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Dividing church and state; uniting faith and reason

Five hundred years ago, the theology of Protestant Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli was designated the official religion of Zurich.

The rumblings of the Reformation were just starting. As education expanded, literacy allowed more people to read the Bible, increasing curiosity about theology. Families sent their best and brightest sons to become ordained priests. Seminaries become a concentration of intellectually curious male teenagers; rather than accept the authority of the status quo, these seminarians questioned the practices of the church when compared to their reading of the Scriptures.

Like Martin Luther, Zwingli had no desire to break from the established church. Instead, he simply wanted to reform the church and conform its practices with his understanding of the Bible.

Having some sense of academic freedom in debating points of theology, Zwingli asked the Zurich City Council to convene a debate to decide which doctrines should be allowed to be preached in the city.

At this time, there was only one church, both literally and figuratively. Zwingli was designated as the minister for the church in Zurich. He was well-educated and influenced by the humanist Erasmus into studying not only the Bible but also other scholarly texts of the virtuous pagans. Zwingli was an engaging and innovative preacher and known for ministering to the sick and downtrodden.

As he began his ministry in Zurich, his unique worship style included reading passages from the Bible in the language of his mostly illiterate congregation. And, as he read through each verse, he would comment on the words of the passage providing interpretation and application to current issues.

Working his way through the Bible, Zwingli began to note differences between the practices of the church and passages in the Bible. His sermons expressed thoughts that were at odds with certain customs and traditions of the establishment.

At first, some of these differences were minor, but, as he preached his way through the Bible, the differences became more significant. When some complained, Zwingli decided the best way to deal with accusations of error was to host a debate. At his request, the city council asked the Bishop to come and discuss Zwingli’s 67 points of theology.

Amazingly enough, in January 1523, Zwingli had not heard of Martin Luther or his 95 theses, but, in many ways, his concerns were very similar.

It is hard to imagine that the agenda for any city council meeting would include a theological debate to decide which Biblical teaching a city would embrace, but it occurred in Zurich.

Separation of church and state was a foreign concept. Government officials and clergy worked together as faith was established, recognized, and supported by the government. Freedom of conscience and liberty of belief was virtually a heretical abstraction.

It made just as much sense for a city to decide the faith of its citizens as it would today to decide a zoning variance.

The debate was held. When the Bishop’s scholars failed to effectively debate Zwingli and were unprepared to answer his 67 questions, the city councilors voted and confirmed that Zwingli would continue to be their minister, and his teaching would be the established beliefs of Zurich.

Zwingli’s triumph was the beginning of the Swiss Reformation and would have a lasting impact on the goals, beliefs, and techniques of Protestantism. But with the city establishing a church and the church taking on roles of the state, a collision course was bound to occur. And it did.

Rather than allowing debate over issues and differing ideas, Zwingli did what he accused others of doing. He developed a smug dogmatism, accepting only his beliefs as accurate and squelching all dissent. As a result, he used the power of the state on behalf of the church to punish and even execute those with opposing views. Instead of becoming a bastion of toleration, Zurich became known for persecutions.

So great was Zwingli’s zeal for his faith, he encouraged a war against other Swiss cities that rejected his belief system but continued to acknowledge the authority of the Pope. Zwingli would tragically die on the battlefield literally fighting for his faith.

The beliefs that Zwingli held inform Protestant Christianity today. However, his practices in advocating for a politically established church and imposing his beliefs as an official religion without room for dissent could not survive.

What Zwingli and other reformers failed to understand is that the faith they developed from their reading of the Bible would be similarly experienced by others. But, as with any writing, people find different interpretations based on any number of grammatical conventions, preconceived notions, prejudices, or personal experiences.

In establishing a state-sponsored religion, Zwingli should have realized that the ability to argue beliefs and allow open debate is as good for faith as for any thought process. Ideas are polished by debate, and dissent makes faith stronger. A healthy dose of skepticism is good for confirming aspects of faith. For a political community to prosper, toleration of diverse beliefs is entirely appropriate.

Learning from this experience, the United States Constitution was an attempt to allow all beliefs to compete for the souls of the faithful. Americans realized that the personal nature of faith made it impossible to have any government impose it. Unlike the cities and other political subdivisions of the Old World, America would not allow state religions, and would opt, instead, for freedom of conscience. While governments cannot designate and support one faith, it can limit practices so that faith doesn’t become a license or an excuse to break established law.

Zwingli and the other reformers showed that engaging in debate about faith was intellectually progressive. But government can only provide a framework of allowing open debate so that faith is discussed and opposing points of view are respected. The debate, however, should never stop, but continue as ideas are challenged and discussed to provide a moral fabric of virtue, peace, toleration, and goodwill to stabilize the state.

Will Sellers is a graduate of Hillsdale College and an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama. He is best reached at jws@willsellers.com

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