The hypocrisy of religion in non-establishment commonwealths

It’s easy to point out the failures of state-churches (see Anglican England or Lutheran Germany), but does the non-establishment of religion necessarily lead to healthier religious communities within a commonwealth?  It does not necessarily follow that it does.  If you go to the average Baptist church, how many Masonic insignia will you see in the parking lot?   How truly “reformed” (and I use that in the broadest and not theological sense) are the people?  Is the church really that healthy?  Forget the numbers for the moment.  How many truly know the rudiments of Christian doctrine?  It’s easy to make fun of nominal churchgoers in state church England for ignorance in the faith, but is it really that different in voluntarist Baptist America?

The only good argument for a non-established religion is that without government funding, it must use all of its skill and stewardship to survive.   I don’t like Libertarianism, but this is one of the strongest arguments for the Market:  government money, at least in America, is kryptonite.  It kills everything it touches.

But that raises another problem:  the Word of Faith church down the street is not government-funded, is booming, and is apparently a good steward of resources. Yet we know that it is not a true church (and I don’t mean that in a mean way.  I am taking the Belgic Confession’s definition of a true church–pure preaching of gospel, right administration of sacraments, and church discipline).  So the stewardship line is not sufficient.

I acknowledge that the Reformed have always taught that the civil magistrate protects the true religion, and if the Reformed reasoning on the Ten Commandments is correct (meaning, positive injunctions along with negative prohibitions), then the civil magistrate must take a positive role to maintaining the true church.  Of course, this means that any Reformed view of natural law is necessarily theocratic.  It is inconsistent for people to hold to natural law, and understand it as binding on all men, and understanding that the magistrate must rule by natural law (as follows from the previous point), along with the Reformed understanding that natural law is the ten commandments, yet to deny that the magistrate can enforce all of the ten commandments.   Further, if the positive injunctions follow, as seems reasonable, then this gives the magistrate a positive duty.

But does this mean a state denomination?  Here is where the line gets tricky.  In earlier generations the answer was yes, but even then the idea of denominations was not fully developed.  I for one see no practical difference between the URC and the OPC, with perhaps some exceptions on instruments in worship.   Would it not be better to say the magistrate enforces the Reformed religion, as opposed to a Reformed denomination?

It seems to reason, therefore, at the least, that the magistrate must take a positive role in religion, if the natural law view of the ten commandments is correct.


10 comments on “The hypocrisy of religion in non-establishment commonwealths

  1. The view you are expressing is more Savoy Congregationalist than Westminster Presbyterian, I. E. the magistrate promotes true religion without preferring one denomination.

    • I understand that, but I also don’t think the word “denomination” has the same connotations today as it did back then. Further, back then the unity of the church was tied in with the state. I’m not saying that is necessarily a bad thing, but for Americans it also represents a thing that never was. it was there for Scotland, but not America. Maybe we can get there in the future, but we have to work in the situation we are in now. Thanks for your observation.

      • There would be practical issues difficult to sort out, like which churches one could be a member of and still be eligible for public office or voting, whom the President should call upon for spiritual advice on a bill or other matter, and what to do if two churches disagreed about a church discipline matter involving an official or a voter.

  2. Tim Enloe says:

    I don’t know if this matters to your argument, but in technical discussions I have seen the word “theocratic” means direct rule by God, not rule by a minister of God (e.g., a civil magistrate appointed at least in part to protect true religion). In the Reformed context, especially as that is today influenced by a corrupt understanding of sola Scriptura that leads to such ideologies as Theonomy, it may therefore be possibly rhetorically misleading to say that a Reformed view of civil polity run by natural law is “theocratic.” It would be, in Bavinck’s wonderful term, “theonomous,” but in that sense all of reality is already that, so there is no need outside of God’s particular purpose for Israel to have a civil polity run by explicit proclamations of “God’s Law-Word.”

  3. I like the post, but agree with highplainparson. The schismatic notion of denominations was resisted by Scottish Presbyterians, and for good reason. Perhaps if true religion was established, the Reformed groups would be more inclined to unite in one national church?

  4. Andrew says:

    ‘does the non-establishment of religion necessarily lead to healthier religious communities within a commonwealth? It does not necessarily follow that it does.’

    What do you mean by ‘necessity’ here? One could state the issue in such a way where it does follow necessarily, not least an analytic proposition such as a healthy religious community is one not established by the state. Yet this being equal and all other things up for grabs it’s hard to imagine how one (ER or NER) could necessarily lead to healthier religious communities within a commonwealth.

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