The Strange Persistence Of Theocracy In America

© R. Scott Clark

© R. Scott Clark

It is a deeply-held conviction among more than a few American Christians that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that it was such until relatively recently. Further, it is widely thought that if only there were a religious and political revival the USA could return to its original condition. This is view of American political and religious history, however, is a powerful myth and as flawed in its premises and methods as the 1619 Project is in its premises and methods. Indeed, these two competing myths and methods fairly deserve each other as much as the theonomists and theocrats on the right deserve the theonomists and theocrats on the left.

Mythos And American Fundamentalism

The whole narrative (and its proposed solution) is a myth in two senses. Our word myth is a loan word from Greek.  In classical Greek myth (μῦθος) has two senses. In the first, it simply refers to public speech, conversation, or even advice. In other words, it has nothing to do with the way we use the word myth today. In the second sense, however, it refers to a narrative, a story, or a tale. It might be true or it might not be true but it helps explain the way things are. When we use the word myth we associate it with the classical myths about the gods of the Greek pantheon. Scholars of the Ancient Near East speak of the creation myths, which competed with the Biblical creation account. By myth I mean a narrative, a story about American religious and political history that is partly true but largely false but which nevertheless serves as a motivation for religious and political engagement and a way of understanding the world and one’s place in it.

This myth flourishes among fundamentalist American Christians. The definition  of the term fundamentalist is hotly contested, in part because it has been so abused by political and religious partisans. By the word I do not refer to those Christians who hold the fundamentals of the faith as confessed by Christians everywhere and in all times (“Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est”—the Vincentian Canon). Many orthodox Christians, e.g., J. Gresham Machen and his colleagues, defended the “fundamentals of the faith” in the early 20th century against the theological and ecclesiastical Liberals who derided and rejected them. Rather by fundamentalist I refer to that sect of Protestant Christians who, beginning in the first half of the 20th-century, created a novel list of doctrines and behaviors as boundary markers of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy which have little to do with historic Christian orthodoxy, e.g., pre-tribulational premillennialism, Dispensationalism, abstinence from alcohol, 6-day-24-hour creation, etc. One of those markers is the myth of Christian America.

The myth of Christian America has a great power among American fundamentalist Christians. Popular fundamentalist figures e.g., David Barton, have made done to the fundamentalist understanding of American political history what Whitcomb and Morris’ The Genesis Flood (1961) did to the fundamentalist understanding of creation. J. Gresham Machen, the leader of “the fundamentalists” in the 1920s and 30s became, by the 1970s and 80s, “a liberal.” I recall a conversation with an Orthodox Presbyterian elder, in the late 1990s, who told me that he would vote to deny ordination to Machen because of his day-age view of creation, even though it was Machen, who, with his day-age view, who had founded the OPC.

So, in the same way, the revisions, by Barton and other fundamentalists, of American political and religious history have created a narrowed, misleading myth about American history and that narrative informs and impels American Christians politically and religiously. That myth is a web of truths, half-truths, and flat out falsehoods.

Further complicating the story is a competing set of myths on the religious and political left, the core of which is that there was no Christian influence on the American founding, that none of the founders were Christians, and that all the Christian language they used was merely so much culturally necessary window dressing. This myth also needs to be rejected as equally simplistic and false. Nevertheless, on the political left this myth is deeply rooted and influences and impels religious and political action. E.g., I was a political science student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1980s. Most of my professors repeated some version of this myth. One professor even told me that, as a Christian, I had no place in the United States and that I should move somewhere with a state-church, e.g., the United Kingdom. Eventually I did move to the UK for a couple of years but I did not renounce my American citizenship nor should I or any Christian. My professor was, to put it plainly, cracked.

The Complicated History Of The American Founding

The real story of role in the American founding is far too complex to be told here and it would be better told by an expert in American history. My academic specialization focuses on the 16th and 17th centuries. Nevertheless, it is clear to me from my reading in American religious and political history that the “Christian America” myth is mostly false.

It is true that the pilgrims who arrived on these shores in the early 17th century from England (Jamestown, 1607; Plymouth Bay 1620; Massachusetts Bay, 1630) were typically Christian. It is in light of the pilgrims and the predominant cultural authority (not to say theological or practical orthodoxy) Christianity in the American colonies and later, in the American Republic, that it was a commonplace for politicians and writers to refer without a moment’s hesitation to America as a “Christian nation.” Yet, whether that was ever really true or in what sense it was true is a hotly debated question. Mark Edwards argues that the rhetoric of America as a Christian nation is the product of nineteenth-century attempts to keep Enlightenment-inspired ideas at bay.

He is probably right that, in the late 18th century, just as Deconstructionism swept through American universities in the 1980s and 90s, the effects of which we can see on our campuses and in our streets, so too, the effects of the the early stages of the Enlightenment swept through the salons of the American elites, vitiating the influence of orthodox Christianity in most places. Further, as I observed in Recovering the Reformed Confession, the outcomes of the so-called First Great Awakening were not nearly as positive as is often assumed or imagined. In Recovering I focused on the First Great Awakening but connected it to the Second Great Awakening. In “Magic and Noise” I noted that Nathan Hatch argues persuasively that American may be fairly called a “Christian nation” when thinking about a 70 year window in the 19th century.

To be sure, some of the eighteenth-century founders were were fairly orthodox. John Witherspoon (1723–94) was a Presbyterian minister and served as president of the College of New Jersey, which grew up to be Princeton University. Mark David Hall lists Sam Adams,  Patrick Henry, John Jay, and Roger Sherman as founders who “embraced and articulated orthodox Christian ideas.” It is not true, as many influential American historians have written or suggested, that all the founders were Deists. To be sure, some, e.g., Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were. The latter, had some emotional and aesthetic sympathies for Christianity and Jefferson’s Deist version of the New Testament was a private document until after his death. Other figures, e.g., George Washington, were more ambiguous. One massive account of Washington’s religion has compiled everything he ever said or wrote about Christianity and his prayers, in an attempt to create the impression that Washington was a devout, orthodox and warmly evangelical Christian. The reality is that he is probably better categorized as a latitudinarian Anglican, whose theology, piety, and practice do not fit neatly into the Deist or Evangelical boxes.

Nevertheless, theonomists, i.e., those Christian fundamentalists who seek the restoration and enforcement of the judicial laws of the Old Testament, and theocrats, i.e., those who wish for an established church (either on the state or federal level) and fundamentalists (as defined above) regularly traffic in the myth of a unified orthodox Christian founding of the American Republic and call for or look forward to (in a postmillennial eschatology) a time when Christianity shall have swept over the nation and the world and to a renewed Christian American Republic.

What Is Theocracy?

This of course is the key term in the argument. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, the Anglican poet and priest (c. 1571–1631) was the first to use the English word theocracy. It is derived from the Greek word θεοκρατία (theokratia). The word came to be used regularly in the 19th century to denote a “form of government in which God (or a deity) is recognized as the king or immediate ruler, and his laws are taken as the statute-book of the kingdom, these laws being usually administered by a priestly order as his ministers and agents; hence (loosely) a system of government by sacerdotal order, a claiming divine commission; also a state so governed: esp. applied to the Commonwealth of Israel from the Exodus to the election of Saul as King.” This is the way Josephus (Against Apion, 2.165) used the Greek word, which we transliterate theocracy. Donald Macleod, however, correctly explains the “term is often used more loosely, however, of communities where there is a union of church and state, or where the civil power is dominated by the ecclesiastical (properly, a hierocracy).”1 He further explains,

In the looser sense, of a society dominated by the church (or by its clergy), scholars have found examples of theocracy in medieval Catholicism, Calvin’s Geneva, Cromwell’s England and the teaching of the Westminster Confession (see Confessions): ‘The civil magistrate hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered and observed’ (ch. XXIII. iii). What J. T. McNeill said of Calvin’s Geneva is probably true of all of these: ‘Certainly the system was a theocracy in the sense that it assumed responsibility to God on the part of secular and ecclesiastical authority alike and proposed as its end the effectual operation of the will of God in the life of the people’ (The History and Character of Calvinism, New York, 1954, p. 185).2

Macleod qualifies the definition a bit by noting that the Westminster Confession does not subordinate the civil authorities to the church (23.4) noting that “ecclesiastical persons” must submit to the magistrate even though the magistrate be an infidel. According to the broad or loose definition given by Macleod, the original versions of the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Westminster Standards (1646 et seq.) were theocratic. They expected the magistrate to enforce Christian orthodoxy. From the reign (379–95) of Theodosius I Christianity became the established state religion of the Roman Empire. We call the period of history in which Christianity dominated Christendom. After the collapse of the Empire and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire (AD 800) and in all the European nations, states, duchies and districts, Christianity was the established religion. For 1,394 years, until the formation of the American Republic as a secular state (as distinct from the French Revolution, which not only disestablished the church but actively persecuted it, which seems to be where the American Republic is headed) it was assumed that there must be a state-church. They only and great question, especially from the Reformation forward was which church? Thus, there were long and bloody wars in the 16th and 17th centuries for religious supremacy. Most of the time it was Rome, as in the French Wars of Religion (1562–98), the Eighty-Years War (1568–1648), and the Thirty-Years War (1618–48) are outstanding examples. When the American Republic was founded, it the Reformation and post-Reformation wars were relatively fresh wounds which the founders sought to avoid.

With effective (though not entirely complete) ratification of the Constitution of the United States in 1789 the federal government of the United States of officially secular. there was no established church but it would take about 50 years for the state churches to be disestablished. The tax to fund the ministers in Massachusetts was overturned in 1833. Some vestiges of the established churches remained and were challenged through the 19th century.

Why Is It Strange?

In a sense theocracy is not strange. The Ancient Near Eastern nations had state-religions. The Israelites had a state-religion and the pagan Romans did also when they required Christians to renounce Christ and to recognize the Roman pantheon and Caesar as a god. The Americans, unlike the French Revolution, did not institute an anti-Christian government but a secular government. They intentionally sought to make the American Republic religiously neutral. This was a bold experiment and for all its weaknesses it has succeeded better than the founders might have expected. To be sure, they assumed that most Americans held to some version of Christianity. The founders themselves, as least as a body, took no action to disestablish the various state churches. That occurred when the injustice of forcing a Romanist or a Baptist to fund the ministry of the Congregationalists became obvious. I, for one, am glad that I am not forced, at the point of the sword, to fund another Christian sect. It is no business of the state where I worship or how and the state has no business imposing a religion upon me or in coercing—all taxation is coercion—me into funding another religious sect (I do not use the term sect here prejudicially but neutrally since, as far as the civil magistrate is concerned, all religions are sects).

To Americans, however, theocracy, is strange or it ought to be. It is not as if our history is a secret. It is not as if the Constitution of the United States is written in hieroglyphics. Contra the radical secular-ists, our Founders were, despite their religious diversity, generally religious men. Even the Deists were religious, in their own way. They were not kidding when they invoked the Creator in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Constitution proper makes no mention of God or religion. Madison invoked “that finger of the Almighty hand” (Federalist 37) in framing of the Constitution. That is a fact. As those in the Reformed Presbyterian “Covenanter” tradition will tell you, the Founders had opportunity to declare “the crown rights of King Jesus,” i.e., to make the new American Republic an explicitly Christian Republic and they refused. The non-Christian religions (e.g., Muslims and Jews) in the new nation were a small religious minorities but they existed and the founders knew that they existed. They probably did not imagine that from the early part of the 19th century through 20th century, that there would be as many (or more) Roman Catholics in America than Protestants but they did not set up this nation to prevent it. They intended the nation to be religiously pluralist. Madison made this much clear enough in his brief comments in Federalist 52 when he wrote, “In a free government the security of for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests , and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and the number of people comprehended under the same government.”

Another American Revolution?

Thus, when I encounter American theocrats (and those from overseas who think we should be a theocratic nation) it seems to me that they do not understand this nation or the principles on which the Republic was founded. They seem to have a doughnut reading of American history. They point to the theocratic tendencies among the Colonial congregationalists, which are undeniable and they point to the prevalence of Christianity during the Second Great Awakening but there is a hole in the middle of their American history: the Founders and the founding documents. This nation was never intended to be a theocracy and to make it one would entail a revolution. Is not one purpose of the Bill of Rights to protect our liberty from theocrats and despots?  What sort of church do they see imposed? Barring a miracle it would not be a confessional Presbyterian or Reformed Church since there are probably fewer than 500,000 conservative P&R types in the USA. There are more than 6,000,0000 Southern Baptists and more than 60,000,000 Roman Catholics. If there is going to be a religious revolution and a state-church, the greatest likelihood is that Philip II of Spain (1527–98), that great proponent of the Romanist Counter Reformation would get his fondest wish: the once WASP-y USA would become a great prize of the Roman Communion.

Further, I do not understand why postmillennialist theocrats seem so anxious to make the USA into a theocracy since, on their eschatology, the gospel must convert most of the world and presumably most of the USA. One of the outcomes of Federal Vision theology and ecclesiology, widely held among the Reconstructionist wing among postmillennialists, is that their doctrine of conditional baptismal election, regeneration, union with Christ and adoption facilitates this gradual dawning of the coming golden age. Again, a theocracy seems unnecessary in that scheme since who needs a theocracy when almost everyone is regenerate? It is almost as if they do not quite believe their own eschatology.

Yes, Christianity no longer has the privileged place it once did. That is a difficult reality for some American Christians to accept even though it has been a long time since most Americas were biblically literate. Some studies (e.g., the Ligonier surveys on American religious views and attitudes) suggest that even those Americans who still identify as Christians do not understand basic Christianity. Apparently the several “revivals” announced by a variety of American religious leaders through the course of the 20th century either did not happen or had very shallow roots indeed. If the postmillennialists right—and I doubt very much that they are—the evidence would seem to suggest that before a future golden age comes there shall have to be the sort of society collapse envisioned by the Reconstructionists because the social and religious progress envisioned by the postmillennialists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is not coming to pass or is taking an unexpected detour.

It is not too much to say that theocracy is positively un-American. It is contrary to the Constitution and the intention of the Founders. More than that, however, it is unwarranted biblically. Theocracy was utterly remote from the minds and intentions of the earliest Christians whether in the New Testament or in the early church prior to Theodosius. Christendom is dead but Christ’s church continues. Christ reigns in his heavens, despite the absence of an American theocracy. He is calling his elect through his ordained, if humble and even foolish (1 Cor 1:18–2:16) means, the preaching of the gospel of a crucified Messiah, his bodily resurrection and ascension, and his glorious bodily return. Our five-year plan is the same as our plan has ever been: preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, use church discipline, and thus advance his kingdom until he comes.

© R. Scott Clark 2020. All Rights Reserved.



  1. s.v., “Theocracy,” in Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer ed., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 677.
  2. Ibid., 678.

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  1. The chasm between the two contentions aren’t in the definition of *Christian*, but in *nation*. Most everyone nowadays grants that the formal political apparatus that constitutes the federal government of the United States of America, as we generally take nation to mean nowadays, very consciously eschewed any religious affiliation (though many of the states within it were explicitly Christian polities, which only conflicted with the federal stance after the post-civil war realignment, a topic that sees little appreciation in these discussions). But if we take nation in the older sense, where we refer to the people we know as Americans, then it should be completely uncontroversial to say that America was a Christian nation from before founding until recently, despite (not historically unusual) currents of unbelief, heresy, and indifferentism .

    • James,

      That’s more presumption than history. See Hatch, whom I cited in the article. See also my essay in Always Reformed for more leads on this. Hatch argues that the USA could be said, within the very terms you stipulate (the people, as distinct from the government), to be Christian for about 70 years in the 19th century. That consensus began to disintegrate by the late 19th century. The 1920s were devastating for the standing of Christianity among the people. The relative lack of genuine Christian belief in this country probably goes back at least a century and probably farther than that.

  2. As a side question, can someone hold to a 6-day creation and be Reformed?
    Because I take it that some hold to ordinary creation and are still confessional.

    • Hi Joseph,

      Not sure what you mean by “ordinary” but if it = 6-24 creation, sure! It’s likely that most of the Westminster Divines held to 6/24 creation. Most of NAPARC probably holds to some version of 6-24 creation. My concern is that it not be made into a boundary marker for orthodoxy lest we bar Warfield, Machen, and E J Young.

      On this see the chapter on the QIRC in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

  3. I’m sure you realize that no less than Charles Hodge held that America is a Christian nation:

    “The proposition that the United States of America are a Christian
    and Protestant nation, is not so much the assertion of a principle as
    the statement of a fact. That fact is not simply that the great
    majority of the people are Christians and Protestants, but that the
    organic life, the institutions, laws, and official action of the
    government, whether that action be legislative, judicial, or
    executive, is, and of right should be, and in fact must be, in
    accordance with the principles of Protestant Christianity.”

    • Indeed. It’s notable that he said this in the nineteenth century, during the period when as Hatch says, America arguably was a largely Christian nation. It’s also the case that the story is more complicated than Hodge might have thought in the 1840s–70s.

      The second half of the paragraph is more assumption than fact but it was fairly widely held in the USA probably until the early 1970s at least.

      This is why I wrote that it was common for people (e.g., politicians) that “American is a Christian nation” and it was entirely non-controversial. Nevertheless, the actual history is more complex, as I indicated.

  4. The divines (and Belgic art writers too) were theocrats. I understand too that many Presbyterian and reformed denominations around the word still confess WCF 1647 . The Presbyterian Church in India for one. Aspiring to an established church is hardly un-confessional is it?

    • Leon,

      Yes, as I’ve written many times and will explain in part 2, the tradition was theocratic. The original text of the Belgic & the Standards were theocratic. They, as Abraham Kuyper argued, were wrong.

      The qualifier American in the title is not to be overlooked.

  5. What would happen if there was a massive upsurge in conversions to Christianity in the states. God in his sovereignty could well do so. Would it not be ok to have a Christian constitution then? There are numerous states in the world with established religions even Christian ones. Is this so bad?

  6. It seems odd that so many profess such a strong desire for the kingdom NOW, instead of the desire for patient endurance now, as we await for the fullness of the Kingdom Come to arrive at the trumpet call of it’s Lord and King. A simple word study should, I suspect, reveal the call for patient endurance far supersedes any interpretive approach that claims the time for the kingdom is now, built upon the faithfulness of it’s adherents, to correct the politics and ethics of the nations wherein they reside. I understand the desperate yearning, but not the belief that It will be fulfilled prior to the coming of the One in whom all is and shall be fulfilled.

  7. Well yes but.. My point is that its somewhat .. i dont know, rich? to argue against an Established church as being confessional when not only are there many churches around the world that confess the WCF 1647 but so do the divines. You are entitled to your arguments , as is Mr Kuyper, but the *DIVINES* are against thee and much of the PnR world (outside the US) is too.
    I think I’m really reacting to the incredulity in your piece given the points i’m raising. *Strange* is incorrect. Unsurprising is probably fairer.

    • Leon,

      Yes, the tradition is theocratic but what makes it strange in America is that we explicitly rejected theocracy. I understand that theocracy exists formally in many other places still but this country was consistuted, in part, on the rejection of theocracy.

      I understand that not everyone wants to be an American georgraphically or ideologically but there is an American ideology. If one wants a state-church, then why not find a country where there is an established church? We all know how well that has worked out.

      Freedom from a federally established church (and later from established state churches) is one of the reasons why the other freedoms are recognized in the bill of rights. Should the Baptists ever become the established church, it shall only be after those liberties have been revoked.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    I cannot fathom why you are arguing for “religious neutrality” at such a time as this, when now more than ever it is becoming ever clearer that such a thing does not exist. Though I personally favor the classic Reformed position on the civil magistrate, there is a middle ground between that and what you advocate, and it is the classic American Presbyterian position of (once again) Charles Hodge, who wrote:

    “If a man is not religious, he is irreligious; if he is not a believer, he is an unbeliever. This is as true of organizations and institutions, as it is of individuals. Byron uttered a profound truth when he put into the mouth of Satan the words ‘He that does not bow to God, has bowed to me.’ If you banish light, you are in darkness…. This controversy, therefore, is a controversy between Christianity and infidelity; between light and darkness; between Christ and Belial.”

    Do you not agree with this basic thought?

    • David,

      1. There is a distinction to be made between epistemic neutrality and religious neutrality on the part of the state. Hodge is perfectly right re the individual and private entities. The problem comes when one tries to stretch this maxim to the state.

      2. I’m unapologetic in my insistence that the state maintain religious neutrality because 1) it is the American way as is demonstrable from the constitutional (construed broadly) documents and American history demonstrate; 2) The history of the state-church, as Kuyper and many others have noted, does not commend itself; 3) The state-church, under the New Testament, is not authorized; 4) The early church never sought a state-church.

      3. The classic Reformed position is theocratic but it was wrong and it’s un-American. Are you calling for a revolution?

  9. How could “myth” in the sense of something that might be true or not be true but helps explain the way things are, be an explanation in the strict sense?

    When we say “that explains it,” don’t we always mean “that truly explains it,” i.e., “that” is true, and “that” explains it?

    Otherwise, don’t we say “that would explain it, if it were true”? Something is just “plausible,” but doesn’t explain, if it implies something that’s true, but is not itself proven. If A implies B, and B is true, doesn’t force us to believe that A is true.

    I think we should be wary of “This is because ….” arguments that don’t support what they say next! Thank you for the post, which has the side-effect, doesn’t it, of rehabilitating the word “secular” among conservative Christians?

    I think the word secular expresses not just a procedure of acting apart from a necessary religious institutional input, but a preference for not doing so, and a belief that one should and can. If Laplace told Napoleon he didn’t need God as a necessary hypothesis for explaining the world, he was wrong, not understanding what we call the world’s “contingency.” But Laplace was being secular, in the sense of doing something wrong: excluding for incorrect reason, a valid explanation. That’s what the French tried to do in their Revolution, didn’t they? If being secular becomes a procedure for excluding explanations, pro forma and beforehand, I don’t think we should be a secular nation in that sense.

  10. You’ve made some very good points.

    I would certainly agree that, at present,nominally “Christian” America seems divided between a RC majority (which, due to the RC definition of membership as anyone baptized as a RC, which would include the Presbyterian minister who baptized my younger son) and a group we might call ‘Baptacostal”. As for a few hundred thousand “Reformed” people, I see many of them wishing they were Baptist, Pentecostal, or Ply mouth Brethren back in the 1970’s, and as many wishing they were Roman or Constantinopolitan nowadays.

    However, an issue with our “neutral” or “secular” Constitution is that it had the door wide open to that 70 year window between Justice Story’s and Justice Brewer’s observations that our laws presuppose Christianity and our current era in which abortion, homosexual marriage, and the silencing of traditionalist voices is found in the “penumbrae” of the Constitution. Can you blame people for seeing this as a recipe for building on quicksand?

    • Peter,

      It is important, in my view, to distinguish between epistemic neutrality and civil neutrality. The American experiment depends, to a certain degree, upon the state remaining neutral relative to the various religions and their adherents. That is not to say there there is such a thing as epistemic neutrality. That’s another question.

      This is why the sacred/secular distinction is so important. We’re discussing secular life. If there can be no neutrality by the government in secular matters, then we are doomed to endless religious wars. The American experiment intended to end these wars by removing the religious motivation for control of civil power. In America, at her best, the Baptists may not tyrannize the Reformed.

      Our legislation may presume Christianity but our Founders did not necessarily do so.

      The great problem of some of the recent SCOTUS decisions is that they are not sufficiently secular. Obergefell canonizes a liberal-left doctrine of humanity. Doe and Roe de-humanized unborn humans. Were the Court more rigorously secular, we would be relatively more free.

      The secular is not our enemy. It is our friend.

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