Sub-Christian Nationalism? (Part 10)

In article XI: Big Picture Agenda, the Statement says,

WE AFFIRM that the Christian Nationalist project entails national recognition of essential Christian Orthodoxy (Article II) as a Christian consensus under Jesus Christ, the supreme Lord and King of all creation, and the establishment of the general equity of the Ten Commandments as the foundational law of the nation. We affirm the responsibility of civil authorities to protect the soul, not to convert the soul.

Then they offer this addendum:

ALTERNATIVE OPTION FOR THOSE WHO AFFIRM
LEGISLATING ONLY THE SECOND TABLE

WE AFFIRM that the Christian Nationalist project entails national recognition of essential Christian Orthodoxy (Article II) as a Christian consensus under Jesus Christ, the supreme Lord and King of all creation, and the establishment of the general equity of the second table of the Ten Commandments (laws 5–10) as the foundational law of the nation, with warnings informing citizens of the consequences of blaspheming the One, True, and Living God often resulting in second table violations, namely, the harming of our neighbors’ lives and property.

This is a fascinating article for a few reasons. First, either Christian Nationalism entails an established religion, or it does not. The word entails is typically used to signal a necessary or inevitable consequence. Thus, it would seem to be incoherent to claim that Christian Nationalism entails both A and B, when A and B are in competition with one another. For example, I have argued for some years that the magistrate ought to enforce the second table of the moral, natural law. That is hardly Christian Nationalism. Indeed, that very view has been decried by some as a denial of historic Reformed orthodoxy.

It is not that, but is certainly a revision of the historic Christian view. As has been discussed in previous installments, for most of the history of Christendom, it was assumed that the state ought to establish the Christian church as the state religion, and that it is the duty of the Christian magistrate to enforce Christian orthodoxy—that is, to punish public deviations from Christian orthodoxy and Christian practice (e.g., Sabbath keeping, i.e., the blue laws).

For example, the original text of Belgic Confession article 36 (1561) said about the office of the magistrate, in part,

And their office is, not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also that they protect the sacred ministry, and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed, and the kingdom of Christ promoted.1

Abraham Kuyper argued vigorously against what he called the “Constantinian” language of the original article. The Christian Reformed Church added an explanatory note to the Confession in 1910, but controversy continued. The contested clause was removed in the 1930s but it was not settled until 1958.

In 1647, the Westminster Assembly confessed (23.3):

III. The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and Sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he 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. For the better effecting whereof he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.2

During the English Civil War, the argument was not whether there would be a state-church, but rather what sort of church it would be. Whether it would be Episcopalian, Congregational, or Presbyterian in polity was a major topic of debate in the Assembly and beyond.

When the Divines confessed that it was the magistrate’s vocation to make sure that “the truth of God be kept pure and entire,” that “all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed,” and that the magistrate must prevent “corruptions and abuses” (e.g., Roman Catholicism), they were speaking of Christian Nationalism or theocracy as it has always been understood, even since AD 380 when Theodosius I imposed Christianity as the state-religion of the Roman Empire.

The American Presbyterians revised the WCF 23.3 completely beginning in 1788:

3. Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.

The Americans assumed that Christianity would be the dominant religion, hence the implied rejection of the notion that the magistrate might choose one sect of Christians over another, but they did not assume that there would be a national religion. So, the magistrate is not to “hinder” the exercise of religion. This was an intentional rejection of the establishment of a federal church.

Some have attempted to leverage the phrase “nursing fathers” into a kind of theocracy. This is flatly contrary to the intention of the Americans. They could not have foreseen the sort of religious pluralism that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would bring. Still, the principle holds. Not only did the Americans reject a Federal Church, but by the mid-1830s, the Americans had even rejected established churches in the various states.

Why the discussion of an established church under this heading? Because the state-enforcement of the first table necessarily entails a state religion. The first commandment forbids idolatry. Someone would have to enforce a prohibition against idolatry on some basis. Obviously, the Christian Nationalists want the state to enforce a Christian understanding of idolatry. Even that standard would be more complicated than some might imagine. The Reformed churches reject any depiction of any of the persons of the Holy Trinity as idolatrous. We reject the Roman veneration of the transubstantiated elements as “an accursed idolatry.” Yet, as we have seen, our erstwhile Christian Nationalists reject the imposition of any sect of Christianity, so Romanists would be free to continue their idolatry, as the Reformed see it. Yet, the Christian Nationalists would forbid non-Christian idolatry. Why the one and not the other? Is this theology or tribal politics? To ask that question is to answer it.

The second commandment, as the Reformed number them, forbids depictions of the deity but, under the Christian Nationalist latitudinarian standard, depictions of the persons of the Trinity would have to be permitted. That is what we have now. What exactly have we gained by a Christian Nationalist revolution?

The third commandment forbids abuse of the divine name. This brings us to their denial under this article:

WE DENY that laws against public blasphemy coerce conversion or hinder religious liberty in private.

Scripture: Exodus 20:1–17; Deuteronomy 5:1–22; Matthew 22:36–40; Romans 3:20–21; 13:8–10; James 2:8–10.

So, they offer a version of Christian Nationalism that enforces the first table and one that does not, but in their denial they imply the enforcement, to some degree, of the third commandment. This seems incoherent.

So, what would enforcement of the third commandment entail? It is one thing for the Heidelberg Catechism to exhort believers to discourage blasphemy and abuse of the divine name, but it is another thing altogether for the state to decide what does or does not constitute blasphemy.

The denial implies that people would be free to say what they will in private, but in public, people would be subject to sanction. Would the Christian Nationalists add new divisions of police officers to enforce blasphemy laws? What would the penalties be?

We run into similar problems with a reinstitution of the Sabbath laws, i.e., the blue laws. A sound natural law can be made for day of rest but not for the Christian day of rest. In that case, the Christian day is in competition with the Jewish (and Adventist) day, and the Muslim day. The only way to pick a day is to appeal to the Christian Scripture. What then of the “general equity” of which the framers write?

Here are two final things to consider under this article. First, the framers of the Statement cite several Scripture verses to support their position. Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 are versions of the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue). The citation of Matthew 22 is simply our Lord’s summary of the moral law, but where the Decalogue was given to a national people with a state-religion, the same is not quite true in Matthew 22. Our Lord summarized the moral law for his disciples, but there is no indication that he intended or that the disciples understood him to be establishing a state-religion. In Romans 3, Paul is preaching the moral law to the Roman congregation (and to us) to teach them (and us) the greatness of their sin and misery, to drive them (and us) to Christ. Where exactly did Paul teach by precept or example that Nero should institute Christianity as the religion of the empire? The citation of Romans 13 is telling because Paul rather clearly implies that the standard by which the magistrate is to rule is the natural law to which he referred in Romans 2:14. In James 2:8–10 the apostle summarizes the moral law, but there is not even an implied reference to a state religion or enforcement of the first table of the Decalogue.

Again, as a matter of fact, there is no evidence whatever in the New Testament, nor in the early post-apostolic church, that any Apostle or early Christian expected the magistrate to establish a state-church or to enforce the first table of the Decalogue.

Second, when the framers of the Statement invoke “general equity,” they give no evidence that they grasp the traditional use and sense of that phrase. According to William Perkins, Johannes Wollebius, et al. “general equity” simply means natural law. Does natural law require the state to establish a state-church or to enforce the first table? The second table, which our Lord summarized as “love your neighbor as yourself,” is known by nature. Pagans know by nature that not honoring authority, murder, adultery, theft, and lying are punishable by law. So what exactly does the “general equity” proposed by the Christian Nationalists gain us?

NOTES

1. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 432.

2. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3.653.

You can find this whole series here.


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One comment

  1. Dr. Clark, I understand your point with this comment, and I believe you are correct with regard to both the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians in England: ‘During the English Civil War, the argument was not whether there would be a state-church, but rather what sort of church it would be. Whether it would be Episcopalian, Congregational, or Presbyterian in polity was a major topic of debate in the Assembly and beyond.'”

    With regard to the Congregationalists, and with regard to Cromwell himself, the situation is more complicated.

    I don’t know that this has a great deal to do with the modern “Christian Nationalist” project, though if the Baptists in that group knew more of their own history, they might find some affinity for Cromwell’s views of how “Independency” — a term that in his day included not only Congregationalists but also Baptists — would work when the civil government is officially and formally covenanted as a Christian commonwealth.

    The Puritan movement, including the Presbyterians, were quite aware of the problems of state control of the church. There are important theoretical and practical differences between the state “establishing” a state church and “recognizing” a true church. It seems pretty obvious that John Knox, and later the Scots in attendance at the Westminster Assembly, assumed that the state would recognize only one true church, but the Congregationalists went further, believing it was legitimate to recognize that more than one church operating in a particular area might be a true church, even if some were more or less pure, to use Westminster/Savoy language.

    The Cromwellian Commonwealth didn’t last long enough in England for the implications of that view to work itself out, but in Puritan New England, it became legally acceptable for people who dissented to “sign off the rolls” of the local parish (i.e., Congregational) church, and join a different church, with their legal obligations for tithing and attendance to follow to the new church. Initially that was done with Presbyterians, and later (with restrictions) for Baptists and even with Anglicans in the Boston area, though there were more restrictions placed on Episcopalians than on Presbyterians or Baptists who wanted to sign off the rolls of the local Congregational parish church to join an Episcopal church. Chief among them was that an Episcopalian was required to live within five miles of an Episcopal church.

    We need to be clear-eyed that while this system may have been better than the state establishment in England of the Episcopal Church or the Scottish system which alternated between state establishment and state recognition of the Kirk of Scotland, it fell apart in the late 1700s and it was the conservatives, not the liberals, who abolished it in the early 1800s.

    The Massachusetts parish system came to be a tool in the hands of the Unitarians to expel orthodox majorities from Congregational church buildings. The orthodox usually were the majority in rural Massachusetts but not usually the majority in the wealthy churches of Boston and the North Shore, but there were numerous situations in which the majority of the parish was irreligious or didn’t like the local Congregational pastor’s preaching on sin and personal morality, so people who were members of the local Congregational parish but not communicant members of the local Congregational church united to convert the church building to Unitarian usage.

    Due in large measure to Unitarians overplaying their hand and antagonizing moderates in Massachusetts, the conservatives won the battle for the majority of the Massachusetts churches and overwhelmingly won the corresponding battle in Connecticut. Once it was clear that the conservatives were in fact the majority in both states, the relevant laws were changed to abolish the parish church system, not because “secularists supported disestablishment,” but rather because the conservatives recognized that the parish church system had become a clear danger to the orthodox majority of church members in places where the communicant church members were no longer a majority of the parish.

    I hope I’m clear that I’m not defending the parish church system. It didn’t work over the long term. While it may have been a major improvement in the 1600s over the previous situation, and it did allow Congregationalists and Presbyterians, and later Baptists and Episcopalians, to live together in ways that didn’t happen in England or Scotland during the same period, it was bound to fail once the majority of the population of Massachusetts was no longer committed to some form of confessional orthodoxy. Some argue that the Methodist Revivalism of the late 1700s and early 1800s, if it had happened before the Unitarian Schism got underway, would have led to a broadly evangelical “recognized church” system. I’m not at all convinced. New England had made its peace with Baptists — few were willing to say that those who supported John Bunyan were heretics — but by the late 1700s, the New England churches were facing not only Unitarianism but also Universalist preachers, a resurgence of the earlier Quaker movement, and a wide variety of heterodox groups. Perhaps some common ground could have been found with the evangelical Arminianism of the revival-oriented Methodists, but it’s hard to see how a tax-supported parish church system could have survived the growth of a wide variety of seriously heterodox movements. The arrival of large numbers of Irish Catholics to Boston would likely have ended the system, even if it had survived for a few more decades.

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