The Separation of Church & State

I recognize as I begin writing this post that I am wading into divisive waters. For a Pastor to discuss politics is often considered forbidden. Those who know me however, know that I believe it is part of the Pastor’s responsibility to navigate through the difficult moral questions of our culture with Biblical clarity. In charting those waters, a Pastor will often comment on topics of morality that will indeed impact how one thinks about various political talking points. After all, politics is the realm in which the morality of a society is legislated. My prayer is that as a Pastor, the voice I add to these conversations is one of well thought out, prayer-filled, humble, and clear wisdom from the Scriptures.

I have joined in a class recently which might be described as a historic look at how Christians throughout have thought about the role the Bible and their Christian faith should have on civil government. It has been a fascinating study to say the least. Not only have I discovered voices and discussions I have never interacted with before, but I find my own convictions sharpening and deepening, and an even greater affinity than before for my own theologically Reformed (Calvinist) tradition. The Separation of Church & State is a topic that Christians not only have thought about and written about with tremendous depth for centuries, but it also happens to be a topic that Christians invented.

Long before Thomas Jefferson picked up the phrase, the term had already been coined by the Anglican Rev. Richard Hooker who used the phrase, “separation of… Church and Commonwealth,” during the reign of King Henry VIII of England. It was later developed by the Christian Puritans as they fled from the state-sponsored religion of England where they were being persecuted. These Puritans fled to the Netherlands and to America where they founded early American colonies. The idea was simple, they did not want the State to dictate their conscience on issues of worship. The idea was never that their religious ideas, fueled by the Scriptures, could not infiltrate and shape conversations on legislation—one must only read a page or two of American history to recognize this. To put it simply, Separation of Church and State was designed to protect the Church from the influence of the State, not the State from the influence of the Church. As the historian Mark Noll comments on early American history,

The nation’s founders retained the conviction that religion in general was a necessity for public well-being, but they had reached the point of rejecting the kind of establishments favoring one particular church that were still the norm in Europe.

Mark A. Noll, The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity, 80.

Noll goes on to write, “Almost no one in the early United States took this separation of church and state to mean the absence of religious influence on public life. Nevertheless, wide agreement existed that the churches as such should be separated from the government. Sectarian Protestant bodies had been strong supporters of this step—especially the Baptists, who in all regions of the country campaigned hard for the division of church and state (page 83).”

When the modern secular world hears the term “separation of Church and state,” they often believe that what it means is that religious people ought not to bring their religious ideas into the workings of the state. A Christian, so they say, can be a Christian in private but must leave their Christian ideas at home when discussing or interacting with the spaces of commonality between believer and unbeliever such as government, schools, economics, hospitals, the arts, and the military. This modern secularist concept of what “separation of Church and state” means, is both inconsistent and impossible.

It is inconsistent because it fails to see that every worldview’s ideas on every topic are morally charged one way or the other. There is no “neutral” to appeal to. The secular minded person cannot say out of one side of their mouth, “You Christian cannot attempt to force your worldview over all people through law,” while simultaneously speaking from the other side of their mouth, “I, secularist, can force my worldview over all people through law.” The secular minded person may not be appealing to Scriptures in the development of their idea, but they are appealing to some standard somewhere—if even in their own minds—and attempting to force that standard on all people. For that exact reason—that there is no such thing as a morally-neutral idea—it is also impossible for anyone to leave their “faith” out of politics or out of the public square. Even the atheist brings their faith into the public square whenever they speak on issues of morality.

Helpful Language from Abraham Kuyper

Of all the voices that have written on this topic, the voice I find most helpful and thorough is that of Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper was a Pastor, who turned theologian and ultimately became the Prime Minister of the Netherlands in the late 1800’s. He attempted to develop a rich Christian approach to politics, doing so as perhaps the first Reformed theologian to confront a post-Christian culture. His writing is worth studying in depth.

Kuyper lamented the idea that any Christian would think they were supposed to fully leave their Bibles at home when they stepped into conversations of politics. He wrote,

But what we do not understand is that there are people who accept this Word of God with deep reverence and yet do not want to involve its directives in political administration, legislation, and the justice system. That is worse than inconsistent.”

Abraham Kuyper. Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto. Page 32.

But how does a Christian go about doing that well? Must they quote Scripture at every turn in every political conversation. According to Kuyper, Yes and No. Kuyper wrote, “Government is directly rooted in the natural life and as such has no other than a natural knowledge of God.” This is contrasted against the life in the Church which has supernatural knowledge of God through the Scriptures.” Since government is a sphere of life where both believer and unbeliever must operate in common together, there must be some God-ordained commonality to work from. He believed that commonality was the “natural knowledge of God” ingrained in every human soul, what historically has been referred to as Natural Theology.

He says, “This natural knowledge of God, not the knowledge from revelation, has compelling force for every person… For this reason the nonconfessional government has the absolute legal competence as well as the obligation to take as its official rule of conduct the first (natural) knowledge of God… Thanks to its natural knowledge of God, government knows (1) that there is a God; (2) that this living God governs the fate of everything created, hence also of the state; (3) that this all governing providence desires justice and is therefore an avenger of injustice; and (4) that sin is operative among human beings, from which higher intervention alone can save.” According to Kuyper, since all people have access to at least those four ideas of “natural knowledge of God,” the believer and nonbeliever can labor together in the sphere of Government to do the important work of legislating life in society in a just way. The believer will be please, for although the laws will not directly say, “Jesus Christ” or “Matthew 5:2-12,” they will be constructed in such a way that honors Jesus Christ and gives space for His Church to flourish.

Kuyper says that we ought to follow the lead of the Puritans, “who base the state directly on the natural knowledge of God and accordingly have government proceed actively as a servant of God in the sphere of the natural knowledge of God but passively in the sphere of the revealed knowledge of God (the Bible).” What he means is that when legislating and debating governmental affairs, Christians can actively appeal, with no hesitation, to the natural knowledge of God all humanity shares together. Yet, since the Christian has direct access to God’s supernatural revelation which adds depth and insight and detail to the natural knowledge of God, the Christian in politics ought to diligently study the Word of God and apply it passively. “Passive” in this sense, does not mean weakly or gently. Rather, it simply means that we do not need to cite chapter and verse in the written law of the land or even in public political debate. All of that study must take place behind the scenes and fuel every conversation. Our political thought and ideology must be perfectly consistent with our inner life, for anything else would be hypocritical. Yet our public policy and debate must appeal to the conscience of the unbeliever who is not detached from God’s Natural Law. The unbeliever’s soul, made in the image of God, testifies to the justice of God, and it is to that testimony that we can ultimately appeal in determining just legislation.

Therefore, the Christian can be bold in stepping into political thought and life. In fact, for Kuyper this was a duty of every Christian. We cannot and must be content to watch true justice, as defined by God’s Word, be thwarted before our very eyes. For when justice is upturned or denied, it is not only consciences that are wounded, but true lives are destroyed. Christians are indeed “transformationists” who seek to bring our faith to bear in every sphere of life, including that of politics. How we do that, while living in society with believer and unbeliever, takes a robust political philosophy, one which Kuyper attempted to provide.

Questions for us Today

While Kuyper is incredibly helpful, he is also a man from another generation. I wonder how Kuyper would argue could he see the ideas we are battling in our legislating today. Kuyper assumed a large enough shared “knowledge of God” that commonality could ultimately be found between believer and unbeliever. While I agree, that there still exists the possibility of great common ground, that ground is diminishing rapidly. How does Kuyper’s vision function when a large swath of the general populace has lost sense of reality? To what common “natural law” do we appeal when one side of the conversation believes that a biological man can simply determine that he is actually a woman, and thus must be treated legally as a woman? Only a few years ago, the vast majority of our culture would have been able to share common ground through natural law on that topic, but not anymore. Or, to what common “natural law” do we appeal when a large part of the voting populace genuinely believes that abortion on demand for any reason at any time is healthcare. The common ground, while still present, is disappearing before our eyes.

For this post I do not necessarily want to provide answers beyond Kuyper—I’ve already written longer than I intended. I can say that burns for wise Christians, empowered by the Scriptures to boldly confront and speak into the shaping of our cities and nation. Like Kuyper, I believe we must not sit by idly while injustice is flaunted. We do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants of the faith who fought, labored, and often bled to secure the Christian heritage of our nation we often take for granted. There is work to do, and it must be done with theological rigor and a willingness to ruffle a few feathers. It is indeed a brave new world, a world that will require a few brave Christians to chart the path forward.

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!

Abraham Kuyper

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