Church and State


By Stephen Terry




The United States of America, unlike the states of Europe, was founded as a secular state. Commonly the European states endorsed state religion. For example, some were Roman Catholic, some were Lutheran, some Anglican. Political and religious power had grown together as mutual foils on absolute power. Unfortunately, where political and religious power become so mutually dependent, religious expression apart from the endorsed state form naturally assumes the aspect of treason. For that reason, the state willing lent its arms in the service of the church to suppress dissent. The atrocities committed in this patriotic service are numerous and all are a matter of historical record.


Initially, such a relationship was intended to foster a more righteous society by introducing the moral framework of religion into the indifferent machinery of government. In practice, however, it lent an air of self-righteousness to all acts of government, moral or not. It also introduced the bureaucratic coldness of the government into the cloistered halls of religion.


Religion became a matter of compulsion rather than desire. This compulsion manifest itself in part as the denial of right of association for the practice of independent liturgies. Outlawing these dissenting practices was seen as conducive to the peace and stability of a well-ordered state. Compulsion was also more subtly applied in the opportunities to advance one’s fortunes for those who carried the appropriate religious endorsements.


This also meant compulsion for the church as it was now faced with those who eagerly sought to participate not with a heart-felt conversion, but to either avoid persecution for the faith they actually felt or to advance their careers by feigning support for the state church. With no way to prevent the church from being used in this way, the charismatic experience of religion grew dim and continues to do so in the state churches of Europe.


To avoid this entanglement of religion and politics, the framers of the United States Constitution made every attempt to remove the opportunity for religion and government to join hands in this new country. The foundation of that attempt is found in the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment. In essence, religion was to be freely expressed yet invisible to the government. Government could neither assist in its establishment nor hinder its expression.


For those dissenting expressions of faith, this was a new day.  The United States became a fertile field for the propagation of new forms of worship. Even prior to the birth of this new nation, the relative freedom of expression felt in the distance from European control spawned the First Great Awakening in the spiritual revival of the mid-eighteenth century. However, it was after the Revolution and a second war with England that the seeds sown by the new Constitution began to produce fruit.


The Second Great Awakening prior to the Civil War was closely tied to the movement to abolish slavery and was the first real exercise of religious dissent in the New World against the well-established dogmas brought over from Europe. Several new denominations sprang forth from this harvest of opportunity. Some have since disappeared, but some of the more well-known denominations that still exist are the Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and the Latter Day Saints also known as the Mormons.


The Constitution, by removing the role of government as enforcer and sustainer of religion, had made faith a private matter of conscience. To be sure, faith could still be expressed publicly, but no longer could one bolster the strength of one’s religious argument through the arms or the resources of the state. However, in practice, when faced with new, unexpected doctrines, local application of the new freedoms became a little frayed around the edges.


Unable to call on governmental enforcement powers, the frustrated existing denominations relied on the only power left to them, that of excommunication. With the proliferation of denominations, that action carried far less onus than it once had. If one chose, they could simply move to another church more supportive of their style of faith. Since the government was in effect secular, the opportunities for one’s career were greater even if one professed no faith at all.


While it would seem that such an attitude toward religion might produce a totally secular state since no political advantage would ensue, the opposite has proven true. Instead we see far more religious rhetoric in public discourse in the United States than in Europe. Some reason for this may be found in the personal expression of freedom it represents in comparison to secular expression. If I tell my neighbor that he is a murdering thief, I not only risk his wrath but I expose myself to civil law suit. However, if I call my neighbor a sinner and call for him to repent, even though I am essentially saying the same thing, my speech is protected as religious expression.


Strangely, the most vigorous opponents of this freedom are the very religious institutions that were its major beneficiaries. Church organization tends to be hierarchical. Authority is top down with rigid control of doctrine through creedal declarations of faith. However, with freedom of expression extended to every man, that authority is eroded. In the nation where every man is high priest, no man is high priest. Naturally, those denominational structures wishing to control belief are threatened by egalitarianism. What need is there for years of advanced education and internships as associate clergy to obtain ordination if all are ordained as priests. One need only begin proclaiming a unique doctrine and gather followers and a church is born.


Those denominations that arose during the Second Great Awakening are examples of this process and perhaps are most threatened by it due to their experience doing the same. Earlier denominations like the Lutherans arose in spite of great political and religious opposition. They are unfamiliar with the present United States model that requires little or no personal sacrifice to begin a denomination. They do not understand the threat such a right poses to the nature of religion. Used to functioning as a state church, they cannot relate to today’s leveling of the playing field.


The natural progression of Christian denominational development is from congregational to hierarchical. While there are exceptions that prove the rule, one can see this process in the history of most denominations. The only variable is how long they remain in the congregational stage. Some move very quickly to centralized authority, while some may maintain forms of congregational control for centuries.


Outside opposition hastens the rush to centralized control. Whether from persecution or from religious rhetoric appealing enough to entice members away, a threatened church will seek to determine orthodoxy to define the faithful and then create power structures to enforce that orthodoxy. The Seventh-day Adventist centralized authority is the General Conference which enforces orthodoxy through their Statement of Fundamental Beliefs, an excellent study of this process is found in the events surrounding the church’s handling of Desmond Ford and his teachings at the denomination’s Glacier View Ranch in Colorado in 1980. Threatened by the loss of congregants and even whole congregations to Ford’s teachings, the church defrocked and fired Ford in an attempt to stop the hemorrhaging.  Finding it difficult to recover from that experience, the church has moved ever more swiftly to centralized control with the acquiescence of elements within the denomination that want their perspectives on faith to be enforced by the evolving power structures.


The foundations of the movement of the Disciples of Christ to a more centralized control can be found as is often the case in Christian churches in a controversy over music. This controversy goes back as far as the mid nineteenth century when churches began to install organs to accompany the hymn singing. Eventually this brought about schism between the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ with each seeking clearer statements of doctrine and enforcement of the same. The fears associated with lack of centralized control probably had much to do with the development of The Provisional Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) voted and approved in 1968. Faced with this demand for orthodoxy from a centralized church, many independent churches chose to withdraw from the organization instead.


The Mormons also followed the progression common to the others. Originally a denomination with enough egalitarianism that a young Brigham Young could readily step to the fore as a prophet after the assassination of Joseph Smith, the denomination has replace such egalitarianism with a long, arduous path to leadership of the denomination. A major step toward centralized authority came about in response to pressures put on the denomination when Utah sought to be admitted into the United States on an equal status with other states. The stumbling block was the Mormon doctrine of plural marriage.


While the United States forbade the federal government from preventing the free exercise of religion and this was clearly a religious tenet of Mormonism, another issue came to the front. That issue was whether or not the United States had to admit a state into the union that was essentially in opposition to the secular laws of that union.  The federal government decided it did not. Therefore, in order to be admitted to the union, Utah’s plural marriage had to go.


The church’s creedal statements were rewritten to prohibit such marriages. Under pressure from the United States, they were also expected to pursue enforcement of that change. Not all in the denomination agreed to the church’s enforcement of the change and resisters continue to defy it to the present. A notable example is Warren Jeffs, currently serving prison time for his involvement with the sexual abuse of minors.


As all of these denominations have moved toward more centralized control, they also come to the notice of political power brokers. Those brokers rightly reason that an organization with centralized power structures can also more readily disseminate political rhetoric and propaganda downward through those same channels. Finding rhetorical “hot buttons” in the denominational creedal documents, they can easily make apparent common cause with those issues to develop blocks of voters able to propel them into local, regional or national office.


The churches, reeling from schism brought about by those preaching the egalitarianism of a universal priesthood without regard to gender, race, or even sexual preference begin to question the concept of a wall of separation between church and state. They listen to the propaganda of Christian Triumphalism and begin to see wisdom in the Old World position of state established religion. In the 1970s, this resulted in widespread Evangelical involvement in politics. Evangelicals ran for office on every level from local school boards to the national presidential campaign of Pat Robertson.


Those Evangelicals elected to office immediately began to implement government legislation of religious belief. Laws were passed regarding creationism, abortion, and sexual activities. While most of those laws fell in the face of court rulings Evangelical political activism is by no means finished. Today anti-Islamic propaganda has been added to the mix. Playing on Christian fear of Islamic agendas, pundits rally their followers to protest mosques and purported Islamification in the public school system. Eager to introduce Christian symbolism into the schools as part of our culture and to exclude Islamic symbols, some would have the United States declared an officially Christian nation and non-Christian religions suppressed or severely restricted.


Whether voiced by Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann, both Republicans, the inflammatory rhetoric continues unabated. Many who consider themselves conservative Christians also consider themselves Republicans because the enforcement of the same moral and religious issues they believe in has found a home in the Republican Party platform. They recognize this is an essential step toward making these beliefs part of legislated reality.


What few realize is that if Triumphalism were to achieve its goals and church and state became one then the United States would be remade in the image of the church of the Dark Ages when church and state spoke with the same voice. Perhaps there are echoes of Revelation 13 here. If so, we should note that it is the church that is the primary actor bringing this prophecy to fulfillment.  


Apostasy by definition arises within the church not without. A secular society cannot apostatize, but a professing church can. The church is far more likely to bring about the rise of the beast power and the implementation of its mark than any secular government. In the words of Walt Kelly’s cartoon character, Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We have more to fear from ourselves and our own righteous fervor to set all things straight through legislation and political action than we have to fear from any stealthy secularism.


A commonly used phrase in Christian theology is “righteousness by faith.” This is defined as mankind having no ability to achieve righteousness through his own actions. It posits that all righteousness is God derived. Such an understanding is antithetical to political action to achieve a righteous Christian state. This understanding places a maximum value on the power of prayer and divine action. Christian Triumphalism places the maximum value on Christian political activism. It involves an arrogant assumption that God cannot complete His agenda unless we are in the trenches slugging away at the non-Christians on His behalf. No wonder many in the Middle East feel that after almost a millennium we are still a culture of Christian Crusaders with an agenda of proselytization by force. Maybe they understand Revelation 13 better than we do.







This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry