Charles Hodge, Protestant Nationalist

Charles Hodge, Protestant Nationalist

Written by Ben C. Dunson |
Thursday, January 25, 2024

We could with justice call Hodge a Protestant Nationalist. Hodge explains the way in which God’s moral law must be the foundation of American political life like this: The people of this country being rational, moral, and religious beings, the government must be administered on the principles of reason, morality, and religion. By a like necessity of right, the people being Christians and Protestants, the government must be administered according to the principles of Protestant Christianity.

Charles Hodge (1797–1878) was the third professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, once the leading institution of Reformed pastoral education and theology in America. He was also one of the most significant and able defenders of orthodox Christian theology in the years in which theological liberalism began to dominate so many churches, seminaries, and other institutions in America. Hodge was a prolific scholar, writing biblical commentaries, devotional works, and often addressing contemporary cultural issues. His most famous work, however, is his three-volume Systematic Theology, published between 1871–73.

This trilogy, though it does not normally address contemporary political issues, has one major section that does. It is found in Hodge’s treatment of the fourth commandment. In Hodge’s day (and for decades afterward in many places) the majority of American cities and states had “blue laws,” laws requiring businesses to close on Sunday. The basis for such laws was the Bible. Was it right, Hodge asked, in a republic that granted the free exercise of religion to its citizens, to impose upon those citizens biblical injunctions they might not agree with? Hodge devotes eight pages (out of a total of twenty-seven on the fourth commandment) to answer this question. His discussion is beneficial beyond what he says about the Sabbath itself because certain foundational political principles can be extracted from it. It also provides a stimulating treatment for American Christians to consider with regard to the various contemporary debates about the role of Christianity in relation to America’s political system.

Hodge begins his argument with the caveats

(1.) That in every free country every man has equal rights with his fellow-citizens, and stands on the same ground in the eye of law. (2.) That in the United States no form of religion can be established; that no religious test for the exercise of the elective franchise or for holding of office can be imposed; and that no preference can be given to the members of one religious denomination above those of another. (3.) That no man can be forced to contribute to the support of any church, or of any religious institution. (4.) That every man is at liberty to regulate his conduct and life according to his convictions or conscience, provided he does not violate the law of the land.

Some of these sentiments are incompatible with Reformational views on the relationship between the state and the church (some were not even true in America’s more distant past). In that older perspective, although the church and state must always be distinguished vocationally, the state is understood to possess a mandate (within its unique sphere of authority) to see that true religion is protected and promoted in church and society at large.

However, Hodge is not a modern secular liberal either. After the quote above he continues:

On the other hand it is no less true, that a nation is not a mere conglomeration of individuals. It is an organized body. It has of necessity its national life, its national organs, national principles of action, national character, and national responsibility.

Therefore, since

men are rational creatures, the government cannot banish all sense and reason from their action, because there may be idiots among the people. As men are moral beings, it is impossible that the government should act as though there were no distinction between right and wrong. . . . As it is impossible for the individual man to disregard all moral obligations, it is no less impossible on the part of civil governments.

Perhaps some modern liberals and progressives could agree with Hodge up to this point, but he then brings religion into the discussion. Religion, Hodge writes,

must influence [man’s] conduct as an individual, as the head of a family, as a man of business, as a legislator, and as an executive officer. It is absurd to say that civil governments have nothing to do with religion. . . . A civil government cannot ignore religion any more than physiology.

Although Hodge maintains that civil government “was not constituted to teach either the one [religion] or the other [physiology] . . . it must, by a like necessity, conform its action to the laws of both.” That is to say, the state is not ordained by God to teach theology (even Calvin would agree with this), but it cannot act wholly independently of religion any more than it could totally disregard the physical constitution of men and women (though our own society is doing its best to prove Hodge wrong on this latter point). “Indeed,” Hodge continues “it would be far safer for a government to pass an act violating the laws of health, than one violating the religious convictions of its citizens. The one would be unwise, the other would be tyrannical.” One example of how the state should “conform its action to [God’s] laws” is through statutes banning public blasphemy, whether by individuals, or even by publishers.

God’s moral law, even if true religious worship and doctrine should not be enforced by the state, is the only true foundation for a just and healthy society. “It is time,” says Hodge,

that blatant atheists, whether communists, scientists, or philosophers, should know that they are as much and as justly the objects of pity and contempt, as of indignation to all right-minded men [BCD: the Old Princeton mood?].

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