After his re-election as governor of the State of Oklahoma, the hon. Kevin Stitt appeared at a prayer rally. He said the following:
STITT: “Father, we just claim Oklahoma for you. Every square inch, we claim it for you in the name of Jesus. Father, we can do nothing apart from you. We [wind noise] battle against flesh and blood, against principalities of darkness. Father, we just come against that, we just loose your will over our state right now in the name of Jesus. … We just thank you, we claim Oklahoma for you, as the authority that I have as governor, and the spiritual authority and the physical authority that you give me. I claim Oklahoma for you, that we will be a light to our country and to the world right here on stage. We thank you that your will is done on Tuesday and, Father, that you will have your way with our state, with our education system, with everything within the walls behind me and the rooms behind me, Lord, that you will root out corruption, you will bring the right people into this building, Father, from now on.”
The TheoRecon crowd is very excited about his exercise of dominion over the State of Oklahoma in Jesus’ name. After I objected on Twitter to some of Stitt’s language, a minister in my federation (i.e., denomination) of churches exclaimed that he was dumbfounded. My ministerial colleague should be “dumbfounded” but not for the reasons he thinks.
He should be astounded, amazed, and shocked that a sitting governor, speaking in his office as governor spoke the way he did.
Truth And Error In The Prayer
Let us deal first with the theology of the prayer.
1. Gov. Stitt need not “claim” the State of Oklahoma for Jesus, who already owns it. Indeed, he rules all the nations (and all the fifty states and several territories of the USA). Indeed, as the Psalmist says,
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill” (Ps 2:4–6; ESV)
The kings (and governors) of the earth are seated in temporal power at God’s good pleasure. They think that they are powerful but they are mere instruments in his hands. The Lord holds them in derision. He has his King, the ascended Lord Jesus Christ, installed over all the nations and all the governors. As Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of Yahweh; he turns it wherever he will” (ESV). They think that they can make God work for them but, in fact, they all do his bidding.
Christ is sovereign over every square inch. Abraham Kuyper was right: It all belongs to him. What the defenders of Stitt’s language seem not to understand is that Christ exercises his dominion and rule in two distinct spheres. Calvin explained this way:
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).
I have explained this distinct at considerable length. My dumbfounded colleague and others seem to assume that Christ’s sovereign rule over all things must be manifest in something like Christendom (e.g., an established church) or Christ is not really ruling or his rule is not being properly acknowledged. Christ is ruling whether or not the magistrate acknowledges it. As Cornelis Venema, Kim Riddlebarger, and other amillennialists observe, Christ was reigning over the nations when Nero set Christians on fire and when Decius slaughtered them in numbers, and he was reigning when Theodosius made Christianity the state religion of the empire. He is reigning now that the West has become post-Christian.
According to Calvin, Christians live in two spheres (the sacred and the secular) in God’s kingdom simultaneously. They have distinct responsibilities to each sphere in the kingdom. Attending to those responsibilities according to each sphere does not lessen Christ’s Lordship over both spheres. That Christians live in two spheres simultaneously does sometimes create tensions to be sure and we see some of those in Stitt’s prayer. As a Christian and as a private citizen, Stitt has every right to say that Jesus is Lord over all things. That liberty is not in question. The issue here is that, when he “claimed” the State of Oklahoma for Christ by “the authority that I have as governor,” he confused the two spheres. His job as governor is to serve all the citizens of Oklahoma—Christian, pagan, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim.
Stitt had no business as governor claiming Oklahoma for Christ. As much as it is his vocation as a Christian and as a private person to advance the Kingdom of God in Oklahoma, through the due use of the means of grace, by prayer, witness, etc., that is not his vocation before the Lord as governor. His vocation as governor is to secure justice for all the citizens of the state and to fulfill his natural, secular responsibilities.
One suspects that adjectives natural and secular will rub some Christians the wrong way. They should not. Every job has natural boundaries. The street paver’s job is not to set the tax levy. The secretary of state’s job is not the arrange road repair. The governor’s job has natural boundaries. He may not intrude on the church and tell the minister what to say. Federal monetary policy or foreign policy are not his business either. His authority is limited by the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma. The adjective secular is an honorable word. Calvin used it in the passage quoted above. As governor, Stitt is not functioning in a religious or sacred capacity.
The problem here is that the tradition from which Stitt was apparently speaking does not distinguish between nature and grace or the sacred and the secular. The Reformed, however, do distinguish. On this see the resources below.
2. God does not need his will to be “loosed.” This is the language and theology of the Pentecostal movement. It is not the language of Scripture nor of the great Christian tradition nor of the Reformed tradition. One suspects that Stitt is influenced by the theology of the “Seven Mountains Dominion Movement.” Joel McDurmon (himself a postmillennial, Christian Reconstructionist) gives a fair account of the movement here. This movement was founded by the church-growth leader, C. Peter Wagner (1930–2016). According to Wagner, Government is one of the seven (figurative) mountains over which Christians are called to take dominion in this life. The movement came to public awareness when Sarah Palin became the Republican nominee for Vice President in 2008.
The God of the Bible certainly hears and answers the prayers of Christians but he does not need to be “loosed.” His power is loosed all the time. The Lord is sovereign. He does whatever he wills, when he wills, as he wills. The good pleasure of God (beneplacitum) is one of the great recoveries of classic Reformed theology. This is not, however, a part of the Pentecostal tradition. Reformed Christians, going back to the early sixteenth-century (e.g., Guy de Bres’ critique of Thomas Müntzer et al.) rejected the Pentecostal theology, piety, and practice. Thus, it is surprising to see a Reformed minister seemingly endorsing it.
3. It is not as if everything that Stitt said is problematic, even if much of it is. It is true that humans can do nothing without God’s help. It is true that Christians battle spiritual principalities and powers (Col 1:16)—but it is also true, according to Paul in Colossians 2:15, that Christ, on the cross, has already “despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (ESV). That was true when Paul was stoned, beaten, forced to flee, jailed, and finally martyred. It is true that the Christians in Oklahoma should be a “light to our country and to the world” but it is not true that the State of Oklahoma, embodied in the governor, is called to be such. Oklahoma is not Christ’s church and Christ’s church is not Oklahoma. This seems self-evident but perhaps that truth needs to be spelled out. It is Christ’s church that is called to be a light to the world. The public education system is an unholy mess but it does need reformation and corruption needs to be rooted out. Most of all, however, Christians in Oklahoma ought to be withdrawing their children from public schools and founding and finding alternatives. I think that the governor and I might have different ideas of what it means for the Lord to have his way with the public school systems in Oklahoma.
This Is America
This is the United States of America. That means that Gov. Stitt can say whatever he will. He will be held to account by the voters. That is how our system of governance works. If they approve of his language, then they can re-elect him in four years for yet another term. If they do not, then they can elect someone else.
Still, in America, there are limits to what the governor in his office may say and do. It may be that most of the citizens of Oklahoma agree with him, but the government in the USA is not a pure democracy. We are a constitutional republic and our public officials are bound to uphold both the federal Constitution of the United States and their various state constitutions. Now, it is true that the preamble of the Oklahoma Constitution says, “Invoking the guidance of Almighty God, in order to secure and perpetuate the blessing of liberty; to secure just and rightful government; to promote our mutual welfare and happiness, we, the people of the State of Oklahoma, do ordain and establish this Constitution.” It is also true that there is no established church in the state of Oklahoma. Massachusetts disestablished the Congregationalists in 1833. In 1947, in Everson v Board of Education, Hugo Black wrote:
The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another […] No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion […] In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Steven K. Green notes, however, that Black’s confidence about a “wall of separation” is not shared by all.
Criticism of the modern Court’s separationist approach has existed since the 1940s, but gained momentum as a result of the resurgence of conservatism during the 1980s and the appointment of constitutional conservatives to the Supreme Court. Today, it is not uncommon for religious, legal, and cultural conservatives to criticize the concept of church-state separation. Critics charge that a separationist perspective imposes a regime of secularism, one that is not neutral toward religious matters but that privatizes and marginalizes religion. Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter argued that the separationism promoted “a culture of disbelief,” while Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus claimed that it created a religiously “naked public square.” Such critics have argued that a minimalist view of church-state separation is more consistent with our history, the intent of the framers of the First Amendment, and constitutional doctrine.
Joseph Story argued that the intent of the framers “was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity: but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”1
It is also true that under the rubric of separation some have sought to keep students from meeting for prayer voluntary in publicly-funded spaces and to keep football coaches from praying voluntarily at football games and the like. That rather thoughtless over-reaction to any religious expression by anyone in any public space is surely behind the the sort counter-reaction represented by Gov. Stitt’s claiming of Oklahoma for Jesus.
There is a way between Stitt and the ACLU. As Green observes, “While the debate continues over which model is more historically accurate, the idea of separation of church and state remains a core concept in the American experience.” Christians pay taxes and there is no good constitutional reason why Christians may not bring their faith and worldview to bear on their public policy positions. No one asks Muslims in America to check their faith at the door. Muslim members of congress are permitted to face Mecca to pray and to pray as often as they will. They dress in Muslim clothing, which has religious significance, and they are free to do so. They are not free, however, to use their office to advance Islamism in America. Should it have been the case that Oklahoma elected a Muslim governor last week, it would have been entirely inappropriate for him to claim Oklahoma for Islam. It would have been entirely inappropriate to ask, as governor, the crowd to recite the basic Muslim creed, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is is prophet.” That would have transgressed the natural limits of the governor’s office and it would have violated the secular purposes of the office.
As a matter of logical coherence, the same Christians who are defending Stitt’s claiming of Oklahoma for Jesus as legitimate would have been outraged had a Muslim claimed it for Allah or had a Romanist claimed it for the Papacy. When I put this to some of Stitt’s defenders, their response was, to summarize, “But Stitt was correct and the Muslim or a Romanist would be wrong.”
Were Stitt able to distinguish nature and grace and the secular sphere from the sacred, he would have prefaced his prayer by saying that though he is governor he is not speaking in his office. He would have done better to pray for wisdom to govern Oklahoma well for all the citizens of the state. We want our Christian officials to pray and all Americans should want them to serve in light of their faith but to do so in a way that recognizes the limits imposed on them by their office. It may be that some Christians are unable or unwilling to abide by those limits. If so, they are free to speak up from outside political office. Once they are elected or appointed to office they ought to respect the natural limits imposed by their position.
Thus we get to the second sense of “this is America.” The response by Stitt’s defenders is one of the reasons we do not have a federally established church and why the state churches were disestablished by 1833. It is not far from “but Stitt was right and the others would be wrong” to open religious warfare in the streets. Anyone who doubts that is ignorant to the history of the conflict over Northern Ireland. Please watch the film Belfast and get back to me.2
One of the reasons that the American founders did not establish a church is because they wanted to move beyond the endless religious wars in Europe and the British Isles, and for the most part they succeeded. As I noted recently, the American Civil War was arguably a religious war, in some respects, but that war is an outlier. Americans are not at war with each other over religious differences, in large measure, because neither the federal government nor state governments seek to impose an established religion upon anyone.
Make no mistake about it—there is a growing number of Americans who have rejected the theory upon which the nation was founded. Among the Romanists they are called “integralists.” Among Protestants and evangelicals they are Dominionsts (whether Pentecost or Theonomic Reconstructionists, i.e., TheoRecons) or simply theocrats. Abraham Kuyper rejected the theocratic language of the original text of Belgic Confession art. 36 and his American students eventually came to agree with him. We have all revised Belgic art 36 but some want to interpret even the revised text of the confession in a theocratic way.
Theocracy is un-American. As I remind my students, Europe and the British Isles engaged in bloody religious wars for more than a century before the American founding. The earliest settlers arrived on these shores while the Thirty Years War was still ongoing. The Netherlands fought an Eighty-Years War against the Spanish. The English invaded Scotland and Ireland under Cromwell in the 17th century. The founders were well aware of that history. At least some of those who came to this land in the 17th century did so to get away from an imposed religion. When Frederick William III imposed a church union in 1817, both Lutherans and Reformed fled to the New World to get away from it. Pennsylvania had no established church and it became a haven for religious refugees. The Lutherans, Quakers, and Reformed all co-existed in Pennsylvania. In 1833, the the rest of the states agreed with the Pennsylvania settlement.
It is remarkable that so many seem to be so unaware of American history. Americans often assume that they are exempt from the same forces that afflicted the Old World. They are not. If we are not careful we might find ourselves with our own “troubles.” Should it come to that, it will be tragic and entirely avoidable.
1. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Co., 1833), § 1877. Cited in Green, “Separation of Church and State” (linked above).
2. There is some foul language in the film.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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