In a recent Facebook debate on faith and politics, someone (I don’t know him, so I’ll just refer to him as Mike) claimed that
To be a Christian American, you must believe in the separation of Church and State. The Will of God has no place in superseding a rule of law. By living a Christian Life and not judging others, we show our ability to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
The “separation of Church and State” isn’t a line found in the Constitution, and was never intended in the way that people like Mike are using it. But it doesn’t matter – even if America was built on the idea that its civil laws are somehow superior to the law of God, that wouldn’t make it true.
In any case, I was struck by this claim, because Mike seemed to be a Christian, but was articulating a position contrary to both Christianity and the best parts of American history. Worse, I’ve heard some variation of this argument repeatedly from Christians who don’t seem to have thought through the implications of what they’re saying. So let’s consider a few of those implications…
1. Subordinating Christianity to American Law Requires Rejecting the Civil Rights Movement
My response to Mike was just to quote Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.
By Mike’s analysis, we would have to say that Martin Luther King was a bad Christian and a bad American for holding this position. We’d also have to say that Aquinas and Augustine were bad Christians and bad citizens (albeit not bad Americans).
2. Subordinating Christianity to American Law Requires Rejecting Christianity.
While I looked at MLK, Aquinas, and Augustine, I could have just as easily looked back to St. Peter and the Apostles (Acts 5:17-18, 27-29):
But the high priest rose up and all who were with him, that is, the party of the Sad′ducees, and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles and put them in the common prison. [….] And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
That’s 180 degrees opposed to the claim that “The Will of God has no place in superseding a rule of law” for Christian Americans, and anyone claiming this has subordinated their worship of God to their worship of the State. So you can’t both believe in Christianity and say we should obey men rather than God. It’s just not possible to square that circle.
3. Subordinating Christianity to American Law is Rooted in Irrational Fears of “Theocracy”
There are fears that if we allowed people to follow their conscience rather than civil law, it would lead to anarchy or theocracy. From a Christian perspective, this just isn’t true. Christianity doesn’t call for theocracy. Rather, we’re called to obey legitimate civil authority (Romans 13:1), and we’re not called to impose the faith by force. Indeed, faith if a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8) that can’t be imposed with force. So it’s not like total obedience to God requires us to impose Christianity on other people. The theocracy fear-mongering is only plausible to people who are grossly ignorant of both Christianity and history. The closest thing to a “Christian theocracy” in the world today is Vatican City, which is totally peaceful, which is why those worried about Christian theocracy embarrass themselves by citing things like The Handmaiden’s Tale, a half-cocked story about a Protestant theocracy that simultaneously (and inexplicably) encourages adultery.
But while Christianity doesn’t require theocratic imposition by force, Christian faithfulness, obedience to God, does require us not to contradict Christianity. In other words, the cases we’re looking at are where God says to do X, and the State says “you may not do X,” or when the State says to do Y, and God forbids doing Y. Cooperating with abortions or unjust executions, participating in gay marriages, etc. – these are things that a Christian may not do, and a State that tries to force us to cooperate with these things is attacking Christianity directly.
4. Subordinating Christianity to American Law is a Form of Idolatry
America is a great country, but it’s far from perfect. That’s true of her laws, too, including her Constitution. We sometimes speak of her man-made legal system as if it was divinely inspired. Mormonism, a religion invented in the U.S., takes this to an extreme, claiming that the Constitution is divinely inspired (which makes it hard to explain things like Three-Fifths Compromise, or clause preventing Congress from banning the importation of slaves before 1808).
The subordination of Christianity to civil law, beyond being directly contrary to Scripture, is also a form of idolatry. As Pope Pius XI put it:
Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.
In describing it as idolatry, the pope isn’t speaking metaphorically, or exaggerating for effect. If the president tells you to do something that God forbids, or forbids you from doing something that God requires, a decision to obey the president rather than God is exactly what idolatry is made of.
5. Subordinating Christianity to American Law Opens the Door to Much Worse Horrors.
Remember that Pope Pius XI quotation from earlier, about the dangers of subordinating religion to the State? The context for that quotation is critical: the encyclical that it’s from was written in 1937, and is not coincidentally the only encyclical ever written in German. The Nazis were demanding that Christians set aside their moral beliefs because they got in the way of the State’s demands, and they quickly co-opted a number of Protestant churches into the “German Evangelical Church,” better known in English as the “Protestant Reich Church.” These German Christians allowed themselves to be duped into thinking that they could have their Christianity as a purely private affair, that wouldn’t impede their ability to be patriotic Nazi Germans. Other Protestants, along with the Catholic Church, stood up to this claim and insisted that the demands of God trump any contrary demands of the state.
Speaking of “trump,” we face an odd spectacle today: many of the very same people demanding that we set aside our religious beliefs, practices, and principles whenever they get in the way of the State are also the people warning that the current head-of-state is a power-hungry fear-monger and would-be dictator. If nothing else, let’s let the current and recent political fears be a reminder that we should “put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146:3), and follow God rather than man.