Only Christians May Rule In A Secular State (Huh?)

Many have weighed in on Pastor Jeffress’ comments about Mitt Romney and Mormonism. What caught my eye was the disparity between Jeffress’ application of a religious test for holding public office and his implicit endorsement of religious liberty.

Let me explain.

I do not have any fear that Pastor Jeffress wants to ban Mormonism or Mormons from the United States. I suspect that he values and defends the sort of liberty that allows the United States to tolerate the religious practices of a host of believers, including Mormons. In other words, I doubt that Pastor Jeffress would actually support legislation to suppress Mormonism or Roman Catholicism. He is a good American (read: tolerant).

But what Jeffress seems to miss is that his view implies that only a Christian magistrate may enforce or uphold religious toleration. In other words, only a Christian can properly tolerate idolatry or oversee the sort of freedom that allows many Americans to violate God’s law. In which case, his test for office puts believers in the awkward position of having a duty to approve of false religion and wickedness.

It is a breathtaking reversal of the older Protestant teachings on the magistrate. Formerly, the churches taught that the magistrate needed to uphold the true religion, suppress false faith, and punish wickedness. They were not explicit about requiring a Christian to hold office, though it’s hard to imagine how a non-church member could ever hold office under a Constantinian arrangement. Now in the American context, evangelical Protestants are so attached to their nation’s ideals and its alleged Christian roots that they require a Christian to hold office and perform functions that do the exact opposite of what the older Reformed creeds taught – protect freedom to disobey Scripture.

This argument would have gotten the average citizen, magistrate, or pastor banished (at least) from Geneva or Scotland. In the United States it is part of the warp and woof of our Protestant civil religion. Should be a fun presidential season.


25 thoughts on “Only Christians May Rule In A Secular State (Huh?)

  1. Gregory A. Clark, “The Nature of Conversion: How the Rhetoric of Worldview Philosophy Can Betray Evangelicals,” in Evangelicals and Liberals in Conversation, ed. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis Okholm (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 218.

    mark mc: Jesus Christ, both in His person and in His work, is not a worldview. But lots of folks care more about what they think about ” justice” than they care about the atonement of Jesus for elect sinners. Instead of being satisfied by the justice revealed in the gospel, they want to impose on everybody some other kind of justice. That’s bad enough in itself, but even worse when it’s attempted in the name of Jesus Christ.

    Mose Allison–“everybody’s talking justice, for somebody else. Everybody’s for peace, just as soon as we win this war.”


  2. A little temporary (secular) jazz, a little Dostoevsky: from the Brothers K—

    “A most unworthy play upon words for an ecclesiastic!” Father Paissy could not refrain from breaking in again. “I have read the book which you have answered,” he added, addressing Ivan, “and was astounded at the words ‘The Church is a kingdom not of this world. ‘If it is not of this world, then it cannot exist on earth at all. In the Gospel, the words ‘not of this world’ are not used in that sense. To play with such words is indefensible. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to set up the Church upon earth. The Kingdom of Heaven, of course, is not of this world, but in Heaven; but it is only entered through the Church which has been founded and established upon earth. The Church is, in truth, a kingdom and ordained to rule, and in the end must undoubtedly become the kingdom ruling over all the earth. For that we have the divine promise.”

    He ceased speaking suddenly, as though checking himself. After listening attentively and respectfully Ivan went on, addressing the elder with perfect composure and as before with ready cordiality:

    “The whole point of my article lies in the fact that during the first three centuries Christianity only existed on earth in the Church and was nothing but the Church. When the pagan Roman Empire desired to become Christian, it inevitably happened that, by becoming Christian, it included the Church but remained a pagan State in very many of its departments. In reality this was bound to happen. But Rome as a State retained too much of the pagan culture, as, for example, in the principles of the State. The Christian Church entering into the State could, of course, surrender no part of its fundamental principles — the rock on which it stands — and could pursue no other aims than those which have been ordained and revealed by God Himself, and among them that of drawing the whole world, and therefore the ancient pagan State itself, into the Church.

    Every earthly State should be, in the end, completely transformed into the Church and should become nothing else but a Church, rejecting every purpose incongruous with the aims of the Church. All this will not degrade it in any way or take from its glory as a great State, nor from the glory of its rulers, but only turns it from a false, still pagan, and mistaken path to the true and rightful path.This is why the author of the book On the Foundations of Church Jurisdiction would have judged correctly if, in seeking and laying down those foundations, he bad looked upon them as a temporary compromise inevitable in our sinful and imperfect days.”


  3. Dr. Hart,
    I am in agreement with you…at least mostly. You do, however, seem to make a lead from ‘tolerate’ to ‘approve’. If we approve of something, like idolatry, do we need to tolerate it? Seems like the leader of the land must tolerate false religions, but that is a far cry from approving of them. He must approve of giving them the liberty to choose falsely, but that is different.
    Again, I’m in agreement with you and am often puzzled by the inconsistency of those who wed church/state in ways like Jeffress but resist a full slide to theonomy.


  4. I was hoping that more folks who vote would comment on the idea of voting for those who don’t profess to be Christian.

    In the meanwhile, let me quote Oliver O’Donovan, Common Objects of Love, p69–“In this universalizing aspiration to overcome differences we may observe how Western society has forgotten how to be secular. Secularity is a stance of patience in the face of plurality, made sense of by eschatological hope. Forgetfulness of secularity is part and parcel with the forgetfulness of Christian suppositions about history.”


  5. Mark, I actually try to tune out the God-talk of politicians. It has been and will be used as a strategy to get votes and I’m unconvinced that such has a tight relationship with how someone will govern. Send a person with a perfect worldview (whatever that is) through the gauntlet of politics, and that person will soon look like a lot all the other politicians. Politics has its own rules, realties, and a powerful siren call as well.

    I’ve settled on a simplified analyis: how has the candidate governed in the past, what does s/he credibly say about future governance, what is the candidate’s demeanor, what is the candidate’s ability to lead, etc Huckabee or Bachmann don’t have a civil advantage over Mitt Romney insofar as their theological commitments may be superior. I have a high opinion of my pastor, but he wouldn’t get my vote if he ran for president.

    Interesting quote about secularism. “Secular” is a hard word to redeem in post-Falwell America.


  6. Dan, I see your point, but in the antithetical world of neo-Calvinism (of some stripes) and of theonomy, toleration is as sinful as approval. After all, Israel wasn’t allowed to tolerate or approve false religion.


  7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; The Library of Christian Classics; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), III.xix.15; IV.xx.1: ‘Now, these two … Christ’s spiritual Kingdom and the civil jurisdiction are things completely distinct … It is a Jewish vanity to seek and enclose Christ’s Kingdom within the elements of this world’.


  8. I disagree with the way that Jeffress has injected his evangelical view of Mormonism (i.e., that Mormonism is a cult — which is true!) into the political debate. But there is a sense in which it can be said that only Christian magistrates (or at least ones with a biblically-leaning view of civil government) can consistently support religious freedom and toleration. Think about it: The God of the Bible is an interventionist, supernatural God of providence and miracle, the Moral Governor of the universe and providential Ruler of all nations, not a distant, uninvolved Deistic “god.” If a civil magistrate does not believe that the biblical God exists (or at least some higher being like the biblical God), he will be prone to view the civil government as “god walking on earth.” I.E., the state is freed from the constraints of being accountable to a higher authority and is viewed as being the ultimate authority among men. Human rights are viewed as deriving from the civil government rather than from the Creator who appointed human government among fallen men. That is a perfect recipe for intolerance and persecution of those who do not bow unquestioningly to the State as supreme (remember those early Christians who refused to confess “Caesar is Lord” and how they were treated by the state-worshiping Roman government?). No wonder the most consistently secularist and atheistic governments also tend to be the most religiously intolerant, oppressive, and persecuting of dissidents (think of Stalin, Hitler, North Korea today, and other communist nations – and the multiple millions of human lives those governments have destroyed).

    The point here is that the priniciples of separation of church and state and of religious liberty are rooted in a consistently-applied biblical and reformed perspective (I won’t say “worldview” since apparently that is a bad word on this site). Without God ruling and judging in heaven, the sinful tendency of the unbelieving magistrate is to view the civil government as “god” on earth, with all the absolute authority, power and control over human lives that that divine position entails. Thankfully, in God’s common grace, many unbelieving magistrates do not consistently carry out the statist principles inherent in their unbelieving position on civil government, and many prove to be good and competent rulers (while sometimes Christians have served poorly as civil magistrates). But the more consistent among them often become tyrants (or at least bureaucratic central planners).


  9. Geoff, that’s always a good theory, but what about the fact that the NT writers never seem to say anything to prop up the nervousness of having pagan rulers? All they ever seem to suggest is that rulers are God’s viceroy and are in fact not to be feared because of it. And, remember, the only sort of magistrate they could have conceived of was one who was so pagan he thought he was “god walking on earth.”

    (P.S. Do you really think it’s appropriate to call Mormonism a cult, which means Mormons are cultists? Unorthodox to be sure, but the c-word sure seems to me to be an odd way to protect the reputation of otherwise good neighbors and citizens.)


  10. Woodrow Wilson believed in some kind of god and was a member of a church, but that didn’t keep him from acting like god. (Read Richard Gamble!) Perhaps the better question would be if a “Christian” feels at home here, or he knows himself as a stranger here. But if the “Christian” knew his alien exile status here, why would he run for president of here? What would make him think that his god had given him a vocation to kill those who disagree?

    To paraphrase George Steiner (My Unwritten Books, p122): The Christian does well to keep his bags packed. If he is forced to resume his wondering, he will not regard this experience as a lamentable chastisement. It is also an opportunity. There is no society not worth exploring. And no nation not worth leaving if we need to. Exile means exodus, and new beginnings. Let us survive, if we survive, as guests among men. We will not kill them, but if they kill us, our hope is that the earth belongs to the Lord, and the Lord will resurrect us, even from death.


  11. Pastor Jeffress doesn’t seem to know his own nation’s constitution:

    ” The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
    –Article VI, paragraph 3 US Constitution.

    What part of “no religious test” doesn’t the religious right understand?


  12. Geoff, does your theory have legs? You say “But there is a sense in which it can be said that only Christian magistrates (or at least ones with a biblically-leaning view of civil government) can consistently support religious freedom and toleration” but isn’t histoy littered with intolerant “Christian” magistrates?


  13. Mark, I am in the midst of “The War for Righteousness” now. But instead of taking away that believers should avoid political office, I’m getting that they would do well to be way more restrained and conservative about what politics can do, which would seem to me to put quite a damper on religious persecution.


  14. Most pietists don’t have the patience to not do something if they can. Can we build a bomb? Let’s do it. Can we vote our candidate in? Let’s do it.

    Michael Horton has a long review at the White Horse Inn blog of Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited:”The history of exegesis is reduced to the categories of “gospel culture” and “salvation culture.” …Even when he “damns with faint praise,” the author misses the goal of at least Lutheran and Reformed branches: ‘The singular contribution of the Reformation, in all three directions—Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist—was that the gravity of the gospel was shifted toward human response and personal responsibility and the development of the gospel as speaking into that responsibility'(71). This confuses the Reformation’s interest with pietism, which was a completely different kettle of fish. The former focused on what God has done to accomplish salvation for sinners, not on “human response” and what I’m supposed to do to “get saved.”


  15. Darryl: I think Pastor Jeffress was quite unwise, but for the sake of accuracy, he never said “Only Christians May Rule In A Secular State.” In fact, he said he has said he would vote for Romney over Obama.


  16. Taylor:

    You seem to have glossed over the reasons proffered by Mr. Jeffress in support of his preference.

    Further, DGH did not profess to be quoting Jeffress. Your addition of quotes to your comment falsely suggests that he did. When Jeffress’s comments are read in their context–including other comments he made contemporaneously–it is apparent that Jeffress is implying that only Christians are fit to rule in the [secular] American state.


  17. Jeffress’s comments concerning Mormonism are intriguing. As Harold Bloom observed long ago, there is not a whole lot of difference between Jeffress’s evangelicalism and Mormonism. Both are gnostic variants of orthodox Protestantism.

    Mike Horton wrote a good article on this a while ago in Modern Reformation. The article is entitled “Gnostic Worship”.


  18. Geoff, thanks for abiding the laws here against w—–v—-.

    The problem is that human history has been littered with tyrants who believed in gods and thought they were gods. So putting god in the equation with politics can go in the opposite direction. Plus, Christian governments did not have a track record for tolerating non-believers, and when they did in the case of the Dutch republic, the pastors complained mightily about it.

    There is another way to approach the problem — voila — the U.S. Constitution — no god but lots of checks on the enumerated powers of the president, congress, and supreme court. I don’t know why more Reformed Protestants don’t go all in about the remarkable accomplishment of the secular government the founders instituted.


  19. Mark Mc., thanks for reminding us of Presbyterianism’s contribution to the American presidency and international peace. ding ding ding ding (about Gamble’s book also)


  20. Justin, I know he didn’t say THAT. I was inferring from what he said and the way what many neo-Calvinists and evangelicals think about candidates. You know, it’s sort of like inferring that the Gospel Coalition is not the church even though the Gospel Coalition doesn’t say “we are not the church.”


  21. Peter Berger quotes Max Weber who quotes Machiavelli— A Presbyterian ruler should act for the welfare of his city, even if he thereby imperils his eternal destiny. (In Praise of Doubt, 2009, p138)

    This seems like an argument for allowing the Mormons to be the rulers.


  22. That book by Richard Gamble, “The War for Righteousness,” is excellent. The only person quoted who came out smelling good was Machen, naturally enough.


  23. If you fail to support Constantinianism, then you are already on the road to “invisible churches”, Leithart warns us. He himself continues to be ordained by the PCA, and if the PCA were to ever one day become a sect and disqualify him, then he would simply move on to some institution where the one church remains the one church.

    If you won’t defend Augustine for killing Donatists, then you simply show that you are a Lutheran or worse. We cannot say that Constantine had no mission, because his mission was the empire, and Constantine really subverted the empire (you see) because he used his great power in the empire to change the empire! How could he have ended the gladiatorial shows, if he had retreated from cultural engagement? If you can kill to make the civilization more Christian, then the killing itself becomes not only your duty but part of the Christian culture.

    If Joseph and Daniel can dream for the emperors, doesn’t it stand to reason that you also must kill people to prevent Mormons taking over the empire? And shame on Constantine for refusing to wear the purple when he thought he was near death, as if being emperor and being Christian were in competition.

    Leithart knows that your anti-Constantinianism is a cover for your liberalism.


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