Part I of this article explored the current state in the United States of what is being called Christian Nationalism. While the alarmism is overblown, there is appropriate concern about excessively exuberant displays of nationalism by many Christians, and a small but vocal group of Christian writers seeks to use the attention on Christian Nationalism to argue that indeed we should embrace giving the state power in religious matters.
So just how is a Christian today to navigate this landscape, and understand the proper relationship of faith, culture, and society? Part II posits that those advocating for a greater combining of state power and faith are departing from Scripture, from the central principles of the Reformation, and from the particular insights into the Reformation of Anglo-American thinkers and the American Founders. At the same time, the response to Christian Nationalism should not be to retreat into a pietism detached from culture and the world. Rather, there is a strong Biblical basis for seeking the good of the nation where God has placed us, and using its blessings for the advancement of the Gospel, all the while resisting the ever-present temptation to turn the nation into an idol.
A steady emphasis in Reformed churches in recent years has been that while the perfection of the world will comes through Christ at the second coming, there is nonetheless a basic Christian mandate to strive to build a world that is just, good, and abounds in richness. This starts with the “cultural mandate” of Genesis to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28) It continues throughout the concern in the Old Testament for seeking the Shalom of one’s city, as God spoke through Jeremiah to His people in exile to plant gardens, have children, and “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:7) It is found in statements about justice, such as the call in Isaiah to “seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17) And there are echoes of the Cultural Mandate in the Great Commission, where Christ calls on us to make disciples “of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commended you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
We are called then not just to care about evangelism and personal piety, but to care about the world, culture, society, and justice. This is no great revelation, as the efforts of Christian abolitionists in the Nineteenth Century, Christian civil rights advocates in the Twentieth Century, and Christian human trafficking activists today illustrate, among many others. But it raises questions about how concern for culture, society, and justice should affect our view of the state and the use of state power for these ends. Such questions don’t directly arise when a concern for social justice and culture building comes from political outsiders—Amos’s condemnation of the leaders of Israel and Judah, for example, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s appeals to the conscience of the white majority in mid-Twentieth Century America. Speaking truth to power about Christian ideals and ends is relatively straightforward. But what does it mean for a Christian to seek to use the power and influence of a nation, or even more, a nation that is an economic and military superpower such as the United States, to advance such ends? And more specifically, what does it mean when a Christian’s identity is bound up with such national identity?
The early Reformers had their views on this, views that to a great extent grew out of their historical and cultural context. They lived in a world where separating civil and ecclesiastical life was hard to envision, yet even at the same time they upheld the primacy of conscience to the Christian life and faith. Martin Luther famously stated before the Diet of Worms that “my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound.” Luther also advocated a clear conceptual separation between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, writing that “[t]he temporal government has laws which extend no further than to life and property and external affairs on earth, for God cannot and will not permit anyone but himself to rule over the soul.” Likewise, John Calvin wrote in the Institutes of the Christian Religion (Ch. 10) that governmental restraints on conscience were improper, for “[o]ur consciences have not to do with men but with God only.”
But old habits die hard, and Luther and Calvin hewed to the tradition of the day—indeed extending back to St. Augustine—of allowing “the magistrate,” that is, the State and government officials, the ability to regulate various religious affairs and to punish heresy for the good of the sinner and society. This was manifest most famously in Calvin’s complicity in the execution of anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus. A dissenter from the traditional/Augustinian view at the time, Sebastian Castellio, remarked that government compulsion of faith was contrary to scripture and “forces people to pretend to believe.” We must, he wrote, “obey God rather than Saint Augustine.”[i]
The Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 largely tracked the traditional Augustinian view. It stated that while the civil magistrate “may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” nonetheless he had authority to ensure “that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed.” It also provided that the magistrate “has power to call synods, to be present at them and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.” This reflected the views of most Reformers at the time. Indeed, the following year, in 1648, the English Parliament, controlled by Presbyterians, imposed the death penalty for publicly denying the Trinity or the authority of Scripture and provided for imprisonment for lesser heresies.
English and colonial theologians and intellectuals, however, began to build on Luther’s teachings on conscience and push back against giving the magistrate authority in religious affairs. English pastor and theologian Roger Williams, who went on to found Providence, Rhode Island, published The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience in 1644. He wrote that true Christianity requires freedom of conscience and worship, and unbelief and heresy are “only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, able to conquer: to wit the sword of God’s spirit, the word of God.” (p. 2) Williams was a radical tolerationist—he extended the principle not only to Christian sects, but explicitly to Muslim, Jews, and Pagans.
Similarly, John Locke in 1689 authored his Letter Concerning Toleration, in which he argued that “faith is not faith without believing.” (p. 6) Thus a church must be a voluntary society, “a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth,” which in contrast has the power of coercion. (p. 13) Locke, though hitting on many of the principles that the American revolutionaries would later embrace, nonetheless declined to extend toleration to atheists, whom he saw as undermining public order because of their inability to take oaths. Locke also did not advocate for the disestablishment of the church.
The idea that freedom from external coercion is necessary for authentic belief carried over to America in force. Locke in fact wrote the Carolina Constitution of 1669, which while making the Church of England the official church, specifically granted religious freedom to Jews and other non-Christians. James Madison, architect of the U.S. Constitution, several years earlier authored the landmark Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785). In it, he challenged a proposal in Virginia by Patrick Henry to fund churches and the training of clergy through compulsory taxation. Madison explicitly grounded his religious liberty arguments in religious, not political terms. He wrote that “Religion or the duty which we owe our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” Religious liberty for Madison was a right bestowed by God for the furtherance of faith that is antecedent to civil government: “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”
Likewise, Thomas Jefferson, in the preamble to the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom (1786), rooted religious freedom in religious origins. He said that all attempts to influence religious conscience “by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do.” After the preamble, Jefferson sets forth its central mandate: That “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry” nor “suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.” It thus has the familiar duality of non-establishment and free exercise of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution a few years later.
George Washington’s famous Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island (1790) declared that in the United States “[a]ll possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship” as “their inherent natural rights,” ending with the benediction: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
The emphasis of the English and American religious liberty advocates on the centrality of belief in Christianity flowed naturally from the focus of Luther on conscience and the primacy of Scripture. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “If you confess with mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10:9-19) Scripture, especially the New Testament, is replete with similar emphases on belief, John 3:16 being probably the most famous example. The “great and first commandment” is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your mind” (Matthew 22:37-38). Love is necessarily an act that must begin internally and thus cannot be coerced by the state.
Scripture also makes plain that belief trumps any claims of government or worldly religious authority. As Peter and John made clear in Acts 4:18 when brought before the Sadducees, they must continue to listen to God rather than religious authorities for “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And far from imposing belief through compulsion, the Christian elder is called to “correct his opponents with gentleness.” (2 Timothy 2:25) Indeed, the Great Commission uses a single verb to describe how to make and baptize disciples: to “teach” (Matthew 28:19-20).
The emphasis on belief and freedom from governmental coercion is reflected in Reformed doctrine in the New World. When the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was formed in 1788, it modified the Westminster Confession provisions on the magistrate. This version deleted references to the powers of the magistrate to suppress heresies and blasphemies and to allow the magistrate to call and control synods of the church. It focused instead on such measures, with a familiar ring to the U.S. Constitution, as charging that the magistrate should make sure “that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever” and ensure “that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.”
While the ideas developed in the American experience stand in sharp contrast to the Augustinian/early Reformation view of the relationship of church and State, they also stand in contrast to the other extreme: the view that faith and patriotism cannot go hand in hand. The Founders based their view of religious liberty on the fulfilment of God’s will. Likewise, the Declaration of Independence stated as the basis for the document’s purpose that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. George Washington famously stated in his Farewell Address that “[o]f all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” The Christian beliefs of many of the Founders, and the Christian inspiration for much of what they did, is something from which we need not run away.
While the United States was not founded as a Christian republic, Christians are not wrong to reflect on and take pride in the many ways that America’s history is bound up with the advancement of the Gospel. This has largely been by the individuals comprising the nation rather than the nation itself, such as the participants in the Great Awakening and various revivals throughout American history, the abolitionist movement, and the dynamic flourishing of the church in America due to its freedom and diversity.
Yet the nation itself has had a role in this as well. It is the nation which through its Constitution created conditions in which religion could flourish; a nation that helped defeat Hitler; a nation that championed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the establishment of human rights as international norms; a nation that defeated Soviet communism; and a nation that in recent years has taken leadership in fighting AIDS in Africa and malaria worldwide. America is not the Israel of the Old Testament, and there is the risk of reading too much into our blessings and viewing America as uniquely chosen. But neither should we lose site of the fact that God places each of us in particular times and places, gives out His blessings as He wills, and calls on us to grow and flourish where we are planted.
Christians in the United States thus are not wrong to take some pride in the accomplishments of their nation. That is not “Christian Nationalism,” it is simply “patriotism,” as Mark David Hall reminds us in his Christian Reflections on Christian Nationalism(s). Nor are Christians wrong to seek to leverage the United States’ unique blessings—its tradition of religious liberty, its dedication to freedom and human rights, its economic and cultural power, to name but a few—for the advancement of the Gospel. This is the heeding of God’s call to seek the Shalom of our society and working to fulfill both the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission. A nation can never be perfect or holy in a broken world, nor should achieving such a condition be an ultimate end for a Christian. Perfection must wait for the end of time, when Christ will make all things new.
[i] Against Calvins’ Book, quoted in Gregory Wallace, Justifying Religious Freedom: The Western Tradition 114 Penn St. Law Review at 561 (2009)