Religion and Government
“Faiths in Conversation”
Last night I was part of a Faiths in Conversation at the Islamic Seminary of America on the topic of “Government and Religion.” As I told them in my introductory remarks, the timing of this conversation could not have been more fortuitous. To be thinking and talking about this topic during the week of a Presidential Inauguration was a powerful exercise of interfaith reflection and a meaningful experience in interfaith understanding.
The Conversation continues next Tuesday evening, January 24th, back at the Islamic Seminary of America (17740 Preston Road) at 7 pm when our topic will be “Being a Moral Witness.”
What follows is the manuscript of my presentation from last night. I offer it here as a way for us all to think about the question that I pose at the beginning of my remarks –
“This weekend religious leaders from all three of our faith traditions will be walking the corridors of political power and standing in the courts of Caesar, and that fact ought to raise an important question for all of us – What are they doing there? What are our expectations? What is the proper relationship between religion and government?”
Religion and Government
Faiths in Conversation – January 17, 2017
Islamic Seminary of America – Dallas, Texas
A Christian Perspective – Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
Northway Christian Church – Dallas, Texas
We look like geniuses, I mean, scheduling a Faiths in Conversation on the topic of “Religion and Government” the week of the Presidential Inauguration! Did we actually plan this, or was it just dumb luck? Either way, our conversation this evening couldn’t possibly be more timely!
This weekend religious leaders from all three of our faith traditions will be walking the corridors of political power and standing in the courts of Caesar, and that fact ought to raise an important question for all of us – What are they doing there? What are our expectations? What is the proper relationship between religion and government?
I have prepared a handout for you this evening, a documentary review of the cherished principle of the separation of church and state that has been enshrined in our national life from its first public articulation in the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657 to its formal statement by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. Anybody who tries to argue that this principle wasn’t at work in the minds and hearts of the Founders as they gave initial shape and structure to the American experiment are just being silly. But that’s not what I want to argue here tonight. No, what I want to argue instead is that this cherished principle of American democracy is actually the fruit of a Christian view of the world and how God is present and at work in it.
As you know there is no single Christian view of anything. As we like to say at my church, where two or three Christians gather, there will be seven or eight opinions. In the 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches there were 217 different denominations listed! That’s 217 distinct Christian communities. 217 times a group of Christians somewhere decided that their interpretation of something was important enough to insist that they be viewed separately from all other Christians! And so the idea that the position that I am just about to map out for you is “the” Christian position is completely untenable. In fact, when I’m done, my guess is that the other Christians in the room will have as many questions about and objections to what I am about to say as any of you who belong to another faith tradition.
This position that I am about to describe for you has a name. It’s called the “Two Kingdoms” theory. It’s a classically Protestant Christian perspective on the question of the proper relationship between religion and government that traces its intellectual lineage back through the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, Martin Luther and John Calvin, through St. Augustine, the great North African Christian thinker and churchman of the late 4th and early 5th century, to the pages of the New Testament itself. The “Two Kingdoms” theory has lots and lots of variations, but it shares some very basic common assumptions.
For our purposes here this evening I am going to tether three of those basic shared assumptions of the “Two Kingdoms” theory to three very specific New Testament verses. All of what I am about to say and all of the New Testament references that I am about to make are on the second handout that I’ve prepared for you this evening.
- The first verse I want to introduce you to is John 18:36 –
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
The context for this saying from Jesus Christ was His trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea in the first century on the day He was crucified. This is the first shared assumption of the “Two Kingdoms” theory. At this moment in history God’s Kingdom is spiritual. It involves no national covenant. There are no Christian nations, only Christians drawn from every nation. This is why at no time did Jesus Christ or any of His apostles ever expect “the magistrate to establish the church, enforce Christian orthodoxy” or promote Christian morality. And nowhere does the New Testament present any Christian leader ever telling Caesar how to do his job, or organizing public protests, or lobbying the governing authorities for a civil remedy to a social problem. They didn’t look to the government for the moral and spiritual renewal of the world. No, they saw that as the church’s job.
- The second verse that I want to introduce you to this evening is Revelation 11:15 –
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”
Every single day faithful Christians pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven,” and for many of us, Revelation 11:15 is the verse that tells us when this prayer will be answered – at the close of the age when Christ returns to finish the work of salvation that He began when He was born as Bethlehem’s baby, taught and healed on Galilean hillsides, died on Calvary’s cross, and was raised up out of a borrowed tomb on the third day. In Revelation 11:15 we are told that the kingdoms of this world will one day become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, not gradually by human effort but suddenly by God’s very own direct action. You see, we don’t build this Kingdom, we receive it. And this is the second shared assumption of the “Two Kingdoms” theory – right now we live our lives leaning into that coming day when God’s spiritual Kingdom of which we are already citizens by faith will swallow up all of the human kingdoms in which we currently reside, and God’s reign over all of creation will be fully and finally restored. But that hasn’t happened yet.
- This brings me to the third verse that I want to introduce you to this evening, Matthew 22:16-21 –
16 And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. 17 Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the tax money.” So they brought Him a denarius. 20 And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” 21 They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.
This is the veritable “proof text” of the “Two Kingdoms” theory. It describes the state that we who are Christians live in between John 18:36 and Revelation 11:15, between the “already” of our citizenship in God’s spiritual Kingdom and the “not yet” of that day in God’s future when the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of the Lord, and of His Christ. In the in-between, we live, and move, and have our being in two kingdoms simultaneously, what Christ described as that which belongs to Caesar, and what He described as that which belongs to God.
For our purposes here this evening, let’s simplistically think of Caesar’s domain as the state, and of God’s domain as the church. According to the “Two Kingdoms” theory these are two different God-ordained spheres, with two different God-given assignments. The “cultural mandate” that God gave to Adam and Eve in the stories of Creation to have dominion, to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:26-28), and to till and keep the Garden (Genesis 2:15) are an assignment given to all of humanity for all time. In fact, the Two Kingdoms theory would say that this is God’s assignment to the kingdom of the state. Simply put, God wants human beings to always and everywhere thrive in this world, and government is the divinely ordered mechanism that has been given to us to see that we do.
To my way of thinking, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better statement of what this “cultural mandate” looks like in actual political practice than these familiar and cherished words –
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Note that this is not distinctively Christian, or even particularly religious. In fact, God is not even mentioned in it at all. And that’s because God has not created and ordered the state in order to make us believers, but rather to suppress chaos and promote order so that we might be truly human and free.
In the New Testament, when God’s other kingdom, the church, does talk about the governing authorities, it does so with the fervent desire that they are effectively doing their job creating public peace and maintaining social order so that the church can get on with its own particular assignment in God’s ordering of the universe – the “great commission” to go into all the world to preach the Gospel and make disciples.
Representative of the New Testament texts that make reference to the state is what Paul wrote to Timothy in his first letter –
I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all… (I Timothy 2:1-6)
Paul told Timothy to pray that “kings and all those who are in high positions” would do their job in creating a peaceful social order so that the church in turn could do its job in bringing people to a knowledge of the truth in Jesus Christ. And here are the “Two Kingdoms” side by side, each one doing its own God-given assignment.
It’s not the state’s job to be a church. As the Dutch theologian H.M. Kuitert said, “the dead are not raised by politics… our personal salvation and the forgiveness of sins do not and did not come by political decree.. our very best political efforts will not reconcile us to the Father” (Cromartie). And it’s not the church’s job to be the state.
Peter Berger, the eminent sociologist of religion, says that he went to a friend’s church in Boston one weekend. His friend was dying of cancer, and Peter said that he just wanted to spend some time with him before he was gone.
That Sunday morning the minister preached a sermon on U.S. government policies in Central America, as the conflict was raging there. And Peter said that more disturbing to him than the misinformed views on Central America was how lonely his friend felt in his own church. People there were so concerned about politics that no one noticed that his friend was dying. And Peter said, “This false preaching denies ministry to those who desperately need it. Our congregations are full of people with a multitude of afflictions and sorrows… who come to church to receive the consolation and solace of the Gospel, instead of which they get a lot of politics. (Cromartie)
The Two Kingdoms theory addresses this problem not by ignoring the concerns of the state for the concerns of the church, or by substituting the concerns of the church for the concerns of the state, but rather by assigning the concerns of both the church and the state to their proper God-ordained sphere. The Oxford Theologian Oliver O’Donovan gets it exactly right when he writes –
Western theology starts from the assertion that the kingdoms of this world are not the kingdom of God and of His Christ, not, at any rate, until God intervenes to make them soat the end… this does not mean that the secular state can be independent from God and His claims, or that the pious individual can cultivate a private (spiritual) experience without regard for the claims of his (larger) society. It simply means that earthly politics, because they do not have to reconcile the world, may get on with their provisional task of bearing witness to God’s justice. (Cromartie)
So, to bring our conversation this evening about religion and government back around to this week’s context, and all of those Christian leaders who will be in Caesar’s Temple this weekend for the inauguration, what do I want them to do there?
- Well, first of all I want them to pray that those who are in authority over us will do their job in the creation and maintenance of a social order where liberty and justice for all is affirmed and embodied.
- And second, while they are there, if they are asked their opinion about what they think Caesar should do about this or that social problem, as citizens I would expect them to express their opinions, and I would hope that those opinions would be deeply informed by their faith in God and their knowledge of His word, His will, and His ways as Christians.
- And finally, when the weekend is over I would expect them to get out of Caesar’s Temple and back to their churches where the real work that they are called to do awaits, to preach Christ and make disciples because that’s the real hope of the world as far as Christianity is concerned.
Cromartie, Michael. “Up to Our Steeples in Politics.” In No God but God. Os Guinness & John Seel, eds. Moody. 1992.
Littlejohn, Brad. “The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed.” http://www.politicaltheology.com
Thomas, Cal & Ed Dobson. Blinded by Might. Zondervan. 1999.
Tuninga, Matthew. “The Two Kingdoms Doctrine: What’s The Fuss All About?” http://www.reformation21.org
VanDrunen, David. Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture. Crossway. 2010.
Appendix – A Documentary History of the Separation of Church and State
he Flushing Remonstrance (1657)
The Flushing Remonstrance was a 1657 petition to Director-General of New Netherland Peter Stuyvesant, in which some thirty residents of the small settlement at Flushing requested an exemption to his ban on Quaker worship. It is considered a precursor to the United States Constitution’s provision on freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights. The Flushing Remonstrance was signed on December 27, 1657, by a group of English citizens who were affronted by persecution of Quakers and the religious policies of Stuyvesant. None of them were Quakers. The Flushing Remonstrance shows support for the separation of church and state as early as the mid-17th century, stating their opposition to religious persecution of any sort.
The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage. And because our Saviour sayeth it is impossible but that offences will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Saviour sayeth this is the law and the prophets.
Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man. And this is according to the patent and charter of our Towne, given unto us in the name of the States General, which we are not willing to infringe, and violate, but shall houlde to our patent and shall remaine, your humble subjects, the inhabitants of Vlishing.
According to Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history and social sciences at Columbia University, the Flushing Remonstrance was remarkable for articulating the freedom of religion as a fundamental right that is as basic as any other, and that it was publically addressed to a governmental official who was not known for tolerance by people for whom the articulation of this principle was of little discernible benefit to themselves.
A Letter Concerning Toleration – John Locke (1689)
The idea of a separation between church and state that so strongly influenced our Founders was developed by John Locke in his A Letter Concerning Toleration which argues for a complete separation between church and state.
For the commonwealth of the Jews, different in that from all others, was an absolute theocracy; nor was there, or could there be, any difference between that commonwealth and the Church. The laws established there concerning the worship of One Invisible Deity were the civil laws of that people and a part of their political government, in which God Himself was legislator. But there is absolutely no such thing under the Gospel as a Christian commonwealth.
There are indeed, many cities and kingdoms that have embraced the faith of Christ, but they have retained their ancient form of government, with which the law of Christ hath not at all meddled. He, indeed, hath taught men how, by faith and good works, they may obtain eternal life; but He instituted no commonwealth. He prescribed unto His followers no new and peculiar form of government, nor put He the sword into any magistrate’s hand.
The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom
1779 (Thomas Jefferson)
Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.
Article 6 of the United States Constitution
(Signed and Adopted – 1787; Ratified – 1788)
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
George Washington’s Letter to the Touro Synagogue,
Newport, Rhode Island (1790)
Allowing rights and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
The Bill of Rights – The First Amendment to the Constitution (1791)
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli (1797)
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen (Muslims); and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
The preliminary treaty began with a signing on 4 November, 1796 (the end of George Washington’s last term as president). Joel Barlow, the American diplomat served as counsel to Algiers and held responsibility for the treaty negotiations. Joel Barlow wrote the original English version of the treaty, including Amendment 11. Barlow forwarded the treaty to U.S. legislators for approval in 1797. Timothy Pickering, the secretary of state, endorsed it and John Adams concurred (now during his presidency), sending the document on to the Senate. The Senate approved the treaty on June 7, 1797, and officially ratified by the Senate with John Adams signature on 10 June, 1797. All during this multi-review process, the wording of Article 11 never raised the slightest concern. The treaty even became public through its publication in The Philadelphia Gazette on 17 June 1797. Although the Treaty of Tripoli under agreement only lasted a few years and no longer has legal status, it clearly represented the feelings of our Founding Fathers at the beginning of the American government.
Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802)
To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the State of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem. Thomas Jefferson
Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (1868)
Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was intended to secure rights for former slaves. This amendment introduces the concept of the incorporation. The doctrine of incorporation is intended to ensure the equal application of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights in all of the states.