United States’ Religious Establishment
Every Christmas a great hue and cry arises from militant secularists, seconded by half-educated revisionist liberals, over any attempt to introduce a form of Christianity, even Christian symbols, into the public sphere, "public" being defined, erroneously, as state-financed and -controlled life. Feverishly citing "violation of the separation of church and state," and the "First Amendment," these secularists essay to excise every last presence of historic Christianity beyond the home or church, or more realistically, beyond anybody’s two ears. In contradiction to secularist charges, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution says nothing of the separation of church and state (the expression first appearing in a letter by Jefferson), and the meaning of the Amendment’s "establishment clause" is so readily deduced from historical investigation that only recent Supreme Court justices and ACLU attorneys could misinterpret it.
From their experience with Mother England, the Founders knew first hand the dilemmas and tyranny a church-state union tended to produce. They pointedly opted, therefore, against allowing Congress to establish a national church, the officially recognized preference of one church or sect to another, or the monopolization of one religion expressed in and secured by civil law:
What the men of 1789 feared, and what they wanted to prevent, was the setting up of any of the many religions in America in a privileged position, to the disadvantage of all others. It was to be a ban on the establishment of any one religion, not the complete separation of the state and all religion, as we are asked today to admit.1
The Constitution nowhere prohibited the use of federal funds for religious purposes, and they were frequently so designated.2 Nor did the First Amendment forbid state-established churches, the last of which (Congregational in Massachusetts) existed until 1833. Indeed, the First Amendment was included, among other reasons, to preserve state churches:3 the states did not want the federal government tampering with religion as practiced by the states,4 which is exactly what a federal religious establishment would likely do. Moreover, the First Amendment did not forbid even a federal church; it only forbade Congress from passing laws "respecting an establishment of religion"; Congress was forbidden to establish or disestablish an official church.5 No doubt, the First Amendment was designed to forbid the sectarian squabbles and ecclesiastical tyranny that usually followed an officially recognized and supported national church. This is the import of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Very early in the country’s history, dedicated Christians—especially the Scottish Covenanters—decried the lack of any mention of Christ in the federal Constitution,6 and in the 1860s several of its ministers founded the National Reform Association (of which this editor is the latest president) to press for a Christian Amendment acknowledging the Lordship of Christ over the nation, and interpreted the War Between the States as a divine judgment for what it considered the nation’s official agnosticism.7 The NRA vision did not include ecclesiastical establishment, but religious recognition, and would not have violated the First Amendment. A civil law-order comprising Biblical civil law reflects a Christian political order whether or not Christianity is officially recognized; and, though recognition of Christ’s Lordship in national and state documents is always preferable, the chief establishment is the Faith, established in the lives and actions of citizens, not an officially established church or religion.
Establishment of some sort, however, official or unofficial, explicit or implicit, occurs naturally when attempts to press religious claims beyond the "private" sphere meet with success—and the fact is, in one form or another, they always do. Over the past few decades in the United States, a godless secular religion has subverted a residue of historic Christianity surviving from the nation’s earliest years as the national religion. Its success is due not to the ecclesiastical disestablishment enshrined in the First Amendment but the Christian disestablishment in the lives of the populace: the waning of an intense, intelligent, dogged and comprehensive Christian vision creates a vacuum that an intense, intelligent, dogged and comprehensive anti-Christian vision can almost effortlessly fill. As Christians have retreated into their well-sequestered ecclesiastical bastions, secularists have monopolized almost all areas of society: media, education, economy, the arts, the churches, the state, and so forth. Just as godless radicals toppled a feeble, corrupt ancien regime in France during the 1780s and replaced it with an even more corrupt social order, so godless radicals toppled a feeble, corrupt secular conservatism in the United States during the 1960s and replaced it with an even more corrupt social order. This second revolution was less bloody than the first, but no less decisive. In both cases the expressed object of the radicals’ assault was "The Establishment." The 60s revolutionaries, however, did not eliminate The Establishment any more than Marxists in 1917 eliminated the state—they merely traded a more evil establishment and state for what they replaced. Today, the 60s radicals constitute the new establishment, in church, state, science, medicine, economy, art and almost all areas of life.
Government schools, for instance, while a bad idea in the first place, nonetheless were once designed to inculcate a measure of Christian principle.8 Today, they are hotbeds of a rival religion: godless, statist secularism, committed to an acidic social engineering, reshaping man into the image of Satan. Even a bland, sentimental liberalism has been consumed by a ravenous secular Beast that will be satiated only when it has obliterated every last vestige of historic Christianity.
The arts, likewise, are both a source and reflection of a society’s beliefs. The arts in the United States have, in general, degenerated from naturalism and realism in the last century into a hedonistic nihilism and even blasphemy in the modern era. Most modern music, painting, theater, dance and architecture have all, to one degree or another, succumbed to neo-paganism and escalated toward a venal and cynical nihilism.
Politics is no less shaped by the 60s revolutionaries. The First Lady’s "politics of meaning" expresses the 60s Generation’s loss of faith in both the God of Scripture and even the tepid residue of conservatism they despised in their parents’ generation. Now they have abandoned the high but misguided ideas of liberalism for "postmodernism": the claims of raw socio-politico-economic power calculated to crush any note of dissent. Any who dare question the secular, egalitarian, socialistic, relativistic and perverse agenda of the postmodernists is worthy only of contempt, and shouted down, rather than reasoned with.
The church has not been exempt from the ravages of the new Establishment religion. Today even the liberal Protestant denominations—and not one major Protestant denomination is not liberal (if we exclude the Southern Baptist Convention, often not classified as Protestant)—are moving from liberalism to outright secularism (and thus into the waiting arms of paganism), instanced by the ordination of women and homosexuals, the appearance of "inclusive language legionaries" and "gender neutral ‘Bibles,’" the rise of goddess and earth religions, and the revival of dehumanizing "ecstasies" like laughing revivals accompanied by mule-braying, dog-barking, and lion-roaring. Church growth occurs only in highly existential and man-centered churches, like the Arminian Pentecostal and evangelical. Even Roman Catholicism incrementally capitulates to the modern secular temper, especially in acceptance of higher Biblical criticism and Darwinian evolutionism. While vibrant orthodoxy has been disestablished, deviant religion has been reestablished.
In these and other spheres, secularism has elbowed its way into the role of a religious establishment, the governing impulse and principle of modern life, both private and public.
The Establishment Calling
Biblical Christianity arrays itself unwaveringly against this new religious establishment. Its goal is not "peaceful coexistence" with secularism, not merely because two irreconcilable religions cannot survive in society for a protracted period, but chiefly because the claims of Christ will not permit rivals. The task of Christians is the incremental but intense disinheritance and destruction of evil in all areas of life, as Van Til declares:
Christ has assigned to his followers the task of breaking down the works of darkness everywhere. These works must be broken down absolutely. The soldiers of Christ must give no quarter to the enemies of Christ. And as they are on their daily search-and-destroy mission, this mission must begin with the daily cleansing of their own hearts.9
Satan established his order in the Garden of Eden. The calling of Christians is the re-establishment, under the power of the Holy Spirit, of a godly order governed by the inscripturated law of God in all spheres. This is what the Christian life on earth is all about.
Every distribution of a gospel tract, every Bible-believing church that invites the unconverted or supports a missions program, every vote for a Christian or Christian-influenced candidate, every act of Christian charity beyond the walls of the institutional church, every Christian TV or radio program—every one, despite protests to the contrary, is an attempt at Christian establishment. Innocent-sounding protests about "no intent to impose religious values on society" are the sop that naive, epistemologically unselfconscious Christians toss to allay the suspicions of rabid, epistemologically self-conscious secularists intent to impose religious values on society. All Christian activity in evangelism, politics, charity, media, education, and the arts is implicit establishmentarianism: it works for some sort of establishment of the Christian Faith in the wider society.
This is why dispensationalism and other inherently defeatist views are self-contradictory and psychologically frustrating schemes. Any Christian vision that practices world evangelism while simultaneously predicting increasing and inevitable impotence is procedurally schizophrenic. To assert that the task of the church is world evangelism but not the establishment of the Faith is to talk nonsense.
Establishment and establishmentarianism are, in Rushdoony’s terms, inescapable concepts. Christ’s disciples and Satan’s are working concurrently to establish their respective religions in the earth.
Chalcedon and most other orthodox Christian reformers do not undertake to establish a national or state church (and thus do not deny the validity of the separation of church and state, properly understood); rather, we endorse and practice Christian establishmentarianism: the prevalence of historic, Biblical Christianity in all areas of modern life. We advocate a disestablished church but an established Faith.
All consistent Christians are thus intently disestablishmentarian and establishmentarian: To press the claims of Christ in all spheres is necessarily and simultaneously to disestablish Satan’s kingdom and establish Christ’s kingdom.
And it is the establishment of Christ’s kingdom which is destined to prevail.
1. Joseph H. Brady, Confusion Twice Confounded: The First Amendment and the Supreme Court (South Orange, NJ, 1955, 2nd ed.), 10. See also M. Stanton Evans, The Theme is Freedom (Washington, D. C., 1994), 271-288.
2. Brady, op. cit., 26.
3. ibid., 14-16.
4. It is difficult for a populace for whom a centralized federal government has become almost a new religious establishment to appreciate the notion of state sovereignty as understood and practiced in the late eighteenth century. Because the federal government was not perceived as central to the nation and lives of its citizens, and because the states maintained their own ecclesiastical or other religious establishments, the latter were wary of any official national recognition of church or religion. See Rousas John Rushdoony, This Independent Republic (Fairfax, VA , 1978), vii-ix; and Archie Jones, "The Myth of Political Polytheism [a review of Gary North’s Political Polytheism]," Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. 14, No. 1 [Fall, 1996], 271 f.
5. Brady, op. cit., 92.
6. James R. Willson, Prince Messiah’s Claims to Dominion (Albany, 1832).
7. For an attempt at a balanced view of this issue, see Andrew Sandlin, "The Federal Constitution: Product of a Christian Ethos," Christian Statesman, Vol. 128, No. 6 [November-December, 1995], 22-27.
8. John Stoos, "Political Correctness and the Doctrine of Hell," Chalcedon Report, November, 1996, 19-20.
9. Cornelius Van Til, "Appendix 2" [Lecture for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship, March, 1969], in William White, Jr., Van Til: Defender of the Faith (Nashville, 1979), 202, emphasis in original.
- P. Andrew Sandlin
P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author. He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California. He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation. He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).