Pastor Doug Wilson addresses the shibboleth of the "separation of church and state." State Chairman Ricardo Davis noted, "would that more church leaders spoke with this level of clarity about the issues at stake."
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If a man were to undertake a proof that triangles had three sides, and he was making heavy weather in getting his point across, there would be several possibilities that we would need to consider. One would be that he was simply a terrible teacher. Another possibility would be that there were powerful interests conspiring against him, funded in a big way by George Soros. Let’s go with that one.
With those basic alternatives in mind, and taking the appropriate lesson from them, let us review now some of the basic issues that have for far too long bumfuzzled the American public when it comes to the foundational questions surrounding church and state. This shouldn’t be hard, but somehow it is hard anyway, and perhaps it has been the excessive sensitivity and nuance that I have historically been wont to use.
So let us go over these issues, shall we? And let us deal with the logic of the thing first, and the American history of it after that.
When the Magic Phrase “Church & State” Is Invoked, the Thinking Stops Immediately
When we say that we are in favor of a separation of church and state, what are we sayingexactly? Whatever do we mean by it? Or if we were to carelessly toss out Jefferson’s phrase “wall of separation,” as though we knew what we were saying, and someone were to press us on where that wall was located precisely, what would we say? It would separate what from what? In a frenzy of enthusiasm, we “built the wall.” What are we keeping out? Does anybody know?
I will answer that question in the very next paragraph, and so some of my critics might consider it a shame that I am just springing this on you. They say it would have been nice if I had taken the time and opportunity to build up to it slowly so that you might acclimatize—to let you get spiritually prepared. But we have no time, friends. The secular order is burning down around our ears, and here we are, arguing about whether triangles have three sides.
Separation of church and state, rightly understood, refers to the separation of two distinctly different kinds of governments—civil government and ecclesiastical government. It is a matter of separating governments, and not a matter of relegating one of those governments to the secular state’s version of the outer darkness. That is a different thing entirely. Done correctly, separating church and state can be a wise and prudent thing to do. The principle of it is a biblical one. Uzziah , although the king, did not get to offer incense before the Lord (2 Chronicles 26:18). But done up in a muddle, as we have done, it leads to the most villainous absurdities.
To illustrate my point, let us substitute just a few other words in for church, words like righteousness, morality, or God.
You are a Christian. Do you agree with and support “the separation of righteousness and state?” Do you want the state you live in to have nothing to do with righteousness? Do you agree with a strict separation of morality and state? Are you urging the separation of God and state? Or, put another way, do you want your civil rulers to behave in godless ways? Do you want your elected representatives, the ones who are atheists, to behave in godless ways, while at the same time insisting that those who are personally religious resolve to behave as thoughthey were godless? Is that what you want?
These are not trick questions.
Actually, they have kind of evolved into trick questions because of our dogged commitment to the theological incoherence entailed by secularism. We have pulled the deep tricksy down upon our own heads. Here is our dilemma.
If you as a Christian say that you want our rulers to be godless and to act as though they are godless, all your friends at church will just stare at you. But if you agree that there should not be a separation of morality and state, you just know that there will be a follow-up question. Which morality? By what standard? The Ten Commandments? The Noble Eight-fold Path? The Five Pillars of Islam? You must either pick one, and answer all the ensuing hot questions, or you must obtain the meat drippings from each and work them down into your very own unique brand of a moral-system-reduction-sauce. And yet what moral system allows you to combine them in that way? Who died and left you the reduction sauce chef?
Oh, right. Okay. There is one other very capricious thing you could do. You could just assume the existence of an arbitrary moral system, authoritative over us all, that just appeared in the sky right above our heads, and is suspended from a cable which rocks gently back in forth over our corridors of power, secured firmly to the troposphere by six or seven Kantian lug nuts, with the bolts sticking through a metal plate that is flush against the wall of the noumenal realm. But usually you need to have had at least sixteen hours of grad school credits to make this seem plausible to yourself, and you also need to resolutely refuse to take any questions.
Separation of God and state is therefore a not so subtle attempt to turn the state into your god. For a Christian, to go along with any such thing is idolatry simpliciter. Not only is it idolatry, it is also incoherent. Either you are wishing for an immoral government, or you believe that it is perfectly reasonable to impose some ad hoc ramshackle morality on the public, whether or not everybody agrees. If you choose the latter, you must also assert that it would be outrageous and unreasonable to impose a biblical civic morality on them under the same conditions. You’ve been to an evangelical seminary, and so it stands to reason, you think.
Take a typical traditional-values-white-bread-political-candidate. Everything is polished, the brochures are slick and look like they were printed on butterscotch, and every hair on his head is in place. He seems to have his act together, and his campaign to be re-elected to the Senate is going swimmingly. But one day an enterprising journalist discovers that he is a member of a very conservative Lutheran sect, one that split off from the Wisconsin Synod for being too liberal. He was just a pew warmer in that church, but no matter. The question is therefore posed to him at the very next press conference, and it comes in hot. “Sen. Snoutworst, what impact will your religious beliefs have on your behavior in Washington, on the assumption that you are reelected?” Now he just grew up in that church, and like his kind of Lutheran, his commitment to all their stuff is nominal. Moreover, he knows his secular catechism very well. What is his reply? You could probably guess it. “My faith, which is a very precious and personal thing to me, is not going to have any impact on my behavior while I am in Washington. Next question.”
But just a month after reelection, the cops pull his red convertible over to the side of the road, and they discover a number of things about our good senator. He was going about thirty mph over the speed limit, he had a blood alcohol reading of .40, there were a couple of hookers in the car with him, and a massive amount of cocaine in the trunk, right alongside a briefcase containing $100,000 in cash, and also containing a warm and cordial letter from the Russian embassy. Now given all these circumstances, I would pay really good money to have his follow-up press conference go something like this: “If you remember, I solemnly pledged to the good people of North Dakota last August that, if reelected, I would not allow my faith, which is a very precious and personal thing to me, to have any impact at all on my behavior here in our beloved capital. And I am glad to say that I have clearly kept my commitment. Thank you all for coming.”
And before anybody says “that’s ridiculous,” let me tell you what is actually ridiculous. It is the idea that a man’s faith, however precious and however personal, can be expected to have a direct impact on the way a man drives his car and not on the way he drives the nation. Those who think that way are intellectual schizophrenics. Those who think that way are credentialed, but not educated. Those who think that way are asking us to stretch the verb to think in ways that such a verb ought not to go.
Historians of the Golden Calf
It kind of makes a difference who organizes your history curriculum. While Moses was up on Sinai receiving the law from Jehovah, a number of mountebanks down in the camp of Israel got themselves elected to various school boards, and the very first thing they started to do was to mess around with the history books.
They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
—Exodus 32:8 (KJV)
Israel was in fact out of Egypt, there was no doubt about that. That was granted by all. But the question of who exactly had brought them out of Egypt . . . ah, that was a matter upon which scholars differed! Jehovah had rained down plagues on Egypt, and had annihilated Pharaoh and his chariot host in the Red Sea, and had dropped manna from heaven, enough for over a million people. He had given them abundant water to drink in the wilderness. He had bared His right arm on their behalf, and had done so repeatedly. But this did not prevent certain rapscallions from arguing that “it might have been a different god who did all that.” “A god,” they said, “that looks remarkably like this calf here”—a fact that received independent confirmation when two other peer-reviewed calves are attested to have done the very same thing (1 Kings 12:28-29). They brought them out of Egypt also. Calves are powerful, man.
For some reason, all of this reminds me of the claim that America was not a Christian nation at its founding. Just like back in ancient Israel, it turns out that we have historians of the golden calf. Quite a few of them. So allow me to cram a number of observations into just a few paragraphs, packing them tightly together so that even such scholars might pick up on the fact that there are still some Yahwehists in the camp—with some of them starting to get noisy.
The conclusion first. America was a Christian nation at its founding, it is a backslidden Christian nation now, and it will be a chastened and repentant Christian nation in the future. The Christianity of our nation was primarily a function of a robust Christian consensus, as strong and as palpable as the “drag queens are cool” consensus is now.
The Treaty of Paris concluded the hostilities between England and America in our War for Independence. That treaty’s opening words were “In the name of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.” One review of the political writings of the Founders revealed that the apostle Paul was quoted about as often as Montesquieu and Blackstone, and that Deuteronomy was quoted almost twice as often as all the citations of Locke put together. On the floor of Parliament, Horace Walpole stated that in the war “cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.” Our Declaration claimed that our rights were bestowed on us by our Creator, thus demonstrating a goodness not possessed by blind evolutionary processes. The Constitution was ratified in “the year of our Lord [Jesus] 1789.” A Supreme Court decision in 1892 determined that we were in fact a Christian nation (stare decisis!). More about that decision (a case wonderfully named Holy Trinity v. the United States) shortly. And I still recall that as a boy in public school we were led in prayer by one of our teachers—but the real question about school prayer was not the removal of prayer from the schools (which happened within my living memory), but is rather the question of how and why prayer got into the schools in the first place. Not only was there prayer in the schools from the beginning, there were also Protestant Bibles and Protestant catechisms. Would somebody like to explain that?
There was a broad, deep, and unquestioned Christian consensus, one that existed from the landing of Columbus down into the twentieth century. It did not result in a formal church establishment at the federal level, but it didn’t have to. It was the kind of commitment that touched everything, and got into everything. It was the kind of Christian consensus that Francis Schaeffer spent so much time calling us back to. And it is still functioning in many parts of our country.
Let’s talk about the men involved. Of the 55 men at the Constitutional Convention, 50 of them were orthodox Christians. From the Founding generation, the two men who were most in sympathy with Deistic currents—Jefferson and Franklin—were very bad Deists, in that they both believed God was not an absent clock-maker who had walked away from His creation. They both believed that God intervened in the affairs of men. Franklin: “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” And these were the dodgy ones.
And John Adams once said that our Constitution presupposed a moral and a religious people, and was wholly unfit for any other.
From there, had we the time, we could move on to the explicitly Christian and very stalwart ones—Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, John Witherspoon, et al.
Formal and Informal Establishment
Because separation of church and state is a separation of governments, I am entirely in favor of the First Amendment. I don’t believe that we should select one denomination and make it The Church of the United States—the way the Anglican Church is the Church of England, or the Lutheran Church is the Church of Denmark. We did not want (and I still do not want) a formal established church at the federal level. That would be bone-headed and unconstitutional.
Established churches at the state level would be bone-headed but NOT unconstitutional. When the Constitution was adopted, most of the states had an official religious position. What year did North Carolina stop being Anglican? The year was 1875, almost a century after 1776. What year did New Hampshire stop being Congregationalist? Well, that was 1877. What year did Maryland stop being Anglican? That was 1867. I don’t think formal church establishment is a good idea, but it was certainly going on. And the people who ratified the Constitution obviously did not believe that official support for a particular Christian denomination at the state level was in any way inconsistent with the First Amendment.
But I do think that our governments, both at the federal and state level, should acknowledge to the world that Jesus rose from the dead. This could be done through the expedient of including the Apostles’ Creed in the Constitution. And the fact that office holders would continue to swear to uphold and defend the Constitution means that they would be committed to this reality also.
One of you will say to me, “So why then does the Constitution forbid religious tests for holding office?” Two things to say about that. First, when the Constitution was adopted, that measure only applied to federal offices. When the Constitution was adopted, the document restricted the central government, with the states serving as guardians. After the War Between the States, the incorporation doctrine gradually developed, applying the restrictions in the Bill of Rights to the states, with the federal government now as the guardian. The second thing to say is that in its original context, the prohibition of religious tests was referring to denominational differences between Christians. It was all right to elect a congressman who was Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregational, or you name it. Quakers were on the edge, and Roman Catholics would be pushing it. Worshipers of Molech were not in their thinking at all. Nor should they be in ours.
So in the state of Maryland, down into the 1960’s, you couldn’t be a notary public if you didn’t believe in God. And, a bit closer to home, when Idaho was admitted to the Union, we had a provision in our state constitution that barred you from holding office in Idaho if you believed in celestial marriage (as the Mormons do). That was a dead letter for a long time, but it still had to be removed by public referendum, an election in which I voted (in the eighties, I think). And about a third of the electorate at that time voted against taking it out.
So Stare at the Timeline for a Minute
Let us do a little math problem, shall we? There are other math problems very much like it that we could do also, but I suspect that my point can be made if we simply do one American math problem and one Israelite math problem, and just set them side by side.
The Supreme Court of the United States decided the Holy Trinity case in the year of our Lord, 1892. In that case, the SCOTUS said, among other things, that “this is a religious people . . . [T]his is a Christian nation.” They then went on to stack up a whole bunch of reasons for saying this, starting with Christopher Columbus. They proceeded to quote the fundamental orders of Connecticut, referring to the “liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess.” But my basic point is that this is the language of a SCOTUS case, decided in 1892—which was 61 years before I was born. Put another way, I was one year closer to that decision on the day I was born than I was to the 2015 Obergefell decision. It was not that long ago.
But here is the Israelite comparison. Today we are 130 years away from that Holy Trinity case. But we are Americans, which means that we somehow think that 130 years is a long time. King Solomon was the king who introduced idol worship into Israel, and so let us consider how long it was from the last year of Solomon’s reign (922 B.C.) down to the eighth year of Josiah’s reign (632 B.C.), when that marvelous king began his great reformation. That was 290 years—almost 60 years more than our entire history as a nation. We may note in passing there were intervening kings who also feared the Lord, but Josiah was the root and branch reformer. Josiah is the president we are waiting on now.
My point here is that when it comes to reformations, to go back to the time when we were self-consciously a Christian nation is in effect to go back to just yesterday. But the compromised and apostate elites want you to think that the radical and strident secularism of today must have been the way it always was. This is the kind of nonsense that Calvin Coolidge would have rejected as screamingly false, and he was president when my father was born.
Our government rests upon religion. It is from that source that we derive our reverence for truth and justice, for equality and liberty, and for the rights of mankind. Unless the people believe in these principles they cannot believe in our government. There are only two main theories of government in the world. One rests on righteousness, the other rests on force. One appeals to reason, the other appeals to the sword. One is exemplified in a republic, the other is represented by a despotism.
—Calvin Coolidge, 1924, which was 29 years before I was born
Our modern secular jihadists think that our founding fathers were just as muddled as we are, which is frankly hard for me to believe. It is hard for me to believe that anyone could be that muddled.
An Outrageous Conclusion
Our modern secularist Americans have glibly assumed that we could somehow dispense with our covenantal obligations to Christ by the simple expedient of forgetting about them, or pretending that they never existed. Just hire yourself an accredited historian of the golden calf, and during his lectures nod at the appropriate times. Pretend to take notes.
But we have been a Christian nation for most of our history, and covenantal forgetfulness is not an excuse that passes any kind of muster with God. When we forget Him, and His laws, and His signal acts of deliverance, such forgetfulness on our part is not an excuse for sin—it is rather an additional sin, compounding all the others. Our willful forgetfulness makes everything worse.
To repeat. Forgetting your obligations is not the same thing as fulfilling them. Neither is lying about your obligations. Reinterpreting your obligations is something we do not get to do, no matter how many shiny academicians tell you that it is okay.
You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.
—Deuteronomy 32:18 (ESV)
And before David French steps in to remind us that this verse in Deuteronomy was addressed to Israel, and not to America, just pause to reflect on what he thinks that means. He thinks that it means that ancient Israel couldn’t have drag queens in the public library reading to the kids, while we get to do things like that. Totally okay, because we’re Americans. Think about that for a couple minutes. Then go to the top and read this post again.
Originally posted at https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/some-remedial-church-and-state-work.html
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Douglas Wilson is the chief cook and bottle washer at Blog & Mablog. The point of his blog is pretty broad — “All of Christ for all of life.” In order to make that happen he engages a “theology that bites back” that addresses the subjects of education, sex and culture, theology, politics, book reviews, postmodernism, expository studies, along with other random tidbits that come into his head.