Richard Greene

June 21, 2014

Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation’ stands the test of history

Still, today some commit acts of terrorism in the name of religion.

Among the wonders to be discovered in a visit to the ancient city of Rome is a fresh appreciation of the remarkable wisdom of the founders of our country.

In all the ways they must have been guided by their knowledge of how entire civilizations have come and gone across all of human history, the intersection of church and state is a remarkable lesson that should be instilled in everyone.

My wife and I recently spent ten days in Italian cities whose very names invoke a combination of awe, wonder, legend, mystery and amazement.

With the help of expert guides in the fields of history, art, archeology and religion we gained insight much beyond our heretofore sophomoric awareness of these places and the people who occupied them for many thousands of years.

But the way societies were organized around and entwined with the powers of government and religion was a further enlightenment revealing ancient practices and current events alike.

A short trip along the ancient Appian Way took us to the church and catacombs of St. San Sebastian where some scholars believe the martyred bodies of the Disciple Peter and Apostle Paul were first entombed after their executions under the rule of the Roman Emperor Nero.

Although Nero was a brutal, murderous tyrant, his persecution of the early Christians was said to have been largely supported by the then pagan population of Rome.

Authorities vary but estimates are that somewhere from 40 to 60 tomb-lined catacomb tunnels expanded some 375 miles holding the bodies of countless Christians, none of whom were allowed burial inside the walls of Rome.

The belief or fear was that Christians were a threat to the heathen society and needed to be destroyed. To prevent the continued leadership of the first pope and to stop the widespread teachings of Christendom’s most prolific writer, Nero had St. Peter crucified (upside down) and St. Paul beheaded.

Persecution of Christ’s followers would continue for more than 300 years until the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great legalized Christianity. While the power of emperors came and went, the church in Rome eventually emerged beyond the ruins of the ancient civilization.

Today St. Peter’s bones lay underneath the world’s largest church atop Vatican Hill in the center of Rome where the pope resides and those of St. Paul are inside the magnificent Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Roman walls. Those are two of Rome’s 365 churches.

When Thomas Jefferson further explained the full meaning of the First Amendment in a famous letter describing the importance of a “wall of separation between church and state” he did so to ensure the destiny of the new nation.

He brought full circle the profound lessons of history. That “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there of …” means the people of our country remain safe from the tyranny of the powerful and that we are free to follow any faith we choose or none at all.

It also means that people of faith are free to fully involve themselves in government without fear of being bared from such service because of their beliefs.

Still, throughout the world today, we face the threat of terrorism from those who seek to achieve political ends in the name of religion. As remote as the persecutions of 2,000 years ago seem, the danger remains.

If you would like a reminder of the consequences of our failure to exercise all means necessary to protect ourselves from that threat, a trip to Rome will accomplish that in ways you can never discover by any other means.

Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor and served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.

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