Christians are often told, in not-too-friendly terms, to keep matters of personal faith out of the public arena. What such statements constitute, however, is an attempt to censor certain beliefs so that other beliefs may monopolize the public forum.
All men operate in terms of belief or faith. They hold to some concept of good and bad and hold some source of this ethic as ultimate. Restricting one belief from public policy is always an attempt to protect another.
Prior to the Enlightenment, the West saw life in terms of a God-centered ethic. Church and state struggled over which best expressed the furthering of the Kingdom of God and both proved they could be hypocritical and self-serving, but the moral appeal was always to Christianity.
The Enlightenment brought ancient man-centered humanism back to the table. Since the Enlightenment, appeals to God have been replaced with various non-ecclesiastical (but certainly still religious) ideas of ultimacy. Darwinism’s naturalism accelerated this trend. God was dropped even as a “necessary first cause.” This of course left no source for a transcendent truth, and modern man has largely given up searching for one. Without an over-arching ethic, only force binds society together. Law is only statist and legislative; it is what the government says it is.
Christendom’s transcendent view of truth and morality saw God as having total authority. All human power was derived from God’s. The fact that church and state struggled over their respective spheres with no small amount of self-interest should not blind us to the fact that both saw the necessity of a Biblical model for every area of life.
Natural Law vs. Supernatural Law
In the Middle Ages, the church claimed ultimacy. When the state responded with its own claim of ultimacy, it was still in terms of a perception of God-given duty — the divine right of kings. After the Enlightenment the state’s claims to ultimacy continued, but increasingly without theological justification. The theory of naturallaw was a philosophical reasoning that circumvented the need for a recourse to God and His supernatural law. Natural law was to be discovered, defined, and debated by man; his relationship to supernatural law had been one of recognition, deference, and submission. Christianity, splintered by the Reformation into multiple independent churches and later under the sway of a dualistic Pietism, lost its voice. It became a source of “spiritual” comfort. Any revival of Christianity that resurrects the claim of God over all of life is perceived as a threat to the humanistic state’s hegemony: “Who do you Christians think you are, imposing your beliefs…”
The modern state’s position that it dictate, or at least confine, the church to a limited role, was borrowed from antiquity. In the ancient world, religion and state were united. The rulers were either gods, in the process of becoming gods, or priest-kings who united heaven and earth. This unification of religion and state meant rebellion of any kind was at once both heresy and treason.
The Western Christian tradition became the progressive limitation of government power. Feudalism was a structure that aimed at preventing the concentration of power in the hands of a centralized government. Protestantism, particularly in the Puritanism of England and America, was less affected by the emerging Pietism, and continued to increase individual liberty by limiting governmental powers. The “divine right” was seen in God, not the church or state.
The medieval church-state issue is no longer a valid description of our modern conflict. Because of the multiplicity of churches, the issue is now a Christianity-state issue. Most in the Protestant tradition have tended to apply the medieval idea of an official church policy enforced by the state. Thus, even the state often went beyond enforcing a Christian ethic; it also penalized Christian dissenters. Such religious coercion led to religious conflict at the political level, and even to war.
The alternative was the Baptist separatist position, which abandoned the state, and which dominated in America after Puritanism’s influence waned. This led, progressively, to the secularized, humanistic state. Today we see the logical progression of secularism to the persecution of Christians and their exclusion from public debate and the infringement of their right to the free exercise of religion.
Finding a Biblical Balance
Too close an association of belief with the state can lead to coercion, and yet the conscious separation of the two leads to the triumph of what ultimately becomes an anti-Christian secularism. This problem has never been fully resolved.
One way to reduce the problem of the conflict of religious ideas at the state level was institutionalized in the American Republic. Limiting government’s role reduces the problem. Making government a terror to evildoers takes the enforcement of religious doctrine back into the personal, family, and community levels. It does not eliminate the problem, for there is much conflict in the realm of applicability of Biblical law to criminal codes, but with a few notable exceptions, a Biblical civil government would be a very limited one.
American federalism yielded to nationalism after the Civil War. Our problem is thus our reliance on a statist mentality. Religious coercion by the state has been replaced with anti-religious coercion by the state. A statist mentality looks to victory by legislative and judicial means; a Kingdom mentality looks to teaching, conversion, and discipling.
The state always uses coercion to some extent, as indeed it must in its proper sphere. Today, however, it is not only coercive in the realm of criminal law but in terms of economics, welfare, education, property, and all things. The state sees itself as the legislative determiner of the pragmatic moral ethic and seeks to remake society after what it envisions. On the most extreme scale, this led to the mass-murders of the Soviet, Chinese, and German communists and fascists. On an only slightly smaller scale it has led to the statist drive to direct all education, welfare, and economic activity.
We cannot, and should not, expect to go back to the medieval or even the early modern model of a Christian state. Top-down answers will not work in representative governments (even if they are statist).
One thing democratic institutions teach us is that the spread of ideas must be done from the ground up. The state has promoted secular humanism through public institutions of education and the generations of their loyal disciples who carried its torch. We must also work at the individual and family levels to fight the faith of secular humanism with the faith of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. We therefore preach and teach. We convert rather than coerce. We seek change by regeneration by the power of God’s Spirit, not revolution by the hand of man.
An obvious objection arises to the idea of education and conversion. One can say, “How likely is that?” It was done by the statists, so it can be done by Christians.
We are called to believe in the power of God’s Spirit to change man and nations. God only requires faithfulness of His people, not miracles. If we believe that “he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:25), we can see that the efficacy of what we do is not in our efforts or methods but in the certainty of His power and glory. Ultimately we shall succeed because He shall have dominion; we shall be victorious because He is even now victorious. We must not hesitate to proclaim our faith in the public arena. Humanism is the lost cause of Adam’s rebellion, the ideology of the eternal losers of history.