Tuesday was Religious Freedom Day, a national commemoration reaffirmed by every US President since 1993. Since religious liberty has been increasingly under attack in recent years, it’s a timely reminder that we live in a nation that not only enjoys, but was founded upon and shaped by robust religious freedoms. Like all freedoms, though, they will be lost if left unprotected.

Enter one of the most common historical concepts weaponized against those freedoms: separation of church and state. Ironically, the principle actually strengthens the case for religious liberty – but only if it were better understood and correctly applied. So what does “separation of church and state” actually mean? Fortunately, American history leaves it well-documented. In Time, James Lankford and Russell Moore lay out a helpful explainer that’s worth a read:

Sometimes when people say “Don’t mix religion and politics,” they actually mean “Don’t bring your faith into the public square where I can see it.” In other words, hide your faith outside of your place of worship because we have a “separation of church and state.” Separation of church and state is too important a concept to be misused — especially not as a tool for silencing opposing views…

The concept of a “separation of church and state” reinforces the legal right of a free people to freely live their faith, even in public; without fear of government coercion. Free exercise means you may have a faith and you may live it.

That’s a right worth holding onto with both hands, since, in postmodern America, Christianity is the only religion that it’s politically correct to discriminate against. In a Fixed Point piece that’s still relevant today, attorney Michael Taunton offered a real-world overview of this very tension in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case several years ago. That case saw a willful effort to weaponize the Establishment Clause in order to compartmentalize religion to the private sphere and leave the state to regulate public life. It’s the same silencing tactic Lankford and Moore address above. But any authentic expression of Christianity engages public life – without confusing eternal and earthly kingdoms – in the tradition of Jesus and his Apostles:

No major religion understands faith to be a strictly private affair. On the contrary, one’s faith should impact all aspects of life, be it public or private. …This seems to be what the Constitution’s First Amendment envisioned when it explicitly carved out a space for the free “exercise” of religion and not merely its free “belief.” …

Indeed, the government’s approach to religion has become a clinic on why the First Amendment bars government from “making laws respecting the establishment of religion.” The so-called “Establishment Clause” has been popularly imagined as a tool of the state meant to keep power-hungry churches in their place, but it is equally a tool of the church for keeping theologically inept bureaucrats from imposing their biases.

So as we reflect on religious freedom and the role of faith in public life, let’s be clear: a purely private faith is an irrelevant faith. Christ himself acknowledged the separation of church and state (see John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world.”), but this country has never understood that separation to mean a divide between a secular public life and a private religious life.