Equipping followers of Christ to engage in their everyday work as the work of God, so workplaces are invigorated, communities flourish and culture is renewed to the honor and glory of the Lord.

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Friday, February 10, 2012

What Made This Country Tick

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I focus on the topic of integration of biblical beliefs and work. Work of all kinds. Not just business work, but art work, engineering work, scientific work and house work. One area of work I have not yet focused on is political work.

Don't worry. I'm not going to write about candidates, or make pronouncements about one person's qualifications over another. But I do want to focus on the integration of Christian belief and politics in general, because this is an area of enormous confusion. Some may ask, "Is it even legal?"

In 1831, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to find out what made this country tick. He published his findings in Democracy in AmericaBelow are quotes taken from page 281-291 in the George Dearborn & Co. edition, published in 1838:

"From the earliest settlement of the emigrants, politics and religion contracted an alliance which has never been dissolved…I do not know whether all the Americans have a sincere faith in their religion; for who can search the human heart? But I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation, and to every rank of society.…The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other....Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting from this state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country....America is still the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls; and nothing better demonstrates how useful and natural it is to man, since the country where it now has the widest sway is both the most enlightened and the freest."


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  1. This almost seems a call for "the good old days" when our Christian forefathers counted slaves as 3/5th human and considered political and economic liberty more important than Romans 13. Our USA emphasis on liberty was because of other cultural values in contrast to French values of the time - where church and state were autocratic and co-conspiratorial. The Kingdom of God is not about political liberty. It is about taking on the wonderful yoke of Jesus that loves sacrifically - serving under rather than execting power over.

  2. It is important to distinguish between society and government when discussing the role of religion. The speaker in the video of the month fails to do so and misleadingly suggests that de Tocqueville observed a "Christian nation" in the sense of a government married to Christianity. He did not.

    It is instructive to recall that the Constitution's separation of church and state reflected, at the federal level, a "disestablishment" political movement then sweeping the country. That political movement succeeded in disestablishing all state religions by the 1830s. (Side note: A political reaction to that movement gave us the term "antidisestablishmentarianism," which amused some of us as kids.) It is worth noting, as well, that this disestablishment movement largely coincided with another movement, the Great Awakening. The people of the time saw separation of church and state as a boon, not a burden, to religion.

    This sentiment was recorded by a famous observer of the American experiment: "On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention. . . . I questioned the members of all the different sects. . . . I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point." Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).

    The video, though, somehow omitted that point. And the editor of the quotation in the post did likewise, replacing it with an ellipsis.

  3. Hello, Doug.

    I share in the opinion that church governance should be separated from state governance, in terms of role, policy, function and jurisdictional authority. “Separation of church and state,” in that sense, is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind in 1801 when he assured some Baptists that no Christian sect would ever be granted state authority, when he wrote about a “wall of separation between church and state.” Thank God for that wall. I can think of few things more problematic than pastors or priests governing the state, or senators and presidents governing the church. Although the Constitution does not use the phrase “separation of church and state,” it is clear from the First Amendment of the Constitution that Americans did not want the state [congress] to make laws that either promoted religion or prohibited the free exercise thereof. This is a good thing for all.

    But the additional sentence from de Tochqueville that you point out does not detract from his observation that Americans wanted civil government to functioning in harmony with [or, as he put, in “alliance” with] basic Christianity. The additional sentence you provided [which was not omitted to mislead] supports the idea that early Americans did not want the state interfering with the church’s right to practice its beliefs. This issue was addressed by the First Amendment. But the concept of “separation of church and state” is not to be equated with “separation of Christianity and state.” They are not the same ideas. The full body of de Tochqueville’s work supports this distinction, and this sentiment is not difficult to find in other legitimate primary sources.

    My posts are not written to support the notion of a church-run state, or a political “theocracy.” God forbid. Yet, legislators and others serving in political roles in our country historically recognized an “alliance” with Christianity that characterized the general populace [as evidenced by the Great Awakening, which you mention.] I would not call this a “marriage” with Christianity, but I think the term “alliance” is good.

    The early Americans had a much more comprehensive and holistic view of Christianity than our current fragmented and compartmentalized approach to faith affords. By that I mean, when it came to the integration of Christian faith and work—even political work—many early Americans believed a man’s shop and his chapel were both “holy ground.” They did not want Christianity imposed by governmental fiat. This is clear. I don’t either.

    In 1854, the House Judiciary Committee of Congress issued this statement: “The great, vital, and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Note “the belief of our people.” This is critical. In distinguishing between society and government when discussing the role of religion, as you mention, we must bear in mind that society plays a huge role in any government that is “by the people,” such as ours. Society in early America had a “Christian bent,” and this “bent” both informed and influenced political life as well as all other areas of life. This is not to say they always “got it right.” But the idea was there, and deeply rooted. Separation of church and state [as guaranteed by the First Amendment] did not negate or impede this general “bent.”

    As late as 1892, the US Supreme Court issued the following, in Holy Trinity v. United States: “Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of The Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise; and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian…This is a religious people. This is historically true. From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation….”

  4. I think that while we view the relationship of government and religion from different perspectives, we largely agree on what we see. I readily agree that Christianity played an important role in society at the time of the founding and it allowed for development of the political philosophies and attitudes leading to the founding of the republic. The founders naturally would not establish a government that is inherently at odds with their religious convictions, which were largely Christian in nature. Moreover, given the republican nature of the government they founded, it is only natural and expected, I think, that the laws enacted by that government--in both the founders' time and today--largely reflect Christianity's dominant influence in our society.

    That said, there is no reason to suppose that Christianity or theism is an inherent aspect of our constitutional government. Indeed, any such claim is antithetical to the constitutional principle against government establishment of religion. By founding a secular government (i.e., one founded on the power of the people rather than a deity) and assuring it would remain separate, in some measure at least, from religion, the founders basically established government neutrality in matters of religion, allowing individuals to freely choose and exercise their religions and thus allowing Christianity (and other religions) to flourish or founder as they will. It is to be expected that the values and views of the people, shaped in part by their religions, will be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires or calls for this; it is simply a natural outgrowth of the people's expression of political will in a republican government.

    The constitutional separation of church and state does not prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

    To the extent that the people's values and views change over time, it is to be expected that those changes will come to be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent this; indeed, just the opposite--the Constitution establishes a government designed to be responsive to the political will of the people. It is conceivable, therefore, that to the extent Christianity's influence in our society wanes relative to other influences (however unlikely that may be), that may lead to changes in our laws. Nothing in the Constitution would prevent that--and moreover the establishment clause would preclude Christians from using the government to somehow "lock in" (aka establish) Christianity in an effort to stave off such an eventuality.

  5. Hello again, Doug.

    One of the wonders of authentic Christianity, as I see it, is that it works from “the inside out” and “the bottom up.” That is to say, individuals are transformed principally from the inside out, and as a result, societies are, in the main, transformed from the bottom up. The four Great Awakenings that America has experienced so far attest to this. Christianity simply cannot be imposed from above and remain authentically “Christian.” To do so violates its very nature. A top-down imposition of “Christianity” has been tried (in Europe), with bad outcomes. I believe if Christianity is going to play a continuing role in American civil and social life, it will do so from bottom up, not top down. This is how “salt” functions. It flavors and preserves via permeation.

    “Locking in” Christianity via governmental fiat would be a disaster. I suspect this is where many non-Christians fear the “religious right” is heading, and this is cause for concern among them. I would be concerned, too. But this is not the agenda that is shared by evangelicals I know.

    The church and the state each have unique and distinct roles in God’s world. The family also has a unique role, distinct from the other two. But they are all institutions that are ordained by God, with certain roles and jurisdictions. These institutions overlap, to a degree. I come from the position they are all operating [positionally] under the authority of God, whether they acknowledge this authority or not. [Jesus is Lord of all.] Their respective boundaries must be honored. When one crosses the line, problems arise. This can happen when church government usurps family authority. The result is Waco.

    I agree “there is nothing in the Constitution to prevent laws being created by a populace with changing values and views,” assuming those laws do not conflict with the Constitution. As you say, “to the extent that the people's values and views change over time, it is to be expected that those changes will come to be reflected in the laws adopted by their government.” This is the crux of my concern. As you point out, “the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies.” So may their non-religious or anti-religious beliefs. If the majority of governmental officials do not subscribe to a biblically-informed worldview, the outcome will be something founders could not have imagined.

    You say, “to the extent Christianity's influence in our society wanes relative to other influences…this may lead to changes in our laws.” Yes indeed. But when you say it is “unlikely” that Christianity’s influence in our society will wane, I beg to differ. Not only is it likely, it is actually taking place.

    As for whether theism is an inherent aspect of our constitutional government, I believe it used to be. The Declaration was certainly written from a theistic point of view, as the “Creator” is mentioned up front, and God is referenced four times. The fact that God is not mentioned in the Constitution itself is not surprising. The Constitution was written to establish specific forms and functions of civil government. I come from the position that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are to be understood as a symbiotic unit, in spirit and purpose, although they were not written on a single occasion.

    Because I take the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as two-part whole, it is not possible for me to accept the premise that our governmental system was a “secular” proposition, in which God is detached, irrelevant, or non-existent. The Declaration demonstrates a presumption of this higher authority, above the King of England, to whom they appealed.

    I believe the weight of history leans heavily toward the idea that early Americans subscribed to a unique concept of “self-government under God.” This helped shape their very concept of “freedom.” (I will touch on in coming posts.)

    Thank you for a stimulating discussion. I will give you the last word (if you wish).

  6. I agree with you that the religious and philosophical views of the founding generation naturally underlie and, at least in some sense, are reflected by the laws enacted by the government they founded, which is hardly surprising given its republican nature. That said, there is no law connecting our government with the philosophical view that our rights are god given. To the extent any such claim seeks to "establish" some form of theism as an inherent aspect of our government, it is antithetical to the constitutional principle of separation of religion and state.

    While some also draw meaning from the references to "Nature's God" and "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence (references that could mean any number of things, some at odds with the Christian idea of God) and try to connect that meaning to the Constitution, the effort is largely baseless. Important as the Declaration is in our history, it did not operate to bring about independence (that required winning a war), nor did it found a government, nor did it even create any law, and it certainly did not say or do anything that somehow dictated the meaning of a Constitution adopted twelve years later. The colonists issued the Declaration not to do any of that, but rather to politically explain and justify the move to independence that was already well underway. Nothing in the Constitution depends on anything said in the Declaration. Nor does anything said in the Declaration purport to limit or define the government later formed by the free people of the former colonies. Nor could it even if it purported to do so. Once independent, the people of the former colonies were free to choose whether to form a collective government at all and, if so, whatever form of government they deemed appropriate. They were not somehow limited by anything said in the Declaration. Sure, they could take its words as inspiration and guidance if, and to the extent, they chose--or they could not. They could have formed a theocracy if they wished--or, as they ultimately chose, a government founded on the power of the people (not a deity) and separated from religion.

    I have enjoyed our discussion as well--and look forward to your future posts.