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Is separation of church and state an idea to keep religious people out of the public arena?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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A cross atop a church with American flag below in the foreground (Credit: surpasspro via

I write a weekly column for The Dallas Morning News as part of its Texas Faith blog. This week our panel was asked to address the question, “Is separation of church and state an idea to keep religious people out of the public arena?”

I am writing this week’s response from Assisi, where Francis established a monastic order that would become the largest in Catholicism. His genius was simple: love all of God’s creation. Love each person, each animal, each flower. Show all people the grace of God, serving them fully and passionately. Francis had no idea that his faithful public service would change the world so dramatically. As with all great people, he planted trees he’ll never sit under.

Does our nation need more Francis of Assisi’s today?

I’m convinced that God is calling more Christians into public service than are answering his call. While the church should not endorse candidates or engage in the political process, individual Christians should be extremely active in the public square. In fact, I believe all Christians should assume God is calling them into political and cultural engagement unless he makes the contrary clear.

Jesus called us the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16). Salt is no good in the saltshaker; light must contact darkness to defeat it. “Separation of church and state,” viewed as Jefferson meant the term, is a valuable protection against theocratic domination. But he never imagined that his phrase would come to mean “separation of faith and state.”

Churches forsake their calling when they become political organizations. But Christians must engage in the public square to fulfill theirs.