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No, you don’t want a state church

The historical failure of religious establishment


Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby prepares to crown King Charles III in London on May 6. Victoria Jones/Pool Photo via Associated Press

No, you don’t want a state church

The sociologist Peter Berger once argued that the modern age, marked by the forces of secularization, would eventually lead to the disintegration of religion as an animating force of cultural and social life. “Sectors of society,” he argued in 1967, would be “removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.”

Berger, however, was wrong. In 1999, Berger revisited his thesis, revealing his surprise at the resilience of religion in many parts of the world. Despite the forces of secularization, religion remained a vital pillar of national and communal life, especially in the United States. Still, Berger noted one glaring example that had, to a degree, proved the validity of his original secularization thesis: Western Europe. Indeed, Berger noted that “one of the most interesting puzzles in the sociology of religion is why Americans are so much more religious as well as more churchly than Europeans.”

This remarkable observation becomes all the more interesting given the prevalence of religious establishment in Western European nations. A student conducting a high-school social science experiment would probably develop the hypothesis that Western nations with Protestant religious establishments would be more religious and more churched than nations without a state church. That hypothesis, as Berger noted, could not be further from the truth.

Historically, Protestant religious establishments have failed to preserve the doctrinal purity of the church and its prophetic witness, with churches succumbing to the machinery of the state to suit the demands of the political establishment. Look no further than the capitulation of the Church of England, which voted to allow the blessing of same-sex relationships. This downgrade came after sustained attacks from members of Parliament, calling upon the Church of England to alter its practices.

The coronation of Charles III, furthermore, served as another iconic example of the ironic tragedy that is religious establishment: a man with questionable Christian commitment was crowned “Defender of the Faith” and anointed by an archbishop repudiated by orthodox Anglicans for undermining the faith.

Despite this, a small but growing number of American Christians have started to look favorably upon a quasi-religious establishment with startling authoritarian characteristics. This temptation arises, in part, because of the madness of American secularism coupled with the demands of progressivists to eradicate Biblical Christianity from the public square.

Even in a place like Colonial Massachusetts, the religious establishment failed in its promises.

Rash decisions are the fruit of being backed into a corner, and a push for a renaissance or reinstituted Protestant religious establishment is just that—a rash, unreasoned decision that will do little to stem the tide of secularism while simultaneously threatening the theological and doctrinal purity of the church.

This has been the historical pattern. Even in a place like Colonial Massachusetts, the religious establishment failed in its promises. The links between church and state exacerbated their political and social conditions. Controversy after controversy besieged the Colony, pitting orthodox Christians against other orthodox Christians, which was complicated further by the power of magistrates to intervene in religious disputes. Political elections became doctrinal contests, and to the victor went the spoils. Even orthodox Christians found themselves banished, or worse. Moreover, within a generation, the Colony had to alter its theology of baptism and eventually the Lord’s Supper because second-generation Colonists were not repenting or providing evidence of regeneration.

Christians, to be sure, should rightly exhibit outrage towards the sustained march of a neo-paganism with its horrifying moral chaos. The answer, however, is not religious establishment. That approach remains theologically wrong, politically perilous, and historically wanting of success in preserving a peaceful political order while also maintaining the splendor of the church as God’s holy nation.

In fact, Berger’s observation about the resilience of American Christianity points to the legacy of religious liberty and disestablishment. He observed what Alexis de Tocqueville noticed in 1831. Tocqueville, commenting on American Christianity, wrote, “In the United States, the influence of religion is not confined to the manners, but it extends to the intelligence of the people. ... Christianity, therefore, reigns without any obstacle, by universal consent.”

How could a nation as “enlightened” or free as America possess a vibrant Christianity that exerted the kind of influence Tocqueville witnessed? It was, in the words of Tocqueville, “the separation of church and state.” As I argued elsewhere, “The power of American Christianity existed precisely because its churches and institutions had dislodged themselves from the tentacles of religious establishment.”

Our resistance against post-Christian neo-paganism, therefore, cannot be the false hope of established religion. Instead, we need a gospel-minded church and orderly constitutional government.


Cory D. Higdon

Cory D. Higdon (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an adjunct professor of history and humanities at Boyce College. His research focuses on the history of religious liberty in Colonial America and has been featured in the Journal of Church and State, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Public Discourse, and Providence Magazine. He has presented at numerous scholarly meetings including the American Society of Church History and the Evangelical Theological Society. He and his family reside in Louisville, Ky.

@cory_higdon


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