This post continues my series on Religion and Politics, exploring the relationship between Christianity and a nation state.
There are at least four different models for church-state relationships (more broadly and accurately described as religion-state relationships):
1. Theocracy – the Church dominates the state. The Vatican State is a Christian theocracy; Iran is an Islamic theocracy.
2. Erastianism (named for the 16th century Swiss-German physician, Thomas Erastus) – the state dominates the Church. Nazi Germany exemplified this, as the government subverted the established Lutheran Church for fascist purposes; communist nations, like the People’s Republic of China, are other examples in which the government controls the legal church.
3. Unfriendly church-state separation – France, with its strict secularism, is an example of this pattern.
4. Friendly church-state separation – the United Kingdom, with three officially established Christian churches (the Church of England, the Church of Wales, and the Church of Scotland) in what is a de facto secular state, illustrates this model. (Turkey is increasingly a Muslim example of this pattern).
Theologically, the Roman Catholic Church traditionally emphasized the unity of church and state, as did the Anglicans in the United Kingdom and the Lutherans in much of northern Europe.
Out of Martin Luther’s thought emerged an emphasis on the existence of two kingdoms: an earthly kingdom and a heavenly (or spiritual) kingdom. The roots of these ideas go back to St. Augustine who wrote about the City of God and City of Man. The concept of two kingdoms, situated in a context that found the Church once again (as had been the early Church) in opposition to the power of the state, generated the impetus for separating the two. The Church received spiritual power and authority (i.e., the keys of the kingdom given to Peter) and the state received spiritual power (i.e., render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s).
In time, with the Enlightenment as an additional catalyst, the conceptual gulf between church (or, more generally, religion) and state widened. Dissenters, Christians not affiliated with the established church, sought to separate the power of the state from the church in order to worship according to the dictates of their consciences.
The Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution formalized the breach between church and state. Contrary to much popular opinion, most of the founders were not evangelical Christians but deists, believers in God but not necessarily a God who remained active in the world. The founders believed that a nation did not need the moral legitimacy and force that having an established religion might provide. They also believed that human worth and dignity demanded religious liberty. Alternatively, some religious people in the colonists feared that disestablishing religion might lead to religious, if not moral, chaos and disaster. A greater number of religiously active colonials feared losing their religious freedom if the nation established a particular form of Christianity.
The actual pattern of church-state relations also varied among the colonies. For example, Rhode Island allowed religious freedom while the Church of England was established in Virginia. This variety persisted for the first couple of decades after American independence as the nation experimented with the revolutionary idea of religious freedom.
The First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom has two clauses. The nation will not establish a religion or set of religious practices and individuals shall have the freedom to practice their choice of religion. In practice, neither guarantee is absolute. For example, the biblical roots of English common law and the continuing prevalence of Christianity as the nominal religion of a majority of Americans resulted in the adoption of a religious motto (In God We Trust) and inclusion of the Ten Commandments (or at least symbolic tablets of the law) in the art adorning many judicial buildings. Similarly, laws restrict some religious practices (e.g., human sacrifice and hallucinogenic drug use).
Erecting a wall – friendly or unfriendly – to separate religion from state is impossible. The church and state are intertwined, unavoidably and inextricably. The Lord's Prayer reminds us of this difficulty each time we pray, “Your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10).
The culture wars of the late twentieth century that some evangelicals believe continue today reflect this tension between church and state. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey has proffered four guidelines for shaping a Christian’s participation in politics:
1. Prioritize the gospel – but for the whole person!
2. The Church will inevitably make judgments about what is right and wrong – after all, the Church has inherited the prophetic tradition of the Jews and part of its mission is to declare the meaning of the gospel for the present.
3. The Church will bear a manifold, plural witness (i.e., the Church will witness, or declare, in a variety of ways and in a variety of voices, some of which may be contradictory).
4. An overarching penumbra of reconciliation between God and creation should anchor that manifold, plural witness in the Christian religion. (Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest for Today, 34-40).
Theologian and ethicist Phil Wogaman has delineated ascending levels of religious involvement in the state (Christian Perspectives on Politics, 200-207):
· Influencing society’s ethos – this is impossible to avoid. Archbishop Ramsey was correct when he noted the unavoidable and inextricable intertwining of church and state. Because politics involves the exercise of power, the church, to the extent that it engages with people, exercises power in their lives. Even silence implies affirmation.
· Educating the Church’s own members about particular issues – this also is impossible to avoid. The Church, out of its bedrock values, teaches respect for life, the worth and dignity of all humans, truth telling, promise keeping, care for creation, and honoring God above state. All of these values have significant implications for major political controversies. Ordinary religious education, even omitting any explicit mention of those controversies, will still shape some church members political participation.
· Church lobbying – not everybody agrees the Church should engage in lobbying. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) imposes limits on lobbying by tax-exempt religious organizations. Lobbying may not represent a substantial part of the organization’s efforts and must not cost more than a small percent of the organization’s total budget, and in any case, less than one million dollars. Of course, a religious organization may choose not to register as a tax-exempt organization. That frees the group from IRS restrictions but also means that individuals who contribute to the organization and who itemize deductions when filing their income taxes may not deduct contributions to the organization. Most large religious groups in the United States engage in limited lobbying on issues important to them and their members.
· Supporting a particular candidate for office – this practice is hotly debated. The IRS prohibits tax-exempt religious organizations from supporting particular candidates for office. From one perspective, objecting to religious organizations supporting particular candidates is hard to justify. Other organizations can enter the political fray, why not religious ones? Accepting tax-exempt donations clearly carries a cost. Conversely, I’ve yet to find a candidate with whom I completely agreed or whom I believed completely expressed Christian views. More often, I see elements of Christian perspectives in both major party candidates. A religious organization choosing not to support particular candidates for office explicitly recognizes the manifold, plural nature of the Christian witness.
· Becoming a political party – this has occurred more frequently in Europe than in the U.S. (the Christian Democratic Party, e.g.). Given the current dependence of the American political process on fundraising, the increasingly pluralistic nature of American society, and the consistent failure of third parties, organizing a religiously based political party does not seem a path to probable influence or electoral success. The Church, by focusing on issues, seems most likely to maximize its political influence.
· Civil disobedience – when the state will not listen to the cries of the oppressed and in the face of egregious injustice, the Church cannot be complicit but must refuse co-option. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, led by God inspired clergy such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., typifies when and how civil disobedience becomes a Christian necessity. No more than the first Christians could worship Caesar can contemporary Christians tolerate horrendous evil.
· Participating in revolution – when civil disobedience fails to stop evil, then some Christians believe that they have no alternative other than armed revolution. The Nazi holocaust transformed a pacifist Lutheran resister and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, into a revolutionary whom the Nazis executed for a failed attempt on Hitler’s life. South American liberation theologians follow in this tradition. Christian citizens of democratic states have a moral obligation to be politically active in order to prevent their state from drifting (or otherwise morphing) into a totalitarian state that abrogates human freedoms and rights and mocks justice.
German theologian Karl Barth wrote, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” The goal of Christian political engagement is the building of God's kingdom, not in coercing acceptance of theological propositions but in incarnating the bedrock values of Christianity shared by the world’s great religions and philosophical traditions.
Christian political engagement is more important than ever before. In 1971, only 145 businesses had lobbyists representing the business in Washington, DC. In just ten years, that grew to 2,245 businesses. In 1974, the 600 registered political action committees (PACs) raised $12.5 million; in 1982, the 3,371 PACs raised $83 million. These growth trends have continued since 1982. (George Packer, “The Broken Contract,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2011, 26)
The next post in this series on Religion and Politics will examine the divide between liberals and conservatives and the importance of an individual candidate’s personal beliefs.