Once again, paranoia is working its way through the cultural Left.
It broke out during the candidacy of John F. Kennedy and with the presidency of George W. Now, with a White House that is championing religious liberty, Republican majorities in the House and Senate, and judicial picks that could shape the Supreme Court for decades to come, there are renewed fears of a theocracy with religious impositions, injunctions, and worse.
Of course, the theocracy of concern, writes Charlotte Allen of the Weekly Standard, is Christianity, “because Christianity is always what secular liberals mean by religion. It was never, say, an actual theocracy such as Iran, or Saudi Arabia, where a Koran-derived religious legal system is exactly the same thing as the civil legal system.”
Although there is a fringe group (as there are for all ideologies) of Christians who, among other things, would extend capital punishment to sodomites and heretics, it neither represents the teachings of the Church nor is recognized by Christians in the main.
In fact, contrary to the utopian goals of Wahhabists, Zionists, and Dominionists alike, a theocratic government established by a political takeover is as foreign to Christianity as private property is to Marxism. As expressed by Pope Benedict XVI, “the Church does not impose but rather freely proposes” its teachings.
To understand why, we need to look at the role of church and state as they relate to the Creation Mandate.
The Role of the State
When God created Adam and Eve, he directed them to fill the earth and subdue it, beginning with the Garden. The twofold elements of this mandate are multiplication: creating society through the procreative act, and administration: creating culture through responsible custodianship.
Before the Fall, man’s administrative role involved the care and cultivation of the Garden, including the simple task of naming the local fauna. But after the Fall, the nature of man’s stewardship changed. Man’s rebellion drove a wedge into the wholeness of Creation, a wedge that rapidly spread, dividing and isolating everything it touched.
One effect of this isolation was that the world became an alien place for man. What had been pleasing to the eye and good for food now included thorns and thistles. What had been a joy to cultivate was now a source of hard work and sweat. Even the joy of the reproductive process would culminate in pain. In short, what was once good, whole, and yielding became corrupted, fractured, and resistant.
Another effect was that men became alienated from each other. Within one generation, man’s alienation progressed from suspicion, jealousy, and anger to fratricide. In the countless generations hence, the effects of this ever-increasing fracture have led to world wars, innumerable genocides, global epidemics, and growing poverty and hunger.
To ameliorate the consequences of this fracture, God commissioned mankind, through the Creation Mandate, to work toward restoring wholeness until he returns to make all things new. Central to this commission is the creation of a just society, one whose governance is committed to the inherent value of each individual and the common good of all.
James Madison once wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Madison, like the rest of our Founding Fathers, acknowledged that, because of the Fall, society needs a governing body to establish civil order and restrain evil. This governing body, as St. Paul writes, does not derive its authority because it is established by man, but because it “ha[s] been established by God… For he is God’s servant to do you good [and] an agent of wrath to bring punishment to the wrongdoer.”
Thus, government is not a human invention for power and control, but a divine provision for ordering and shaping culture. Of course, that doesn’t mean that government always fulfills its divine purpose. In fact, history books are full of governments that failed their high calling by succumbing to one of two errors: either that Caesar is God, or that God is Caesar.
In the first error, the state becomes a law unto itself. Without any external basis for justice and human rights, the rule of law is reduced to whatever the ruling body dictates. For such governments “The law is right,” as Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper said, “not because its contents are in harmony with the eternal principles of right, but because it is law.” Whatever rights and protections are granted today, they can be overturned tomorrow with a change of mind or a change of regime. Examples include the fascist government of Nazi Germany and the communist regime of North Korea.
In the second error, a religious body uses the power of the state to legislate every aspect of social life according to religious law. The theocracies of Muslim countries, like Iran, are such examples.
Interestingly, both errors lead to religious persecution. Under the secular autocracy (Caesar is God), all allegiance must be secondary to the state. Since, by its very nature, religion flies in the face of the claim that “Caesar is God,” religion is a threat that must be suppressed. Thus the appearance of the gulag, where millions of citizens “disappear” either to labor as slaves or to be re-educated.
Likewise, a theocratic system cannot tolerate loyalty to any Sovereign other than the church-state. This is why Islamic states consistently top the lists for religious persecutions and human rights violations. However, ironically, even in a theocratic government, the religion of the realm is undermined. For where people in a free state would have converted because of a heartfelt conviction, in a church-state they convert to avoid persecution or for political advantage. As a result, spiritual shallowness eventually erodes the moral strength and authority of the state religion, which serves to exacerbate the tyranny.
If history has taught us anything, it is that whether the Church is an arm of the state, or whether the state is an arm of the Church, the efforts to build a just society are undercut. This leads us to question the proper relationship for the Church in fulfilling its Creation Mandate.
Role of the Church
The Founding Fathers came predominately out of the Judeo-Christian tradition as either deists or Christians. Consequently, although much ink has been spilt about a “wall of separation,” it was never the aim of the Framers to jettison God or biblical principles from the public square. Even Thomas Jefferson, who wrote about “building a wall of separation between church and state,” authorized a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians one year later that included federal support for building a church. It was one of numerous instances of federal assistance given to churches on Indian reservations, according to historian Robert Cord.
Thus, Jefferson and the Framers never intended that religious expression be restricted to the private sphere, or that government support of religion be considered unconstitutional. Rather, they understood that if society is to avoid “might makes right” tyranny, the standards of a just society must come from outside of society itself. They further recognized those standards to be the principles of virtue and justice revealed in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Declaration of Independence reflects their religious viewpoint in the appeal to human rights, inalienable by virtue of the Creator’s endowment.
Likewise, the three-branch system of government is a direct product of biblically informed thinking. Recognizing the reality of human nature, the Founding Fathers established the separation of powers. They knew, because of the Fall, that mankind’s inherent bent toward evil required a government with checks and balances to safeguard against abuse.
In conclusion, it can be confidently said that the Framers never envisioned creating a public square that was a religion-free zone. Rather, their objection was the favoring of one religious sect over others, creating a de facto state-church. In other words, “freedom of religion” was never intended to be “freedom from religion,” as it has read into the Constitution by the courts since the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision.
Our Founding Fathers acknowledged that society is best served when church and state are independent, yet cooperative, mutually supporting each other in promoting the common good, while respecting each other’s separate spheres of authority and responsibility. In this relationship, the state legislates, protects, and executes justice, while the Church informs about the principles of a just society.
What this means for panic-ridden secularists is that the coming theocracy does not depend on wresting political power from an earthly king, but on the arrival of a heavenly One.
(Photo credit: Roman Pantheon / Wikicommons / Kent Mercurio)