Christian princes are not church officers, insisted Calvin, but they have “obtained” by God’s sovereign decree. Like David, they should be versed in God’s law in order to apply it justly throughout the nation, leaving the administration of the sacraments and preaching to those with ministerial callings. Calvin’s view resonated with many in Britain where history had prepared the soil for it to take root. Under Elizabeth I’s rule, a diverse array of church leaders echoed Calvin’s political theology including Puritans like Thomas Cartwright and Anglicans like John Jewel and Richard Hooker.
Recently, a provocative quote from Michael Bird made the rounds through Christian Twitter. “The Bible has a technical term for someone who tries to combine religious and political power,” says Bird, “It’s called antichrist.”
It’s a punchy line, but interrogating it for a moment reveals new vistas of incoherence. It’s obviously appealing to evangelicals who want to countersignal their embarrassment of fellow believers seduced by the lure of Christian Nationalism. But as many pointed out in the replies, does the satisfaction of castigating your socio-political rivals require censuring the lot of Calvin, Luther, the Westminster Divines, Constantine, most English monarchs, and King David as antichrist?
Any sane person will say Bird’s opinion lacks nuance. But how many will admit it represents an ideological bias embedded in American Protestantism whose reckoning is long overdue?
Radical Secularism and American Protestantism
It’s ironic that mainstream evangelicals have come to equate piety with a notion of radical secularism championed by an atheist turned Unitarian. Most are aware that the primary source of modern commitments to secularism comes from Thomas Jefferson’s “Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association” of 1802. There, Jefferson explains that his intentions behind the Constitution’s First Amendment were to build “a wall of separation between Church and State.” More important for today, however, was the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause in Everson v. Board of Education (1947). Building on Jefferson’s wall imagery, they urged it to be “high and impregnable.”
There has since been a post-war consensus about the absolute separation between church and state whose proponents have grown among believers and unbelievers alike. Most concerningly, the former sound just as dogmatic as the latter.
Examples include David French’s infamous defense of drag queen story hours as a “blessing of liberty” which civil authorities must allow by demand of the First Amendment’s commitment to moral neutrality and Russell Moore’s criticism of Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality laws which, to him, represent a trading of gospel witness for political power.
Both cases argue for limiting the magistrate’s power to enforce Christian virtues although on slightly different terms. French, for example, mostly appeals to Jeffersonian principles and the inalienable right to religious liberty. He doesn’t need to cite specific Scripture since it’s clear he thinks his views are the right application of the Bible’s teaching. And he’s not alone. A.A. Hodge, the famous nineteenth-century American Presbyterian theologian and churchman, made a similar appeal to religious freedom in his commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Self-conscious of their desire to faithfully articulate the whole testimony of Scripture, the original authors of the Westminster Confession punctuated each doctrine with biblical citations. In James 4:12 and Romans 14:4, Hodge sees a right to conscience (WCF XX) which, when applied in the civil sphere (WCF XXIII), becomes an “inalienable prerogative of mankind…to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience.” For Hodge, the magistrate’s duty to preserve religious freedom supersedes that of advancing Christian virtues. Add a bit of Frenchian proceduralism and it’s ready for the Sunday column, though Hodge would no doubt be horrified by some of the ways French applies this way of thinking today.
If French takes a slightly indirect way of arriving at the absolute separation of church and state, Moore is more explicitly biblicist, rooting his case in hermeneutics which reveal important distinctions between Old and New Testament political realities. Conveniently for him, evangelical hermeneutics mandate a church-state arrangement amenable to everyone but conservative Christians while also making it easier to dismiss his opponents to the right as theocrats who simply misread their Bible.
Chad Van Dixhoorn represents the best version of his argument, addressing what he calls the “problematic” parallels between the duties of Israelite kings and today’s civil magistrates codified in the original Westminster Confession of Faith:
The problem with these parallels is that what is good for the old covenant people of God is not always good for the new. In the Old Testament, Israel was the assembly or church of God and God’s chosen nation. And so rulers in the nation also carried some responsibility for the church. In the New Testament the assembly or church of God is Israel, but there is no chosen political nation. The church is scattered among the nations. Neither is any ruler in any nation responsible for the church (Confessing the Faith, 314).
But as I have argued before, the implications of Christ’s new covenant were not lost on most early American Protestants. Most wanted a harmonious relationship between the civil and ecclesial spheres no less rooted in Scripture but arranged by robust systematic categories.
A Mixed Metaphor
One historically popular image for conveying the entire biblical witness to the magistrate’s relationship with the church was that of a nursing father. The admittedly mixed metaphor comes from Isaiah 49:23, and it was Calvin’s penetrating commentary on that verse that established the religious duties of Protestant magistrates in their realm. Beyond an “ordinary profession of faith,” magistrates are to defend the church, promote the glory of God, maintain the purity of doctrine, curb idolatry, and, generally, “supply everything that is necessary for nourishing the offspring of the Church.”
Impossible to ignore in Calvin’s interpretation is a convenient polemic against papal supremacy, which he blames for improperly subordinating civil authority to the greed of the Roman Catholic Church.