Thursday, September 20, 2012
Separation of Church & State vs. Two Kingdoms
My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Separation of Church and State:
Q: Is it appropriate for Christians to influence government and promote laws that are consistent with their morality? Is the idea of a separation between church and state biblical?
The accusation is frequently being made in our nation that certain Christians are seeking to impose their beliefs on the rest of the country. These accusations often assume that it is immoral or illegal for religious people to make or enforce laws if those laws are based on religious ideas.
This opinion is mistaken, though, because the constitution’s protections only go in one direction. That is, they forbid the government from imposing religious practice on citizens, and they forbid the government from interfering in the religious exercise of its citizens. However, it does not forbid citizens from choosing leaders or supporting causes based on their religious convictions. In other words, the constitutional provisions only work in one direction. The government may not interfere in the practice of religion, but religious people are free to influence the course of government.
Prior to the Christian Reformation, it was simply assumed that government and religion were unified. Under this assumption, popes would often coerce kings and princes into ruling according to his desires, and rulers at various levels would often impose their religion on their subjects. It was in the midst of the Reformation that Martin Luther first introduced the idea that religion and government acted in separate spheres. Instead of “separation of church and state,” he instead used the language of “two kingdoms.”
Luther proposed a framework in which God ruled with His “right hand” through the Gospel by grace to forgive sins and save souls, and a separate kingdom where God ruled with His “left hand”, through the work of earthly laws and rulers, to preserve safety and keep order in society. He saw these as separate, yet complimentary ways in which God provides and protects humanity.
Often, religious morality makes good public policy, such as when laws are made against murder, theft, fraud, and other ways that people will harm one another, because these laws protect citizens from being injured or robbed by ill-intentioned neighbors by regulating external actions. On other occasions, religious morality does not make good public policy. This is particularly true when dealing with internal motivations or desires. Laws against greed, lust, or hatred, for example, would be impossible to enforce, not to mention universally disobeyed. Likewise, we have seen that laws prohibiting all alcohol sale or possession and forbidding Sunday commerce have also been ill-conceived.
This is why you see Christians promoting some Biblical values as worthy of being national law but not others. So, for example, there is not a strong movement among Christians to promote laws against adultery or the use of obscene language. When we do see Christians supporting laws which reflect their morality, they are doing so not to impose their morality on others, but in order to help and protect their fellow citizens—not because it is God’s law, but rather because it makes good public policy.
So when we see Christians supporting pro-life measures, they do so for the sake of protecting living-yet-unborn citizens. When Christians support measures which protect marriage and preserve the family, it is because these interests promote the good of the nation, and it is not in the best interest of the state to adopt innovative definitions in this sphere.
For the government, religious origin could never become a standard for accepting or rejecting law, because then a vast majority of laws, even those forbidding murder, would have to go. For the Church, this means that she ought not have the illusion that her hope is in the government reflecting her morality. The Church does not deal in the sphere of legislation and coercion, but rather in the sphere of proclamation and persuasion by God’s Word, so that Christ’s message will go forth regardless of the laws of the state. As the Psalm says, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation…the Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations.”