it from their congregants’ minds, teachers from their students’ minds, and parents from their children’s minds.
The process of eliminating SSD is not a quick and easy fix. It takes a focused effort to re-train deeply entrenched habits of the mind. We have been duped for a long time, and getting “un-duped” takes some work.
To help in this process, RenewaNation is making available a free course created by Dr. Christian Overman for pastors, Christian educators, parents, and high school students called Eliminating the Sacred/Secular Divide.
If you are unfamiliar with SSD, a 5-minute video called “Not Far Away” will introduce you to the problem. View at bit.ly/NotFarAwayVideo.
A lot is at stake! What started out as the privatization of Christianity in a civil society is rapidly progressing toward the demonization of Christianity in an uncivil society.
Dr. Christian Overman is the author of Assumptions That Affect Our Lives and God’s Pleasure at Work: The Difference One Life Can Make. Dr. Overman has taught on biblical worldview and Christian education across America and Central America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. He and his wife, Kathy, have four adult children and twelve grandchildren. Contact Dr. Overman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Henry Reeves, trans. (New York, NY: George Dearborn & Co., 1838), 281-287.
2. Church of the Holy Trinity v. U.S., 143 U.S. 457 (1892).
3. This is not a putdown of the French people but a reference to the French policy of laïcité.