Thoughts on Church and State

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Confusion arises in public discourse because of the failure of Christians to understand the distinction between Church and State. The prevailing view throughout Christian history has been that the two should occupy distinct spheres. This view was maintained by leading Reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther. There are two separate realms—one dealing with the supernatural and the other with the natural. The way each goes about its mission is unique. The traditional view is that God ordained differing roles.  The role of the State is to enforce justice by natural law—through the power of the sword. The Church fulfills its mandate by mercy through the power of God’s grace. In Christianity grace and justice are in tension with one another. The State is a manifestation of God’s wrath (Romans 13:3-4).

Government is necessary because man is fallen. We are imperfect beings who need laws and earthly authority to enact them. When we formulate laws of the State we should employ rational thought to determine the best form of government. We need national borders because conflicts inevitably arise between different peoples. If sinful man experiences strife with members of his own family, how much more will it occur with those whom he has little in common? As for style of government, there is no one size fits all. We should adapt various forms to various peoples.

There are those who claim that a “true Christian” can never be a ethnic or racial nationalist. They argue that scripture prohibits division between two members of Christ’s body—be they “Jew or Gentile.” They err by conflating the function of the State with that of the Church. This confusion has seriously damaged the Church and has contributed to the destruction of Western nations. Any sensible philosophy of government must avoid mingling the two spheres.

If man were not fallen there would be no need for politics. Those who project the purpose of the Church onto the State—by advocating liberal social policies or open borders—implicitly deny the doctrine of man as innately sinful. Secular moralists and progressives explicitly make this denial. As a result, they have an apolitical—utopian view of what life on earth can and should be. Consider the following from Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology:

“The fundamental theological dogma of the evilness of the world and man leads, just as does the distinction of friend and enemy, to a categorization of men and makes impossible the undifferentiated optimism of a universal conception of man. In a good world among good people, only peace, security, and harmony prevail. Priests and theologians are here just as superfluous as politicians and statesmen. What the denial of original sin means socially and from the viewpoint of individual psychology has been shown by Ernst Troeltsch in his Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen and Selliere in the examples of numerous sects, heretics, romantics and anarchists. The methodical connection of theological and political presuppositions is clear. But theological interference generally confuses political concepts because it shifts the distinction usually into moral theology. Political thinkers such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and often Fichte presuppose with their pessimism only the reality or possibility of the distinction of friend and enemy. For Hobbes, truly a powerful and systematic political thinker, the pessimistic conception of man is the elementary presupposition of a specific system of political thought. He also recognizes correctly that the conviction of each side that it possesses the truth, the good, and the just bring about the worst enmities, finally the war of all against all. This fact is not the product of a frightful and disquieting fantasy nor of a philosophy based on free competition by a bourgeois society in its first stage (Toennies), but is the fundamental presupposition of a specific political philosophy.”

Schmitt argues that the friend-enemy distinction is the essence of the political. When a worldview is apolitical, the other becomes evil incarnate. Enmity becomes moral rather than tribal. Conflict is internalized within nations and at the same time externalized with fierce intensity. Anyone who stands in the way of the moralist’s vision and its realization—must be eliminated. This creates the sharpest and most vicious political distinctions. As Schmitt has noted, universal moral outlooks result in increasingly destructive wars. To live in a more harmonious world we must recognize that all men are flawed, no one has absolute truth or right on their side, and that organic divisions are drawn from ethnic distinction—not ideological.

Again, since man is fallen and will continue to be until kingdom come, government will necessarily exist. It’s the State’s job to make divisions. It suppresses wickedness so that good might flourish. It keeps hostile and foreign elements at bay. The Church on the other hand is a place of unity for all peoples and nations. The Presbyterians of the Antebellum South differed from their Northern brethren. They took the sacred unity of the Church seriously and wished to avoid bringing political tensions into their denomination. Just before the War between the States, Southern Presbyterian luminary—James Henley Thornwell wrote an Address to all Churches of Christ. In it he said:

“Two nations, under any circumstances except those of perfect homogeneousness, cannot be united in one Church, without the rigid exclusion of all civil and secular questions from its halls. Where the countries differ in their customs and institutions, and view each other with an eye of jealousy and rivalry, if national feelings are permitted to enter the church-courts, there must be an end of harmony and peace. The prejudices of the man and the citizen will prove stronger than the charity of the Christian. When they have allowed themselves to denounce each other for their national peculiarities, it will be hard to join in cordial fellowship as members of the same spiritual family. Much more must this be the case where the nations are not simply rivals but enemies; when they hate each other with a cruel hatred; when they are engaged in a ferocious and bloody war, and when the worst passions of human nature are stirred to their very depths. An Assembly composed of representatives from two such countries could have no security for peace except in a steady, uncompromising adherence to the scriptural principle, that it would know no man after the flesh; that it would abolish the distinctions of Barbarian, Scythian, bond and free, and recognize nothing but the new creature in Christ Jesus. The moment it permits itself to know the Confederate or the United States, the moment its members meet as citizens of these countries, our political differences will be transferred to the house of God, and the passions of the forum will expel the Spirit of holy love and Christian communion.”

Thornwell certainly had his own political and regional biases, but took great care not to carry them into the Church. He continues:

“The only conceivable condition, therefore, upon which the Church of the North and the South could remain together as one body, with any prospect of success, is the rigorous exclusion of the questions and passions of the forum from its halls of debate. This is what ought always to be done. The provinces of the Church and State are perfectly distinct, and the one has no right to usurp the jurisdiction of the other. The State is a natural institute, founded in the constitution of man as moral and social, and designed to realize the idea of justice. It is the society of rights. The Church is a supernatural institute, founded in the facts of redemption, and is designed to realize the idea of grace. It is the society of the redeemed. The State aims at social order; the Church at spiritual holiness. The State looks to the visible and outward; the Church is concerned for the invisible and inward. The badge of the State’s authority is the sword, by which it becomes a terror to evil doers, and a praise to them that do well. The badge of the Church’s authority is the keys, by which it opens and shuts the kingdom of Heaven, according as men are believing or impenitent. The power of the Church is exclusively spiritual; that of the State includes the exercise of force. The Constitution of the Church is a Divine revelation; the Constitution of the State must be determined by human reason and the course of providential events. The Church has no right to construct or modify a government for the State, and the State has no right to frame a creed or polity for the Church. They are as planets moving in different orbits, and unless each is confined to its own track, the consequences may be as disastrous in the moral world as the collision of different spheres in the world of matter.”

Despite his address, there was a North-South split in the Presbyterian Church. Thornwell was right to emphasize the Church-State distinction. There was a spiritual rift that ran between the sections before there was a political one. The formerly Puritan North was busy demonizing and otherizing Southern slaveholders as absolute evil in the manner Schmitt referenced. This same type of fanaticism lead John Brown to murder five slavery supporters in Kansas. His words and actions and those of other fanatical abolitionists put the nation on a razor’s edge. What resulted was one of the bloodiest wars in history. The moralist’s desire to “immanentize the eschaton” and realize utopia here and now is still with us today in the form of SJWs, “wars for democracy,” and the Social Gospel.

While Thornwell believed in separation of Church and State, he did not use the concept as secularists use it today. He understood that such a distinction could never be absolute. He believed that a Christian people create a Christian culture, and that culture and politics are intimately intertwined. He believed in the concept of a Christian nation and that a common religious-moral base is necessary to unite a people. Among Christians there is “little difference of opinion” as to right and wrong. Also, he highlighted the right of the Church to upbraid the State:

“When the State makes wicked laws, contradicting the eternal principles of rectitude, the Church is at liberty to testify against them and humbly to petition that they may be repealed. In like manner, if the Church becomes seditious and a disturber of the peace, the State has a right to abate the nuisance. In ordinary cases, however, there is not likely to be a collision. Among a Christian people, there is little difference of opinion as to the radical distinctions of right and wrong. The only serious danger is where mortal duty is conditioned upon a political question.”

Additionally, he urged the Confederate Congress to amend the Constitution to declare the Confederacy to be in submission to Christ, for “to Jesus Christ all power in heaven and earth is commit­ted.”

Echoing Thornwell, Dutch Calvinist Herman Bavinck was another theologian who had much to say on the subject:

“Just as the individual must seek the kingdom of God not beyond but within his earthly calling, so too the kingdom of God requires of the state not that it surrender its earthly calling or its unique national particularity, but simply that it allow the kingdom of God to penetrate and saturate its people and nation. In this way alone can the kingdom of God come into existence.”

The Church will enrich a people and bring the blessings of Christ to a nation, but the Church is not the nation. The Church works within and across national barriers.

Christians who blend the purposes of the Church with the State make a grave error. This is no light misstep. Their thoughtlessness has resulted in untold damage. Effectually they are the same as liberal humanists to whom the State acts as a religious institution. These people claim Christianity, but implicitly deny man’s imperfection—a fundamental doctrine. So-called conservative Christians who condemn ethnic nationalism—advocate open borders and multi-racialism—are confused at best and insincere at worst. Christians in the Alt Right should feel no shame in calling these people out. We can agree with Schmitt that universal moral ideologies do not mix well with politics. They should be opposed whether they take the form of Communism, Liberal Humanism, or Social Christianity.

We want a world of nations each working out their place in an imperfect world. We wish for each ethnicity to pursue its own destiny within its own borders. When we again draw political distinctions according to natural divisions, we can begin to approach the other with mutual understanding. There will always be conflict, but our aim should be to avoid the blood-letting of the 20th century. We want peace—realistic peace. We want diversity—true diversity.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Church and State

  1. Joe Putnam says:

    Hello,
    I just came across your blog this morning, with the republishing of this essay over at Identity Dixie. I really liked this essay. I went ahead and read the previous one and your “about” page, and it looks like we have a bit in common theologically and politically. I just hit the follow button on your blog. Just wanted to say hello,
    Joe

    Liked by 1 person

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