In Article VIII the Statement (version 2) says:
WE AFFIRM that God’s purpose for civil government is to establish justice for His glory and the good of all people. We affirm that unjust laws harm people and that just laws reflect the character of God and point people toward their need for a Savior.
According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This is true of humans as such generally. What the Statement has yet to address, however, are the two spheres in which, according to Calvin, all Christians live. Is it the magistrate’s duty, as a magistrate, in his office, to glorify God? Our instinct is to say yes. After all, who could deny that the magistrate, in his office (not thinking of him here as a private person), should glorify God? Well, what does it mean to glorify God?
I live in what has become a very blue state with the bluest of governors. Should I want Gavin Newsom, in his office (please do not neglect this qualification) to glorify God? Was it correct for the Governor of Oklahoma, at a prayer gathering to “claim” Oklahoma for Christ as governor? I argued that it was not. He has every right, as a private person, to pray and claim whatever he will but, in his office as governor, he represents all the people of the State of Oklahoma, Christian and non-Christian alike. He was not elected to establish a state church or to “claim” Oklahoma for Christ, in his office as governor. He was elected to execute faithfully the laws of the State of Oklahoma. The same is true of the Governor of California. Where the Governor of California signs laws that are contrary to the constitution of the State of California or the United States, those laws should be challenged in court and struck down.
In the denials, we see more clearly the purpose of the affirmations:
WE DENY that the purpose of civil government is to establish a secular, neutral, or godless order. We deny that any government is capable of neutrality as every individual and system has moral preferences and functional gods (i.e., ultimate allegiances and ultimate standards by which they judge reality). We further deny that natural law is a different standard from God’s moral and universal law summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments.
This brings us to the crisis—the turning point or the deciding point of the controversy between those of us who accept the American settlement (post-1833), and those theocrats who want to turn back the clock to 1832 when there was still an established church in at least one American state. We should remember too that, though this is mostly a theoretical exercise and none of the dreams of the theocrats are likely to be realized in the USA—which would require revising the first Amendment and quite possibly the second and the overturning of long-established judicial precedents—this program is adversely affecting young people and others who are distressed at the state of American culture. Because relatively few young people seem to be educated in American history and civics any longer, the rhetoric and intention of the Statement may tend to give them illusions about what is possible, which will produce frustration and potentially violence when those hopes are dashed. The Statement may create in the minds of the impressionable the idea that Christians, if only they will, can achieve an American theocracy.
This is a potentially dangerous illusion. We should not forget that people willingly went to Jonestown, Guyana. Once there, they were held at gunpoint, but they went willingly. People traveled freely to a compound outside of Waco, TX to join the cult of David Koresh. Reports suggest that people are voluntarily moving to what Crawford Gribben has called the American Redoubt, and they are doing so in preparation for a new Christendom—or the very sort of Christian Nationalism being advocated in the Statement.
Christendom lives in the hearts of many Americans, who are rightly frightened and alarmed by what is happening in the culture. This is the response by a significant number of Christians, which is reflected in the Statement. Frankly, it is lazy. Americans work hard to support their families and to achieve “the good life,” but when it comes to culture and government, they tend to laziness and easy answers. If there is to be change in culture and governance, it will not come by a theocratic Caesar or a revolution (which would be bloody), but through the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of his elect, through the preaching of the law and the gospel, under the restraining mercies of God’s common grace, through persuasion, through sane (in the sense of that which is healthy, sound, and aligned with the nature of things) laws and policies. The United States is a democratic Republic. The ugly truth is that, though there are entities out there working against the interests of Americans (e.g., Soros et al.), we have the government that we have elected, and we have the laws and policies that we have chosen. What we see around us (whether it is skyrocketing drug use in Appalachia or feces on the streets of San Francisco), is what is inside us.
When people say that it is impossible to legislate morality, what they mean, in part, is that no law instituted by a magistrate can change a human heart. That is true. Laws can, however, if enforced, restrain outward behavior. To be sure, it is not entirely correct to say that we cannot legislate morality. By nature, the law is a teacher and when the magistrate permits something, human beings tend to assume that thing is good or harmless. This is the foolishness of the misleading libertarian (and libertine) arguments for the legalization of marijuana. By now every policymaker knows or should know that the marijuana that is being grown legally and illegally (still a greater proportion despite legalization) is loaded with a much higher concentration of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) than was available a generation or two ago. People talk and legislate as if what is being legalized is Nebraska ditch weed. It is not. THC is a psychoactive drug that has strong adverse consequences for young people and others. Reefer Madness might have been hyperbolic in 1939 but it is not entirely so now.1
So, how should Christians argue against the legalization of marijuana? The lazy argument says, “God opposes it and we should have a Christian magistrate to enforce God’s will.” The classically American way to proceed is to make an argument from reason, facts, and history. The American way is to persuade one’s fellow citizens that they are mistaken in their views about marijuana and its effects, that Americans have been sold a bill of goods by “Big Weed.”
Natural, reasonable, secular arguments can and should be made against the legalization of weed, against men dressing as women and pretending to be women (in public any way), from entering women’s restrooms, locker rooms, or from participating in female-only athletic events. That the admission of so-called “transgender” athletes, who are biological males, into female sports and into spaces where females reasonably expect privacy (locker rooms, etc.) is wrong is known by nature and universal sense perception. Drag queen shows should not be allowed in public or private schools or public libraries, and those parents who abuse their children by taking them to see drag queens should be investigated by Child Protective Services. Nature and investigation show that men who dress like females for purposes other than sheer comedy (e.g., Milton Burle, or Jamie Farr) are mentally ill and in serious need of therapy. The entire “trans” movement is, in part, a cry for help. As anyone who pays attention during “pride” month can see, it is also a big step toward Sodom and Gomorrah.
The point is that we do not need recourse to theocratic or theonomic arguments. Reason, facts, and history are sufficient to refute and address a great lot of what ails us. I have no time for those who say, “what reason?” As a professor of mine once said, “You cannot reason with insane people and you should not try.” Anyone who says, “what reason?” is not being serious since they are writing or speaking words that they intend for me to interpret in the sense they intend. To use unreasonable discourse to deny reasonable discourse is to try to destroy the very ground on which one is standing. One is only digging one’s grave.
Thus, we should dismiss as both ignorant and silly the rhetoric in the denial regarding “a secular, neutral, or godless order.” What Christian is arguing for a “godless” order? The framers of the Statement are evidently unaware of the history and meaning of the word “secular.”
Christians have used the adjective secular in a non-pejorative way for millennia. It only became a pejorative in the hands of ignorant fundamentalists and bloviating talk show hosts. Our adjective secular comes from the Latin noun saeculum, which means world. In the Latin Vulgate, it translates the Greek noun aeon (αιον), which we translate with age. When, in the Gloria Patri Christians sing “world without end” they are singing saecula saeculorum, which is itself a translation of aeon aeonon (αιων αιωνων; Gal 1:5 uses a form of this expression). The Latin translation (Vulgate) of Galatians 1:5 says, “saecula saeculorum.” There were for more than a millennium, in Christendom, those priests who were cloistered and those who were secular (not cloistered but active in the outside world, which Calvin refers to in Institutes 4.5.9).
Christians have spoken about the “secular” non-pejoratively for centuries—the Battles edition of Calvin’s 1559 Institutes uses the adjective secular 27 times. Calvin routinely used the word secular to refer to that which is not sacred. He spoke of secular poets (1.5.3), secular writers (1.8.4, 6; 1.9.8; 1.15.2; 2.2.12, 15; 4.6.8), secular philosophy (which is probably best read as having a negative sense). He complained about clerics taking on secular management responsibilities (4.4.5; 4.7.22). He refers to secular judges (4.11.7).
In traditional Christian usage, the word secular typically denotes that which is not sacred. The bread we use for holy communion is secular until it is consecrated (set apart) for sacred use.
Yes, in America, the government is meant to be secular, not sacred. Even Calvin, who was a theocrat (but not a theonomist) distinguished between the sacred government of the church and the secular government outside the visible church. He clearly distinguished between the sacred and the secular in Institutes 3.19.15 when he distinguished between the “temporal” and the “spiritual.” Even under Christendom, temporal, secular government was concerned with external behavior and politics (in the broad sense of our common life together in the body politic).
One of the glories of the American experiment, which our erstwhile theocratic revolutionaries would upend, is that, after Christendom, we left the care and feeding of the Kingdom of God, the sacred, and the visible church to Christian citizens acting privately (i.e., without the power or authority of state coercion). According to Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59), relative to the state-churches of Europe, the American churches flourished. That was true through the twentieth century. The churches in America are still, by and large, healthier than their European counterparts, even as the USA becomes more like Europe. It is remarkable to see Americans seeking to go back to the European model as if we can do here what they could not do there. Like our contemporary Marxists, apparently, the right people have not tried it yet.
The adjective “neutral” in the Statement is a theonomic dog whistle. They are invoking a theological idea which is true: relative to God there is no neutrality. Either one is with the God of the Bible, or one is against him. A corollary to this doctrine is that there is no theological neutrality. Either one’s doctrine is with Christ, or it is not, but the application of these theological truths to secular, political life assumes what it must prove: that there are not in God’s kingdom, two divinely instituted spheres, that operate (as Calvin says) on two distinct principles and that the state must take a religious side or be illegitimate.
In principle, the American founders rightly rejected the notion that the state, as such, has to pick sides between religions and religious views. The Statement wants to overturn the American founding. They want another nation, another theocratic order. I reply by arguing that we not only have no biblical warrant for a theocratic order after the end of the “state of that people” (national Israel; WCF 19.4), but it is unnecessary. Natural law is not a neutral law. It is God’s law revealed in nature. Asking the magistrate to adhere to and enforce the second table of the moral, natural law is asking the magistrate to enforce what is universally known to all humans everywhere. We are simply not asking the magistrate to rule on matters of the first table, to establish a religion, or to decide matters of religious orthodoxy.
The American experiment in secular government has worked wonderfully. It should be preserved. Yes, the culture is in crisis now, but the answer is not to give up on the American experiment but to return to it. Arguably, the state has chosen sides and is enforcing on us now, in certain ways, religious dogma favoring homosexuality and the transgender movement, etc. We should insist that the government stay out of that argument. It is none of the government’s business if Christians reject the LGBTQ movement. Rather than overturning America, American Christians ought to be better Americans by putting their energy into persuasion, legislation, and lawsuits.
The end of Christendom does not mean the end of Christianity in America. It does mean, however, that we have to make better arguments and theocracy is not among those.
1. The evidence against the legalization of marijuana is accumulating even as states are legalizing it. See Alex Berenson, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence (New York: Free Press, 2019). Tell Your Children was the original title of the film best known as Reefer Madness. Here is an interview on the book.
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