Pew Poll: Christendom Lives In The Hearts Of Many Americans

On October 28, 2021 The Pew Research Center published another of their fascinating and illuminating polls. This one surveyed the attitudes of Americans on the relations between church and state. For our international readers the USA has a written constitution (other nations speak of a “constitution” but in those contexts the word does not always connote a written document). The first of the original ten amendments to the Constitution says, “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.”

The American founders rejected the very idea of an established, national church. When the Constitution was ratified there were still established churches in some of the states but the last of those was disestablished in the early nineteenth century.

Christendom As Favored Status

Nevertheless, until quite recently, Christianity and the Christian church had a favored status in America. Bob Godfrey has described that favored status as an expression of Christendom. That favored status enjoyed by the visible church and by Christians has largely eroded over the last 60 years. For a turning point, we might look at the 1962 Supreme Court decision in Engel v. Vitale to remove official school prayers. Today, however, it is difficult for students even to meet voluntarily for prayer. As late as the mid-1980s it was common to see stores closed on Sundays. Such closures were due to so-called “Blue Laws” (no one seems to know exactly why they were called “Blue Laws”), which regulated public behavior under the influence of Christian influence. Today most of those laws have been stricken from the books or are ignored by authorities.

The courts have addressed the relation of church and state. The Supreme Court imposed the “Lemon Test,” which the late justice Antonin Scalia called a “ghoul.” Despite the straightforward language of the Constitution (never mind the ambiguities of the “Lemon Test”)  a surprising number of Americans seem to want the state to do more to advance the work of the church.

In a recent poll, 15% of those surveyed think that the federal government should “declare America a Christian nation.” 18% in the survey agreed with the proposition that the US Constitution was “inspired by God.”  19% want the federal government to stop enforcing a distinction between church and state.

It is less surprising to see that 30% of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “public school teachers should be allowed to lead students in Christian prayers.” To this I suppose many reasonable Americans, i.e., those who are seeking to live in peace with their neighbors of other faiths, could agree if this statement were conditioned with a qualification, “privately” or in a voluntary group. It hardly seems just that a Christian school teacher or worse, as J. Gresham Machen observed nearly a century ago, an unbelieving teacher, should lead the children of Muslim or Jewish parents in a Christian prayer, in an involuntary exercise in class. Were a Muslim teacher to lead Jewish and Christian students in a involuntary religious exercise, e.g., in the recitation of the Shahadah, Jewish and Christian parents would be rightly upset.

The Annual Christmas Debate Is Telling

39% of those polled think that cities and towns should be able to put up religious displays on public property. This question has been much debated at the local level but I do not know that there has been a decision by the U S Supreme Court. Again, neighbors of various faiths (or no faith) ought to be able to reach some accommodation on this. What typically happens is that what some might call “the Village Atheist” objects to Christmas displays and towns react by turning the annual Christmas celebration into a “Winter Celebration.” E.g., the San Diego Christmas Lights display became a “festival of lights.” Perhaps it is unintentional but it is a little ironic when the Christmas celebration becomes a de facto winter solstice celebration, much revered by neo-pagans. If Christians should not have favored status neither should the Druids.

American Christians are lamenting the marginalization of the church in Modernity. This is understandable. It is painful to be pushed from the center of society to its edges. It is difficult to accept that observances that were widely accepted only a few years ago are now forbidden. It is no longer clear what the new social rules are. Consider the annual debate over “Happy Holidays” v. “Merry Christmas.” There are two major holidays this time of year in North America. Christmas is an ancient holiday and Hanukkah (Chanukah) is even more ancient. Now, were we all determined to live together peacefully, there is no reason why devout Jews and Christians cannot live together in a religiously pluralist society. There is no reason why they cannot wish each other a happy celebration of their respective holidays and, in that light, “Happy Holidays” could be seen as a shorthand for that sort of civility but it seems to some Christians that the turn to “Happy Holidays” has come at the expense of the public observance of Christmas. Are holiday observances a zero sum game whereby if we observe one we cannot observe the other?

The annual argument over Christmas is symbolic of the changing fortunes, if you will, of public Christianity in an increasingly religiously and culturally diverse society. It is also true that there are pagans who are not only spiritually but culturally and socially anti-Christian. Where is Mikey Weinstein complaining about the role of Islam, neo-Paganism, or Wicca in the military? They would seek to remove every vestige of the history of Christian influence in the USA and every expression of it from the public square. This is a significant shift in America. Most of the American founders were not devout Christians but they were generally supportive of Christianity in the public and private spheres. Not even that deist Thomas Jefferson campaigned against it. In his new book on Ben Franklin, Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant, D. G. Hart rather brilliantly describes him as a “cultural Christian.” Even though most of the founders were more influenced by the Enlightenment than by historic Christianity they understood the significance of Christianity for the formation of the West and in the life of the American Republic. In Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan Hatch argued that America could be considered a genuinely Christian nation for a period of several decades during the Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century but not before or after. Thus, in a sense we are returning to the status quo ante but in a post-Christian setting.

What Should We Ask Caesar To Do?

For the most part American Christians should ask Caesar to leave us alone. This was the repeated request of the Ancient church fathers of the pagans who ruled them. In his Apology Justin Martyr told the Emperor that he should leave the discipline of Christians to the church because they would be stricter than the Romans, which (given that the Romans crucified some criminals) was quite a promise.

In Belgic Confession art. 36, as revised by the United Reformed Churches in North America (the federation of churches in which I serve) we no longer ask the magistrate to uphold “the sacred ministry,” nor do we ask him to destroy “idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist” nor to promote “the kingdom of Jesus Christ” and to further “the preaching of the gospel everywhere.”

We ask him to govern so that “human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.” We ask him to use the sword given to him by God to “punish evil people and protect the good.” Obviously, as Calvinists, we do not confess that humans are intrinsically good. These are relative, civil categories. The only thing we ask them to do for the church specifically is to remove “every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship.” Some, it seems, would like to read back into these two clauses everything that was removed by the URCs but that reading will not stand even the mildest scrutiny. We are not asking for favor. We are asking to be able to exercise our religion without hindrance, which, under the Constitution of the United States, is the right of every religious group. Like all other Americans, we call on the magistrate to refrain from absolutism and to “function in the sphere entrusted to them.” We speak this way because we follow that radical, were we to believe some readings of Belgic 36, John Calvin, who wrote that Christians live in a “twofold government” (duplex regimen):

Therefore, in order that none of us may stumble on that stone, let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man (duplex esse in homine regimen): one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the “spiritual” and the “temporal” jurisdiction (not improper terms) by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life—not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby a man may live his life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately. For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior. The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. Now these two, as we have divided them, must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other. There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority (Institutes, 3.19.15; Battles edition).

It was Calvin, among others, who taught us to think about the Christian life lived in two parallel spheres under God’s sovereign providence. In his special providence he operates in the sacred sphere, chiefly in the visible church. In his general providence he operates in the secular sphere. The sphere in which the magistrate is to operate is the secular sphere. In short, we are not theocrats.

Obviously we have adopted and adapted Calvin’s theory in a different setting. In the sixteenth century just about everyone, including more than a few Anabaptists, was theocratic. That is, they wanted the state to enforce their religious orthodoxy on everyone else. In the marvelous providence of God, in the USA, we have opted out of the Theodosian system of the state-church and state-enforced religious orthodoxy. Some Americans, however, would like to overturn the American experiment and return to the old system and to the endless and bloody wars that accompanied it. Strangely, I have yet to meet a a theocrat who has accounted for the second of the original ten Amendments, which was adopted in part to protect the first. In other words, one wonders if these would be theocrats have considered what they are buying should they get their wish? Should they try to impose episcopacy, surely the dissenters would band together to resist. Should the Baptist theocrats, who seem to have aligned themselves with postmillennial, theonomic, Reconstructionists in Moscow, ID, get their wish, then why would not the anti-theocrats form a resistance movement? In short: Americans ought to learn the history of Northern Ireland before they reenact it.


It is regularly alleged by theonomists and theocrats (they are overlapping movements but distinct. All theonomists are theocrats but not all theocrats are theonomists) that anyone who argues for two distinct spheres under God’s sovereign providence, i.e., anyone who is not a theocrat, is a Gnostic. This is amusing since our erstwhile theocrats dream about a state of affairs that does not exist and, if the Constitution has anything to say about it, will not and cannot exist in this country. People who throw around the word Gnosticism so carelessly show thereby that they know little about it.

The early Christian fathers, who never asked Caesar to do anything to advance their religious cause, wrote the book against the Gnostics. Indeed, they wrote several. Their argument against the Gnostics never entailed a state-church or a theocracy. It did entail the true humanity of Christ, the goodness of creation, and unity of the covenant of grace—this would seem to be difficulty for more than a few Baptists. The Gnostics wanted to separate radically the Old and New Testaments. They argued that the god of the Old Testament was, because he was creator and because creation is inherently evil, a minor deity. The god of the New Testament, they argued was of an entirely different sort. Further, they argued, there is a spiritual hierarchy in the world, which is accessed through secret knowledge (hence Gnosticism). If we are looking for Gnosticism, we should look not much farther than the theonomy and Christian Reconstruction movements, who apparently have secret knowledge about what “general equity” means in the Westminster Confession.

Nothing about the early Christian response to Gnosticism entailed a return to the Old Testament theocracy. The fathers (e.g., Barnabas, Justin, and Irenaeus) understood and explained the progress of redemptive history. They understood that the Israelite theocracy was temporary and typological of the coming kingdom of Christ. They knew that Jesus was no Gnostic and that he announced to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Jesus said, however, “Were my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” One gets the clear sense, however, that some of our latter day theonomists (a movement whose roots are in the Anabaptist movement and not in the Reformation) and theocrats are not entirely comfortable with our Lord’s response to Pilate. At least one prominent theonomist has written that our Lord’s teaching that Christians should turn the other cheek and walk an extra mile etc. belongs only to a period of time when Christians are a subjugated people. When we are in power, he argues, things will be different. Any self-respecting Dispensationalist would be most happy with that hermeneutic but it is certainly not a historic Christian way to read the Bible and certainly it is not the Reformed way of reading Scripture.

Christ’s Twofold Kingdom Stands

Yes, the fortunes of American Christians are shifting. At the moment, outwardly considered, things do not seem to be going well for us. Some Christians who have ethical concerns about how the Covid vaccines were developed and tested, who doubt that they ought receive a vaccine tested on human embryo kidney tissue obtained through abortion (does it really matter if it was elective?), are being asked to choose between supporting a family and obeying their conscience. It was not long ago that a United States Senator tried to impose, during a confirmation hearing, a religious standard for government service, which, if adopted, would bar many Christians from government service. Christians are regularly ridiculed in the mass media and on BigSocMedia. When was the last time anyone saw a Protestant minister portrayed as anything other than the killjoy in Footloose? (Seventh Heaven?) Mostly, however, orthodox Christians (save a few favored Romanists here and there) are mostly invisible now.

Nevertheless, the Kingdom of God stands and there is nothing Caesar can do about it. He crucified Jesus but God raised him from the dead and now that same Jesus reigns in glorious session—is it not remarkable that this seems like Gnosticism to some?—at the right hand of the Father. He is gathering his elect through the preaching of the gospel and through the due use of the ordinary means of grace. He does not need Caesar’s help. The ancient church survived despite at least three major persecutions, the last of which only ended when Christianity was recognized as a legal religion in the early fourth century. If we follow Abraham Kuyper—that Gnostic!—we should think that Caesar’s attempts to “help” the church has done more harm than good. Why did it take so long for Nicene orthodoxy to take root in the church? Why was the French Reformed Church unable to prosecute Moises Amyraut in the seventeenth century? Why was it so difficult for the Dutch Reformed Church to prosecute Arminius and to remove the Remonstrants from ministry? Why did the Dutch Reformed churches have to argue for so many years about the use of organs (which the ministers opposed) in public worship? The answer: “Christian” magistrates. That which some think to be a blessing, a magistrate on our side, using his office to establish the church etc., historically has not done that very well at all. When you get to heaven, ask those Protestants whom Bloody Mary martyred in England, those tens of thousands of French Reformed martyrs, or the thousands of Dutch Reformed martyrs under Spanish oppression. In the end, all our modern theocrats, whether TheoRecons or Romanist Integralists all sound like the most dreamy-eyed Marxists telling that the right people have not tried it yet. Who is the Gnostic now?

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Not just Jesus’ reply to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), but also his reply to the Pharisee’s challenge to “give to Caesar those things that belong to Caesar and give to God those things that belong to God” Mark 12:17. Both should be clear enough.

  2. Made to order. Last night I was attempting to formulate a response to the tide of Baptist theocrats and the “Fight, Laugh, Feast” Muscovites. Besides your excellent and thorough discussion, you rang the cowbell with the Gnosticism of their “secret knowledge about what “general equity” means in the Westminster Confession.”

  3. I’m definitely not a Wilson fan by any means, but doesn’t he believe in a milder version of theonomy?

  4. I appreciate the response Dr. Clark and neverless as someone who came out of dispensation. I definitely see similarities between the Wilsonites and dispys in that they’re obsessed with eschatology, but also have views that are not historic Christian beliefs.

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