Can We Be Americans AND Christians?

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.


  1. Did I ever told you that I love you, Joe? Great article! Especially the example with the “German Evangelical Church”, it is quite amazing how much of a a puppet the Church can become, especially the protestant church, if we let ultra nationalist sentiments infiltrate into the Church. There are endless examples, one I’d like to provide in Eastern Orthodoxy is “The Iron Guard” a mystical-orthodox paramilitary movement that corrupted the Romanian church. Also this applies to individuals, think of Rasputin.
    But I’m not sure I see the conclusion here. Should we conclude that state and religion are to live shoulder to shoulder, then?

  2. This all gets back to the “enlightenment” IMO and most people ignore how it destroyed man’s soul by replacing God with man. The physical power and comforts enjoyed on this planet are beyond the dreams even of one generation but we have replaced the Church for moral guidance with the State. Don’t forget that the “Reformation” worked because: (a) people avoided paying priestly taxes, (b) divorce was redefined, and (c) the power and force of a state government replaced Rome.

    Jefferson was a deist. Classical liberalism lacks a connection with the Church. America was built for protestantism, secular humanism and relativism to flourish. Just look at the “sexual revolution” and the destructive nature of this worldview upon our moral fabric. What people think is good/better without the natural law turns into a disaster.

  3. Most on the Supreme Court reject the concept of the Natural Law which is why such things as abortion are then read into the Constitution. Justice Kennedy’s relativistic decisions are a travesty to the natural law in this country and Mueller does nothing to rebuke him. In fact, where are the Bishops and Cardinals to challenge the Catholics on our Supreme Court when they clearly decide moral issues and abdicate their faith for secular humanism/relativism????

    Our Constitution was never designed to be interpreted without the natural law which is why the moral decisions by the SC are so screwed up.

  4. I’m reminded of Dante’s treatise Monarchia, in which among other things he holds civil and ecclesiastical authority (in his day, Pope and Emperor) to be twin sun’s, neither meant to subordinate the other

    However the objection will be raised that the USA is a secular state and thus personal beliefs must be kept completely out of the public sphere, whether because they offend someone with different beliefs or because the empiricists can show said beliefs to be objectively false.

    Secular objection aside, the other grounds for objection is the pluralistic nature of the USA: different groups have different internal compasses so to speak. When two compasses give different readings, which one yields? Which is to say, when two different groups have different beliefs, how does one arbitrate between them?

    A third objection is that the fears of theocracy are rooted in the forced conversions that Christianity (and the Catholic Church in particular) perpetrated by its missionary activity, especially after the fall of Rome and during the Age of Exploration.

    1. Hello Q,

      You state that “forced conversions that Christianity (and the Catholic Church in particular) [were] perpetrated by its missionary activity,…”

      Such a claim begs evidence to support it. Where do you get this notion? Please tell.

      1. Now this is not a claim I believe myself but it’s an argument our secular fellows are more than prone to trotting out as a stick to beat us upside the metaphorical head with. But one example, among others, would be Junipero Serra, Franciscan missionary to California nowadays quite criticised for his vocation. The reason? The destruction of Native American culture thanks to his efforts at evangelizing them.

        Basically whenever the Church goes out and does what She was commissioned to do, the secular folks cry out in objection that we are meddling and destroying previously pristine cultures with our West-centric value system, etc ad nauseam.

        1. The destruction of native cultures in the New World could be better blamed on secular forces working along with the Church hierarchy in it’s missionary endeavors. One important example of this is found in 1511 when Fr. Antonio de Montesinos O.P. , in Santo Domingo , Dominican Republic (Hispanola) refused to give absolution to virtually the entire congregation of political leaders who attended Mass at the Cathedral. He preached on the rights of the native Taino indians and forbade the abuse of them. He boldly said that virtually all the leading Spaniards were in mortal sin for such behavior. His address to them is still available online as evidence that many clergy at that time were trying to defend the rights of the native populations. In fact, this was the biginning of the establishment of global international law, as the King of Spain demanded the Church to study the natural law moral rights of the new peoples that were being discovered throughout the New World.

          Here is some of what Fr. Antonio Montesinos, O.P. preached, and which caused him to be forcibly sent back to Spain and tried in court before the King to stop such subversion of the secular authorities on Hispaniola:

          “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. In order to make your sins known to you I have mounted this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island; and therefore it behooves you to listen to me, not with indifference but with all your heart and senses; for this voice will be the strangest, the harshest and hardest, the most terrifying that you ever heard or expected to hear….

          This voice declares that you are in mortal sin, and live and die therein by reason of the cruelty and tyranny that you practice on these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what right do you wage such detestable wars on these people who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, where you have consumed infinite numbers of them with unheard of murders and desolations? Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, not giving them enough to eat or caring for them when they fall ill from excessive labors, so that they die or rather are slain by you, so that you may extract and acquire gold every day? And what care do you take that they receive religious instruction and come to know their God and creator, or that they be baptized, hear mass, or observe holidays and Sundays? Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? How can you lie in such profound and lethargic slumber? Be sure that in your present state you can no more be saved than the Moors or Turks who do not have and do not want the faith of Jesus Christ.”

          1. It is then counter-objected by the secularists that the Church still held a patronizing attitude towards the indigenous people and did not issue a blanket ban on the institution of slavery when it had the opportunity to.

            We can’t win an argument against these people, what they really want when they say “separation of Church and State” is “stay in your lane and keep your religion behind locked doors”. They want the Church to shut up and die already because the common view is that nothing good can come out of the Catholic Church, and that evangelizing is an infringement on other people’s personal beliefs and cultures.

          2. Slavery, unfortunately, was a world wide human institution going back, more or less, to the beginning of mankind. What we see as 159 dollar clothes washing machine today, was a slave back then. Even the high priest of Israel sent slaves to accompany Judas in searching for and capturing Jesus. We cannot rewrite history, and so must understand that this was just how things unfolded and evolved in the history human civilization.

            But the battle to change this part of human history is actually the amazing part, and it is Catholicism which addressed it through the zealous debates of Catholic theologians, such as Fr. Antonio Montesinos, O.P., and many others.

            There is an excellent book that details how the Catholic Church effected countless benefits for world culture without which the world today would be a very different and barbaric place. It’s called “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization”. It shows how, because of the university system established by the Catholic Church in the middle ages, the great ideas such as ‘universal human rights’ could be both debated, and also established by law, throughout Europe and the world.

            This history needs to be known so as to patiently explain to and teach ‘the seculars’, who don’t care at all about the studying the past. Many think that everything just emanated out of their marijuana bong.

  5. The idea of „separation of Church and State” is magisterially condemned in Pius’ X encyclical „Vehementer nos” (11.02.1906).

  6. One of the best and most readable explanations of why Christians not only deserve to be heard in the public square, but need to be heard.

  7. And this very week I saw a man arguing that the nuns ought to be forced to provide contraception because we are saved not by our virtues but in spite of our sins. . . . sigh He cited his prayer and church-going in the comment too.

  8. I applaud you for being honest that your beliefs require you to put Christianity above democratic rule. But you can’t say scoff at theocracy being “irrational” in the very same place you say Christian law must be above American law and “Legalizing abortion is attacking Christianity.”


    You object to comparisons with Handmaiden’s tale, but only because it’s a dramatization, not the underlying problems with it.

    The government undermining medical autonomy of adults based on a minority’s religious beliefs is the problem both in handmaiden and in your dominionist thoughts.

    By all means, argue for theocracy, but please refrain from fooling yourself into thinking you can have your cake and eat it to, that you can work for a Christian nation that is not also theocracy. The only ones you would be fooling are fellow theocrats.

  9. I believe the author is saying along with Martin Luther King, Jr. that American law – at its most basic level, ought to be informed by moral or natural law – this is not the same thing as a theocracy. Just found your blog, Joe – glad you are in KC!

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