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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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