Christians in Politics: Do Christians really want a Theocracy?

One of the common statements brought up in politics where Christians are concerned is the bugbear that Christians are interested in turning America into a theocracy. To be sure, there are a few Christians, even some evangelicals who believe in building a theocracy most notably those associated with radical reform theologian Rousas Rushdoony (Christian Reconstructionism) but these approaches are few and far between. There are a few different ways Christians have answered this common argument, and I plan on answering this from two angles, the first is a fairly standard, historical approach, and the second is more distinctly baptistic.


In a sense, the argument that Christians want a theocracy is a version of the Argumentium Ad Hominem I noted in my first two articles in this series. That is, rather than answering the points and arguments Christians raise, instead one attacks their character through their motives.

The History of the First Amendment

The first amendment states (in part), “Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” One of the major issues with the first amendment was establishing language that would prevent the development of a national church on the one hand, without disestablishing various state churches on the other. While most Americans in the colonial period considered America to be a Christian nation, it was Christian in the abstract without specific denominational ties,[1] as reflected by state churches (for example, Roman Catholicism was the established church in Maryland, as opposed to the Congregationalist denominations in New England). The point of the first amendment is to keep the federal government (and with the passing of the fourteenth amendment, many would argue the state governments) from interfering with religion; this was not to argue that religion was unimportant but that the government should support and promote religion by leaving it alone. Nor were all state churches theocracies persay, or at least not in the degree known in Europe in the past. For example, I am unaware of any examples of Churches in the colonies issuing mandatory wage and price guidelines as the Roman Catholic Church had done in the middle ages. Nor do Christians common subscribe to these principles in the United States today, largely because the of theological development; we often think of the reformation and Protestantism as something that was a single generation’s work, but in reality, the ramification of Sola Scriptura and Sola Fida would take a longer period of time to work out, the connection of the Church to the State was simply one of these issues. Thus, the first amendment is not an argument to remove religion from public life, nor an argument against Christians voting their consciences as it is misrepresented today.

The modern version of this argument fails to grasp that the First Amendment is not an argument that Christians should not vote their consciences. Thus, for example, they will say that I should not even consider my religious concerns when it comes to discussions of abortion, as if it were possible to divorce oneself from one’s ethical beliefs, if abortion is murder, then it must influence the way a person votes. Its rather interesting how someone will quote John Stuart Mills in support of their political opinion argue I should not quote Paul, but how is quoting Mills really different than quoting Paul? Someone might suggest not everyone is a Christian, and while this is true, not everyone is a Utilitarian either, so why do we not argue that it is morally wrong to impose one person’s utilitarian views on another? Nor is it sufficient to simply note that utilitarianism isn’t religious, but Paul is; on what grounds, precisely, would we treat theistic worldviews differently from atheistic ones in the public square?

The Separation of Church and State

And yet, when we discuss the separation of Church and State, as a Baptist, I have a certain affinity with the argument. It is not accidental that the phrase began to be used in constitutional discussions is sourced in a letter between Thomas Jefferson and a Baptist association – the statement itself is one of our denominations distinctive beliefs.[2] Bizarrely to some, this separation of Church and State has often been an impulse pushing Baptists into the public arena, partially due to persecution and imprisonments, but often more importantly they pushed for freedom of speech and freedom of religion.[3] Like all worldviews, the Baptistic slant on Protestantism will inevitably influence one’s political philosophy.

And yet, an appeal to the separation of Church and state doesn’t answer most of the actual questions involved in discussions today. If my boss took my car keys, and attempted to use my car for company business, he could not defend his actions by arguing for a distinction between corporate property and personal property – such an appeal would convict him, since the car is not corporate property. If we argue that there is a separation of Church and State, it is as much a concern to limit the State from interfering in discussions of ethics and/or worldview questions as it is for the Church to request a role in the appointment of public officials. It is not so much that morality has no bearing on legislation, the moment a law is passed against murder and theft, morality has been legislated, nor can these laws simply be put forward as means of utility; utility is an important qualifier in discussing means not ends. In the case of democracies and democratic republics, the ethics or lack of ethics in government reflects the spiritual and moral sense of the nation.

In a sense, the real problem is that in so many issues, including discussions in California to try to influence Christian colleges disciplinary practices on issues related to LGBTQ students or the uneven enforcement of laws concerning businesses giving public access to all services, as George Yancy has recently noted. In a sense, I believe as a Christian, it is not the Church intruding on the domain of the State, but the State becoming like a river that has overflowed its banks, meddling in that which is not properly within its domain. The State essentially seeks to prevent the Church from fulfilling its proper role as being salt and light, and within the confines of a democratic republic, in restricting access to the Christian worldview to favor other worldviews; thus the state is declaring what religions are legitimate and which should be suppressed. When a government gives tax-exempt status to private, secular universities but denies it to religious ones, on whatever grounds, it is choosing to advantage religious naturalism over theistic beliefs. In short, the separation of Church and State is an argument for limited government, something that is losing its appeal with the very persons most often citing these issues.

Within the confines of a formal separation of Church and State, even most Baptists will recognize certain informal ties between the two, for example, Church buildings are not exempted from fire codes. So what is the Churches proper role in politics? Might I suggest it is in educating the conscience and minds of the electorate, or at least of believers within the electorate, this is one of two reasons[4] why I oppose rules restricting churches in regards to “political” speech.

Evangelicalism as the grounds for Religious Freedom

What is often missed, however, is that traditional Protestantism, what we today, for lack of a better term call “Evangelicalism” is ultimately the grounding for principles of religious freedom. Evangelicals believe that salvation comes through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that the merits of Christ’s atonement are gained for the individual through personal faith in His work. Yet, personal faith is not something that can be forced by others, one might coerce conformity to outward standards of behavior, but not the heart. And thus, the believer assumes that mankind has a choice to make, to follow Jesus Christ, or to reject Him. Paul noted that he persuaded men, he did not note that he compelled them. The sad corollary to salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone is that mankind has the right also to reject the Creator, at least for the moment in this life.

[1]Many have argued that America was founded on Deism. As I’ve noted in the past, this is an argument that has several major issues. First, its established either by referring to statements from Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (who likely were deists) as if these sentiments were universal to the founders. But there does not seem to have been such a universal sentiment at all. Secondarily, often discussions of about the founder’s use of Locke is used as evidence, but there are significant debates as to whether Locke himself was, in fact, a deist and it should further be noted that Locke’s political philosophy is not derived organically from his epistemology. The mayflower compact is a very “lockian” document in some senses (it is explicitly a social contract) despite being pre-Lockian and many Christian philosopher’s before Locke, particularly within the reformed tradition held to similar views.


Additionally, Deism is a much broader system than many moderns seem to appreciate, and some seemed to view themselves as something of a modified Christianity, few seemed to fit the Webster’s definition of deism as believing God made the world, but no longer interacted with it. Franklin, who was almost certainly a deist, viewed the United States as the product of God’s providence.


For further reading see Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto; and James Sire The Universe Next Door.

                  [2] To understand this phrase, you need to go back to a debate that was very common in the early period of the reformation, discussions of the “fall of the Church.” The fall of the church was premised on the question, if salvation by grace through faith is so plain in the epistle of the Galatians and the epistle of Romans, why was the doctrine become so lost in theological discussions? This question is not as common as it once was, in part, because it is generally assumed that the causes are more complicated than they initially seemed. From the beginning, however, Baptists and a few other groups argued that the fall of the Church was in the connection between the State and the Church during the time period of Constantine the Great and afterwards, in part evidenced by he and his son’s persecution of Trinitarian leaders during the turbulent years of the Trinitarian controversies.


From this principle, early Baptist’s argued for a formal separation between religious organizations and the government, and in fact, Baptists faced as much persecution from Protestants as from Roman Catholics. For example, John Bunyan, author of the Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, spent an extensive period of time in English jail cells, because he refused to recognize the right of the Anglican Bishop to issue licenses to preach to dissenting preachers. Baptists, in fact, were often jailed in many of the American Colonies, and one of the earliest discussions of the Separation of Church and State began when Baptist leader (at the time) Roger Williams wrote The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace, which began a war of pamphlets with Massachusetts leader Puritan Leader John Cotton.


This position has also found modern support, for example, in Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery builds largely on this point by discussing the Medieval church’s structure into two categories, the church of piety and the church of power, and he argues most of the popes during the Medieval period were a part of the church of power. These do not necessarily correspond to the Evangelical treatment of the subject, the church of piety is, in Stark’s view, centered in monasticism rather than calls for free grace, but his work does raise significant questions for earlier periods.

[3] One of the most important allies of the democratic republicans and the anti-federalists in Virginia were the Baptists of the era, most often noted by means of Baptist leader John Leland.

                  [4]The second, and more mundane issue, is that such laws are often unevenly enforced, and there is some evidence to suggest Evangelical groups are more likely to be targeted than other denominations. This is similar to discussions of other elements of discussions involving free speech, for example, it is often noted that some presidential administrations used the various “equal time laws” or more recently the issues involving Lois Lerner’s attempts to use the IRS to selectively intimidate religious and tea party groups.