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Separating Christianity from politics

The agenda of “Christian” secularists

*****

This first appeared in the June 2013 issue.

It wasn’t the only reason, but it was biggest – when abortion was legalized in Canada in 1969, and in the US in 1973, North American Christians got heavily involved in politics. And as they did, they were criticized for “violating the separation of church and state.” The other side – the secular humanists – used this jargon to try to delegitimize the Christian opposition to their agenda.

The accusation that Christian activism violates the separation of church and state is simply false. The church and the state are separate institutions, and they remain entirely separate even when Christians engage society from an explicitly Christian perspective. Christians are citizens and have just as much right to participate in society and politics as anyone else.

While it’s not hard to understand why secularists don’t want Christians bringing their faith with them into the political realm, it is a mystery as to why some Christians will also accuse explicitly Christian politicians and political activists of violating the separation of church and state. One such example is the book A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State by Darryl G. Hart. This book is noteworthy because Hart is a well-known elder in the OPC. He speaks for a constituency within the OPC and other conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America.

Religion out of politics = impossible

The basic thrust of this book is perhaps best stated by one of the endorsements on its dust jacket. Respected Christian historian Mark Noll writes, “Darryl Hart is a serious Christian who wants to get religion out of politics.”

It’s important to notice the difference between two different concepts specified here. Hart’s book title talks about the separation of church and state. Noll’s description of the book mentions getting “religion out of politics.” These are not the same thing.

The separation of church and state refers to organizational and functional separation between two entirely different institutions. The separation of church and state is a good thing and it is Biblical because the Bible establishes both the church and the state as separate entities with different purposes and functions.

Separating religion from politics is a completely different matter. Religion is (generally speaking) a belief system whereas politics consists of activities associated with the government. Separation of religion and politics is impossible, because all political activity is based on ethical concepts that are rooted in religious ideas.

When someone is discussing these kinds of issues, and switches back and forth between “separation of church and state” and “separation of religion and politics” as if the two concepts meant the same thing (like Hart does in this book), confusion is the result – confusion in the reader’s mind to be sure and one wonders if it also reflects confusion or fuzzy thinking in the writer’s mind.

Back to when faith “knew its place”

Towards the beginning of the book Hart states his purpose this way:

“My argument is that the basic teachings of Christianity are virtually useless for resolving America’s political disputes, thus significantly reducing, if not eliminating, the dilemma of how to relate Christianity and American politics.”

Christianity, in his view, is a private, personal religion. You practice your Christianity in your family and your church, but certainly not in the political sphere. Hart claims that those who advocate a distinctly Christian approach to politics are being unbiblical. His purpose is to straighten them out:

“I want those advocates of Christianity’s public role and political responsibility to take seriously Jesus Christ’s own words when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” At one time in American history, sixty or so years ago, evangelical Protestants knew that those words involved an ambivalence about the rulers and principalities of this world. Now otherworldliness seems a fossil of an older time when faith knew its place.”

Christ Himself said that His kingdom “is not of this world.” Therefore, in Hart’s view, Christ’s kingdom has nothing to do with government and politics. Christianity is ambivalent about politics. As Hart sees it, Christianity needs to become otherworldly again and get back in “its place,” that is, in the closet rather than in the public arena.
In arguing thusly, Hart recognizes that he is advocating a view at odds with John Calvin. As he puts it,

“To say that using Christianity for political purposes is a distortion of the faith is, of course, to dissent not only from Jerry Falwell or Jim Wallis but also from much more significant church luminaries, from parts of John Calvin to the encyclicals of John Paul II.”

His position, then, consciously differs from the evangelical position, the historic Reformed position, as well as the Roman Catholic position.

American history and the errors of Christendom

Much of his book recounts aspects of American history. In considering his own country’s history, Hart is puzzled that American Protestants “came to regard the Ten Commandments” as “the assumed source of virtue and morality for decent Americans.” Apparently he sees the Ten Commandments as only applicable to the church. He just can’t understand why any Christians would think otherwise:

“That American Protestants thought their exclusive faith could provide the moral standard for a republic conceived in religious neutrality is one of the more surprising twists in the history of biblical religion.”

Actually, it’s not surprising at all. The vast majority of citizens in the new republic were Protestants, and it would have been unthinkable that public moral standards would be anything other than Christian standards. Historically, most Protestants did not believe that Christianity should be divorced from political affairs, as Hart advocates.
Hart believes that Protestant theology in the United States went wrong right from the start. The Puritan founders of America and their theological descendants “repeated the errors of Christendom” by thinking that Christian ethical norms applied to government and society, rather than just the church.
These “errors” were then perpetuated down through the country’s history. American Protestant theology was fundamentally flawed because it saw an active role for Christians as Christians in the social and political affairs of the nation. In contrast to that “flawed” view, Hart warmly describes the perspective of a nineteenth century Presbyterian minister named Stuart Robinson. For Robinson,

“The kingdom was narrowly religious, located ordinarily within the affairs and ministry of the church, the place where it was appropriate for citizens of the divine kingdom to confess that, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” The civil realm, as such, was not a site of Christian activity and should not be.”

In this respect, Robinson offered a corrective to the dominant view that Christianity was relevant to all of life, including public affairs.

The “reduced character of Christ’s sovereignty”

Hart points out that many Christians believe that Christ is Lord of all, and therefore He is also the Lord of government and politics. He brushes that argument aside: “The all-or-nothing logic inherent in appeals to the Lordship of Christ,” Hart writes, “fails to do justice to the reduced character of Christ’s sovereignty in the Christian era.” In the Old Testament, Israel had a political as well as a spiritual component. In the New Testament, the church had an exclusively spiritual focus. Christ no longer carried any political authority.

“The Lordship of Christ, then, was in the Christian era to be seen and employed within the institutional church. The state’s affairs were to be rendered to the state.”

Or, in other words, Christ rules the church but not the state; He is not the Lord of the state.
This may seem to diminish our view of Christianity, but Hart says just the opposite is true. The really important things are the specifically spiritual things such as the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. This is what Christianity is really all about, and as a result, political activism detracts from the key message of Christianity. As he puts it, “the argument of this book is that using the Christian faith as the basis for culture or politics, by seemingly making it so important, actually trivializes Christianity.”
So in his view he is actually defending Biblical Christianity against a warped version of the faith, namely, a version of Christianity that sees it as applying to all areas of life, rather than just the specifically spiritual matters that are most important:

“The question pursued in this book has been whether Christian-inspired policy, arguments, or candidates are appropriate on Christian grounds. My conclusion is that such involvement is inappropriate, because using Christianity for political ends fundamentally misconstrues the Christian religion.”

Failure of the secular position

Hart is right about the priority of spiritual matters, of course. It is true that our individual relationship with God is much more important than political affairs. But his main point that Christianity is basically irrelevant to government and politics is simply wrong.

Consider just one Scripture passage, Romans 13:1-7. In this passage the civil ruler is said to be “God’s servant for your good.” He is also “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Hart would, of course, agree with this, i.e., that the civil government is established by God. But here’s the rub: the civil ruler must distinguish between good and evil in order to carry out his duties. How will he know what is good and what is evil? As “God’s servant,” he will need to look to the Word of God. Where else does God indicate what is good and what is evil? Therefore, if the civil ruler must look to the Bible to fulfill his God-assigned task, Christianity is immediately relevant (essential, in fact) to government and politics. Hart’s effort to divorce Christianity from government and politics comes crashing down.

Another problem is Hart’s support for “religious neutrality” in the public arena. Religious neutrality suggests that Christianity must play no role in politics and government. What does this mean for pressing issues like same-sex marriage and abortion? What is the “neutral” position on same-sex marriage? There’s no such thing. Is allowing babies to be killed “neutral”? Or is forbidding them from being killed “neutral”? The idea of a position on abortion being neutral is absurd. Obviously, neutrality is impossible.

Conclusion

In a book of over 250 pages on the role of Christianity in politics, Hart does not even discuss the issues of homosexual rights and abortion. My fear is that he avoids those issues because the so-called “neutral” view looks a lot like the secular humanist view. In fact, Hart’s whole argument that Christianity is a private affair that should be kept out of the public arena dovetails extremely well with the secular humanist position. But if the Christian worldview is kept out of politics and government the result will not be neutrality, it will be a non-Christian (or even anti-Christian) worldview carrying the day.

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Politics

There is no neutrality so will the State be secular or Christian?

When thinking about political issues, it is important to understand that every society is based on some sort of worldview or philosophy. There is no such thing as a society based on “neutral” principles. There must be a philosophical rationale for the kind of political system that governs a society and the laws that it implements. Anyone who thinks that a “neutral” society is possible should ask themselves what the “neutral” position would be on any of the controversial issues of our day. For example, what is the “neutral” position on abortion? Is killing unborn children ever “neutral”? Of course not. Is allowing them to live “neutral”? No, it’s an active recognition of their humanity. So where is the middle ground of a supposedly “neutral” position? Such neutrality is clearly impossible The same reasoning applies with regards to LGBTQ issues. What is the “neutral” position on same-sex marriage? In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court constitutionalized the status of same-sex marriage in that country. Now every level of government must formally recognize and enforce laws consistent with same-sex marriage. As a result, some Christian businesses have been under attack from government agencies for failing to comply with the new, non-Christian concept of marriage. All political issues – whether abortion, marriage, or anything else—are approached from one philosophical perspective or another. There is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to politics and law. The only question is, which philosophical perspective (or worldview) will inform the political system and the laws it enacts? Secular or Christian? Douglas Wilson, the pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, has written a book that helpfully addresses this question head-on. The book is called, Empires of Dirt: Secularism, Radical Islam, and the Mere Christendom Alternative, and it was published by Canon Press in 2016. Most of the book deals with matters of secularism versus Christianity, since no Christian would argue in favor of an Islamic society. Some Christians, however, do seem to prefer secularism to Christianity as the governing philosophy for the United States. Generally speaking, countries like the United States and Canada are considered to be “secular” countries, and that is seen as being religiously neutral. But religious neutrality is impossible, and secularism is a worldview with its own belief system. Rather than being neutral towards Christianity, secularism is actively anti-Christian, and this is becoming increasingly evident over time. If there must be a worldview underlying the government and laws of every society, which worldview should Christians embrace for this purpose? Christianity would be the obvious choice, and this is the point asserted by Wilson. He argues for what he calls “mere Christendom” and explains it as follows: “By mere Christendom I mean a network of nations bound together by a formal, public, civic acknowledgement of the lordship of Jesus Christ and the fundamental truth of the Apostles’ Creed.” A Christian nation In essence, this means the formal recognition of Christianity as the basis for a country’s political and legal system. How would that look? For the United States, Wilson writes, “it would be by means of something like referencing the Lordship of Jesus Christ in the Constitution.” When a nation formally submits to the authority of Christ, that nation becomes a Christian nation. However, Wilson is quick to point out that being a formally Christian nation is not the same as having an established church. It is possible to argue for the government acknowledging the authority of Christ “without supporting an ‘established church,’ which – in the form of tax revenues – I do not support." Even without an established church, though, any reference to an explicit political recognition of Christianity immediately leads to objections about the potential persecution of non-believers. If the Lordship of Jesus Christ was recognized in the U.S. Constitution, wouldn’t that mean adherents of other religions would lose their civil rights? No, it wouldn’t. Wilson explains as follows: “There must be a God over all. That God may tell us not to hassle the people who don’t believe in Him, and that is precisely what the triune God does tell us. In this mere Christendom I am talking about (you know, the idyllic one, down the road), Muslims could come from other lands and live peaceably, they could buy and sell, write letters to the editor, own property, have that property protected by the cops, and worship Allah in their hearts and homes. What they could not do is argue that minarets have the same rights of public expression that church bells do. The public space would belong to Jesus.” State coercion It is true, though, that political rule inevitably involves coercion. The civil government is the one institution in society with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. As Romans 13 says, the civil magistrate bears the sword to execute wrath on evildoers. The question then becomes: how does the civil magistrate distinguish good from evil? For a Christian nation, the Bible determines what is good and what is evil. When it comes to using force, then, a government in a Christian nation is limited by Biblical law. Wilson explains that “a Christian social order should want to strictly limit coercion to the bounds assigned by Scripture. Unless I have a word from God, I don’t want to make anybody do anything.” As an example of where coercion would be justified, he writes, “Because of this I am willing to have tight abortion laws – I am willing to make people not kill other people.” The Christian Taliban Secularists like to compare American Christians to the Taliban and claim that Christian policies in the United States would make it look like Afghanistan. But nothing could be further from the truth. The liberty that Americans have experienced over the centuries is the result of their Christian heritage, not in spite of their Christian heritage. Wilson points out that those who worry about Christian policies in the United States “envision a dark and dystopic Amerika when, on these two topics , it would actually look more like America in 1960. Was America in 1960 a free society? Sodomy was against the law everywhere, and no locales were carving out room for sharia." This is worth thinking about. During the lifetime of many Reformed Perspective readers, abortion and homosexual activity were illegal in both Canada and the United States. Were they not free countries at that time? Of course they were. They weren’t perfect by any means (no country will ever be perfect), but in some respects they may have been freer than they are today. The truth is, it was Christianity that led to the development of the freest societies in the world. Christianity, that is, leads to political freedom. Therefore, in advocating for an explicitly Christian nation, Wilson writes, “I am arguing for a return to the preconditions of civic freedom, and am not arguing for an abandonment of them. Unbelief does not generate free societies.” Tolerance and intolerance Wilson also makes another point that is worth emphasizing: every worldview tolerates some behaviors while prohibiting others. It is true that Christianity does not tolerate same-sex marriage or the killing of unborn children. But progressive ideology does not tolerate Christian wedding service businesses that refuse to participate in same-sex weddings. And in some Canadian cities, progressives even try to suppress pro-life advertising because they can’t tolerate pro-life messages. Wilson explains the toleration issue this way: “As soon as a man shows his hand, and we know what he tolerates, he is put in a position where he cannot tolerate those who refuse to tolerate what he does. A wide acceptance of the homosexual agenda, for example, means that a society has to crack down on the ‘homophobes.’ Not whether, but which.” In other words, intolerance of some behaviors is inescapable in every society. No society tolerates everything. “Every organized society excludes certain behaviors by definition and is inclusive of others. This is what it means to be a society. Every society has shared values, and it polices on behalf of those values.” This means that the secularists who accuse Christians of being uniquely intolerant are hypocrites. Those secularists inevitably also refuse to tolerate certain behaviors. There’s no getting around this. Preaching So, how would a “mere Christian” society be achieved? Would it require some sort of military crusade? Perhaps a clever political campaign or an active legislative agenda? Certainly not. A Christian society can only result from preaching, not from any sort of coercive measures. As Wilson explains, “We will not bring this about because we have reached into our arsenal and pulled out our armies and navies, our parliaments, our laws, and our ivy-covered halls of learning. The next Christendom will come to be when Christian preachers speak it into existence through the folly of preaching.” In other words, the only way a society could be Christianized is by the spread of the gospel. When large numbers of people are converted, every area of their lives will be impacted by the truth of the Bible, including their political views. This would inevitably impact society and influence it, like yeast permeating bread dough. In short, such change would be a grassroots, bottom-up process, not imposed from the top-down. Conclusion There is no such thing as neutrality in government and politics. Every law and every policy is guided by some underlying philosophy or worldview. The only question is: which philosophy or worldview? Douglas Wilson’s book, Empires of Dirt, helpfully explains this topic from an explicitly Christian viewpoint. If Christianity is true (and it is), then ideally it should be the worldview basis underlying every society and government. The alternative to Christianity is not “neutrality,” but an opposing worldview that is inherently hostile to Christianity. That is what we see increasingly in Canada and the United States today....