Ed Giese's Web Log

On State Religions and Christianity

Posted on 2021-05-30 17:30:00 in Culture

This is a further continuation of this dialog concerning whether it is consistent of a Christian to want to make the government Christian, if one had the power to do so. It is based on an argument in Blooms The Closing of the American Mind, where Bloom avers that perhaps the rights in the bill of Rights inevitably led to the moral relativism that completely dominates the university today.

I wrote a continuation here but there were some loose ends that seemed worth wrapping up. The overall subject is huge and beyond the ability of a few fun little dialogs to cover completely. Still, it is interesting and worthwhile to think some of it through.

Aaron: Hey Dijon, I was thinking about our conversation the other day and realized that we never quite finished everything up. I told you I had a revelation, and I never did finish telling it all to you.

Dijon: The part of the revelation you gave me left me at most partially convinced. I agree that perhaps forcing people to convert would be counterproductive, but why wouldn't a Christian want to ennoble the citizens of her own country to make them more likely to become Christians, at least?

Aaron: You have a point. No Christian would want to do much less than give everyone she knew the best chance of becoming a Christian. And, of course, not all Christians agree that government forcing conversions or penalizing apostasy and unbelief is bad. It has been common. To this day in Europe, some countries force citizens to support the state church. I'll leave it to you to compare the relative strength of Christianity between Europe and North America to judge how effective a conversion strategy this is.

Dijon: Yes, I think I was the one that made the point that the Establishment clause was almost certainly designed to prevent strife between competing Christian groups, rather than, say, Muslims.

Aaron: Indeed, many early Americans thought even Roman Catholics were outside the pale. But we're talking about my beliefs as a Christian here, or at least, what I think the most enlightened Christian views would be. And these, as I said the other day, would be informed by the distinction between God's revealed and hidden will.

Dijon: I remember you making this distinction, and I think it's intriguing, but I'm not sure it makes your case. God may not have spoken directly to Christain leaders in the New Testament, but surely they would all have the attitude of Paul in Acts, "I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains." Paul was a prisoner, and still he was trying to convert people, even kings. So why not a ruler doing the same?

Aaron: Yes, but Paul writes in Romans 9 that if he could save a few of his fellow Jews, he would allow himself to be cut off. He doesn't say that falsely, but he also knows that it is ultimately up to God who believes and who doesn't. The language of earlier Acts, "and all who were appointed for eternal life..." It is a mystery who believes in the end, and why. It is not a simple matter of having the correct public policy, whatever that might be. All we have to go on are the very limited bits of advice that the New Testament does give to rulers.

Dijon: But wait--you said in our previous conversation that the New Testament said nothing to rulers. I hadn't thought about that, and it was maybe one of the things you said that I agreed with and understood. So what does the New Testament say, after all, to rulers?

Aaron: I guess I misspoke. Compared with, say the Koran, the New Testament says next to nothing. But not nothing. The kinds of "rulers" that Paul writes advice to are Christians who have some limited authority. You may not like this, but one of the main examples are slave owners. But also fathers and husbands.

Dijon: Yeah, the patriarchy, basically.

Aaron: That's not fair. Early Christianity was radical in its day, and Paul's main concern was that it not be so radical that it became a social movement, destined to be a flash in the pan. Or at least, that was God's goal, apparently, because Paul wrote in that fashion. So, he didn't tell slave owners, "you must free God's people." Instead, he said to treat servants (slaves) fairly, and not harshly. Likewise, he told fathers not to "exasperate" their children, and to love their wives as themselves.

Dijon: All that seems like common sense.

Aaron: A lot of what the Bible says could be called "common sense." Look, I don't want to do a Bible study with you. But if we did look around, I think you could distill the teaching of the New Testament to those having authority, it would be three simple principles. First, laws are your tool. Someone who has control over the stars (as I was using an analogy last time) should, in fact, move them to get the desired result -- which is people treating each other fairly, wickedness being restrained, and safety and peace being ascendant. Second, reason is your guide. The Roman church's philosophers would later come to speak of "natural law," even though the Bible does not use this phrase. Paul, though, does say (Romans 2) that even unbelievers have the requirements of the law written on their hearts. So, following reason will be a good, if imperfect, guide. Finally, do your duty. This seems trite, but compared with considering oneself a god, looking at ruling as a calling or public service was a huge step forward, and something we tend to take for granted today. These three principles apply to everyone in authority, even authority over a family.

Dijon: People don't need religion if all they need to know they learn in kindergarten. None of this has convinced me yet that a Christian shouldn't try to make a nation Christian, if one is in charge.

Aaron: I seem to have failed to convince you that my restraint is for the best, or best in line with Christianity. Let me try one final time, then I'm going to just wait until we both change our perspective a little, or something. You can agree with me that the third principle, do your duty, would mean something like, be competent?

Dijon: Yes, sure, competence seems like a good word for doing your duty.

Aaron: And what is competent? Is harshness competent? When the prisons are full, is that competent? When people are walking on eggshells and afraid to say the wrong things, but harboring animosity inside, is that a sign that leaders are competent?

Dijon: No, obviously. Please don't press like that. I get it. You don't need to convince me that, at least in some situations, less government is better. Maybe not all the time, though.

Aaron: OK, sorry. So we agree at least on the idea of competence, and how it is more competent to use no more force than necessary. But more force can become the way of things in tribal situations, where one side feuds with the other, and recriminations go in both directions. When a country is evenly divided (as ours is today) and one side then the other gets into power, if both use their chances at power to settle scores and dominate, then things can spiral out of control.

Dijon: Sadly, this seems kind of familiar. I guess you're driving at how Christianity could be just another tribe, if they weren't careful, and so it is better to be less imposing. That makes sense -- but what if you know you are right? I keep asking that.

Aaron: I think that is kind of what I'm saying, but not all. Just barely over a century before the Constitution was adopted, Europe settled the end of the Thirty Year's war, a devastating conflict involving politics and religion mixed together in the worst sort of way. It was all of the badness of the no-separation approach of Medieval times rolled into an ugly conflict that left over 8 million people dead.

Dijon: Yes, I'm familiar with this. The Peace of Westphalia. You like to talk about this.

Aaron: For good reason! A lot of the great things about modern international relations got their start at Westphalia. First and foremost was the idea of national sovereignty. Regardless of how convinced a national leader was that his religion was the correct one, even if he thought the other country was all going to hell, national sovereignty established a limit of what that king could reasonably do.

Dijon: I think I see where you're going with this. So, a Christian, like a country, needs to respect other people's boundaries, even if he thinks they are tragically, eternally wrong, or there will be endless war and death?

Aaron: Pretty much.

Dijon: OK, your last swing of the bat connected with the ball. I'm not sure if it's a home run or a foul ball yet, I have to think about it. It seems to me, based on the Bible, you still could say that making them go to church, or at least having taxes to support churches, might be a good thing. By the way, I think I'm still right--A Christian ought to pass laws, or want to, that make people more virtuous and more likely to become a Christian.

Aaron: Ha! So I'll agree with you on this with the tiny quibble that we cannot predict what will make them Christian. More virtuous is certainly better.

Dijon: But some Christians may want to go further, and do things like have the taxes, right? Would the Bible say no?

Aaron: All that has been tried. And in some cases, maybe it was right. I'm just going to say two things. First, rather than the seeds of relativism, the idea of rights and restraint -- the things in the Constitutional Amendments -- were almost certainly more a matter of Westphalian avoidance of violence at the local and national level. Second, the only way that those rights are going to be maintained, in my opinion, is if people feel so strongly about things like faith and salvation, that they are not matters of opinion, and that others are tragically wrong in matters of fact and reality. Only those kinds of differences make the rights a matter of life and death. To the relativist, a matter of personal verbal safety may be reason enough to jettison them.

Dijon: You seem to be shifting to politics now. Wow, that was some "revelation" you had. You almost sound like a different person talking.

Aaron: Haha, these things happen. Enjoy your evening with your daughter.