Of Conventions, Prayers, And Church

The Importance Of Distinguishing Sacred And Secular

HARMEET-DHILLONI do not know who first said that evangelicals are the Republican party at prayer. Was it George Marsden? It has been true at least since the days of the Moral Majority (c. 1980), just before which Southern evangelical Democrats began to switch party affiliations to the Republicans (in the wake of Roe v Wade). The expression probably pre-dates the Moral Majority since I have seen references to the mainline PCUSA as the Republican Party at prayer, which seems even more probable given the alliance between the mainline and main street (and Wall Street) for much of the 20th century. The post-Reagan alliance between evangelicals and Republicans was on display last night, as my friend and colleague Nicholas Davis observes. An evangelical pastor delivered a benediction, which turns out to have been more an imprecation against the Democrats as if the Republicans are Israel and the Democrats are Canaanites placed under divine judgment. At the opening of last night’s session, however, we saw something of the growing religious and cultural diversity in the USA as the Republican convention opened with prayer. That prayer was delivered by Harmeet Dhillon, an adherent of Sihkism. As the cameras panned the crowd I saw eyes closed but I thought I also detected some discomfort. The contrast between the crowd’s affirmation of the “benediction” (such as it was) and the polite reception of the opening prayer was palpable.

I understand the discomfort Christians might have felt in being asked to participate in a Sikh prayer. It made me uncomfortable and I was watching at home on my television. I did not participate. I may not participate. I will not participate in a prayer to what I, as a Christian, confess to be a pagan deity. The Christian Scriptures unambiguously forbid me as a Christian to a shared religious observance with pagans. Consider Paul’s warning to the Corinthian congregation:

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?  “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? (1 Cor 10:14-30; ESV).

Paul was helping the Corinthian Christians to navigate a religiously pluralistic world. How can Christians live in the world with pagans without compromising our religious identity? We may eat food offered to idols but if someone invites us to participate in a religious meal, we must decline. Christians have a religious meal: holy communion. The premise behind Paul’s teaching is the distinction between the secular (a common meal) and the sacred (a religious meal). We share common life with our pagan neighbors. We have common concerns about roads, schools, safety, and health. We interpret the significance of the world very differently, however, and there are things that we do not have in common, that we cannot share with them. We may not marry them (2 Cor 6:14) but we are not to withdrawal physically from the world (1 Cor 5:10) even as we abstain from its sexual immorality.

Christians have long struggled to get this right. Both monks and libertines have failed to understand 1 Corinthians 5:9–10: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world (ESV). Paul rejects both fleeing from the world physically (e.g., withdrawing to the desert or to a monastery) just as he condemns failing to distinguish between the Christian approach to life from that of the pagan.

Mainline Presbyterians and later, evangelicals, may once have been the Republican party at prayer. There may once have been an easy alliance, an assumption of shared religious values between those entities but Ms Dhillon’s prayer last night illustrates how that alliance is coming to an end. This is not a lament. The alliance should never have been. Christians as individuals and private societies (groups) may affiliate as they will but Christians as a group and certainly the visible, institutional church should never become utterly identified with any political party. If evangelicals and other Protestants (e.g., confessionalists) were uneasy with Ms Dhillon’s prayer, I can easily imagine how awkward it must have been for Ms Dhillon to witness the closing prayer and imprecation. Watching it on YouTube last night made me uncomfortable and he professes to be a minister of (some version) of the faith I confess.

Both the opening and closing of last night’s events are a good argument for doing away with public, shared prayers in such, common, secular events. It’s not that delegates to political conventions should not pray. They should. It’s not that candidates should not pray. They should. It’s not that voters should not pray. They should. The question is not whether but when? It is dubious whether it is appropriate to open a common, secular, assembly with prayer. To whom are we praying? In whose name? What are we praying? As a Christian minister of the United Reformed Churches in North America I am not free to offer prayers to God that he has not authorized. I am not free to pray to any other deity than the Triune God of Scripture, to the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am not authorized to approach God in any other name than the name of Jesus. It is not a matter of bigotry. It is a matter of truth, eternal life, and salvation. Jesus was raised from the dead. He is the truth (John 14:6). There are not multiple ways to God. Religion is not multifaceted expression of a common religious experience. It is revealed by God to us.

Clearly the religious divide between mainline liberals (e.g., UCC, PCUSA, ECUSA, ELCA, UMC etc) and confessional Protestants is great. It is equally great between Roman Catholics and confessional Protestants. The gulf between my confession and that of Ms Dhillon is beyond description. Delegates to common, shared assemblies, whether political conventions or city council meetings should forgo public prayer and they should forgo American civil religion. Let us work on those problems and concern on which we can agree without compromising our faiths. We need not share a religion in order to agree about taxes, roads, and the common defense. We have a common civil constitution. It is enough if we can get our civil officials to follow it. My neighbors are welcome to join me and my brothers and sisters in Christ, on the Christian Sabbath for prayer. I will happily come to their homes and explain the Christian faith and invite them to follow Christ with me. Paving roads, however, and setting tax policy come under God’s general providential rule, not under the sphere of salvation or the sacred.

It is for the preservation of the Christian faith that we should make such distinctions. If everything is sacred, then nothing is. Clearly, in the Christian faith, some things are sacred, inviolable. Paul thinks of the Lord’s Supper (holy communion) as one of them. So should we. He also thinks of other things as common, shared, or secular (e.g., common meals), and so should we. For the sake of our faith and for the well-being of our neighbor, let us distinguish them so that we may fulfill our duties to God and neighbor in both spheres of God’s twofold kingdom.

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  1. This was a timely post. Over here in Pasadena, the city held a “prayer vigil” for the recent spate of shootings across the US. I decided against joining in the prayer for many of the same reasons that you outlined in this post.

  2. Crush,


    I don’t disagree. Discipleship is a long, slow process.

    I take it that you’re using a pseudonym. Please note the comment policy.

  3. My question/comment is particularly in response to the sentence: “We need not share a religion in order to agree about taxes, roads, and the common defense.” To that I say true, but how about when we disagree on those things?

    I’m a little confused about Two Kingdom theology (I’m trying though) as it pertains to how Christians should argue for or against any civic issue. I can understand that there are 2 spheres (sacred, secular) but it sure seems to me that they necessarily overlap when you get to the “ought” parts of civil laws (moral issue).

    Fundamentally, doesn’t a culture’s stance on any given civil issue boil down to their collective worldview? If that’s the case why wouldn’t a Christian, when arguing for or against a civic issue, not bring their religion/worldview into the argument – the unbeliever does?

    I thought I’d ask since I find that the further away our American culture slips from a Christian like worldview the less common ground (non-biblical) I have to appeal to when arguing a case.


    • Hi Alex,

      Christians disagree about tax policy, the federal reserve, immigration, and roads so it’s not surprising that Christians and non-Christians disagree. We also agree about these things.

      It is confusing because we often come at these things with false premises, e.g., that there is a “Christian position” on them. Does Scripture tell us whether the city should tax all the citizens of a town to pave a gravel road (to which no houses face) or should the citizens whose property is next to road pay for it? As far as I know, Scripture doesn’t answer that question. It’s a matter of wisdom. This is category that is often missing in our approach to these issues. When it comes to wisdom Christians may well disagree with other Christians and they may (or may not) agree with pagans about these second-order, or proximate questions.

      Remember, we’re not talking about first-order or ultimate questions. On those there are fundamental, irreconcilable differences. I’ve addressed the difference between 1st-order and 2nd-order questions here and here.

      There is no such thing as “the two-kingdom theology.” There are multiple versions of a two-kingdom ethic. Luther had one. VanDrunen has articulated one. Calvin spoke of a “twofold kingdom,” i.e., a single kingdom with two distinct spheres. It’s really an analytical question more than an outcome: how do the two spheres relate in this instance? People are bound to arrive at different answers. What is difficult for me to understand is why some (not you) do not want the question even to be asked.

      The two spheres may overlap when the common (or perhaps civil) questions touch on ultimate, first-order questions. The Apostle said that, when it comes to such questions, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

      I doubt that there is such a thing as a “collective worldview.” On worldview see the links above. Unless the state is exercising eminent domain, the question of whether to pave a road is not obviously a moral question. Again, this is why wisdom is such an important (and often missing) category of analysis. Here are 14 episodes of Office Hours on what Scripture says about wisdom.

      As to finding common ground in a religiously pluralistic, post-Christian world, we should do it the way the apostles and early Christians did it: by appealing to the natural knowledge of God (Rom 1–2), to shared sense perception (as Paul did), to natural (creational) law. We should also call our pagan neighbors to repent and believe in Jesus and to join us as we follow Christ but on second-order, proximate questions, we can and do regularly agree with pagans, even as Paul did when quoted pagan poets (e.g., “all Cretans are liars…” Titus 1:12).

      One of my favorite post-canonical examples of the sacred/secular distinction is found in the Treatise/Letter to Diognetus (c. 150) where a Christian writer distinguishes Christians from pagans and Jews. He explains what we have in common with pagans and what we do not.

    • Thanks for your reply and the links on first-order questions, I’ll check them out soon.

      Armed with proper terms, I can now say I was definitely speaking about first-order/ultimate questions. Also, when I said “collective worldview” I was referring to the majority opinion you’d hear when speaking to people about abortion, homosexual “marriage”, etc. It seems like most people will have a similar response to those issues so I made the assumption that they were derived from a similar worldview.

  4. Likely origination of the phrase:

    “When the American Colonies became the United States, the Church of England in the new country became the Episcopal Church, and although it was no longer the established faith, it was, from the start, the church of the established order. Eight of the first fourteen Presidents were Episcopalians, as have been half of the Chief Justices. The Church was termed ‘the Republican Party at prayer,’ meaning that in style and in fact it was the denomination of the moneyed class. ”

    Peter J. Boyer http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/17/a-church-asunder

  5. The earliest form of the phrase is, approximately, “The Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer.” But searching for that sentence online did not summon its source.

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