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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

What Is a Secular State Anyway?

Underlying the Church & State debate and more broadly the question of Christian political theory is a fundamental question of definitions. What is a state? What is a religion?

It might surprise you how difficult these questions are to answer.

What Is a Religion?

I first encountered this question seriously while preparing lecture notes on World Religions. Like a good instructor, I thought the appropriate starting place would be an introductory lesson with a nice little slide defining "religion." I cannot begin to tell you how long I stared at that blinky little type-something-here line on my screen. I would write something, tilt my head and stare off into space, and then delete the line and try again.

"A religion is a system of belief." But so is a political party. "A religion is a body of belief which includes a deity." Unless you are Buddhist. "A religion is a set of deeply held convictions." So my belief that the Yankees are the greatest franchise in all of sports is a religion? "A religion is a organized constellation of rituals." Ever been to a Sooner home football game? The show doesn't start until the drum major struts across the field with that giant white hat kicked back with gusto.

Ultimately, it occurred to me that my task was impossible because I was trying to define religion as a construct which exists independently from the remainder of culture and society. I wanted religion to be an aspect which might exist within a civilization, whereas historically religion was indistinguishable from human civilization.

This point became apparent while studying up on Native American tribal religions as well as Hinduism. In both examples, all cultural practices had that which I wished to call "religious" qualities and motivations, just as all "religious" rituals took on culture-ordering functions. It was impossible for me to tell where one began and the other ended.

So why did I assume religion existed as a separate entity from the rest of civilization? Why did I assume that religion was a genus of which Islam and Christianity were but species?

What Is a State?

The answer likely is rooted in a five hundred year-old power grab.

In yesteryear, the human powers of the world existed entirely within a larger cosmology. Higher powers, the gods typically, arranged or otherwise tended to the world, and government was simply the outworking of the universal order. Rulers in Europe acted by divine right, and rulers in Southeast Asia ruled because the universe declared their caste to be supreme.

Specifically in Europe, the human powers grew weary of their place in the cosmos. Being subordinate to cosmic power meant being implicitly subordinate to that power's spokesman. If the people perceived that the Pope of Rome spoke for the God of Heaven, then the King of France must bow to the Pope. And so he did.

One of the first cracks in this order came about through a dispute over sex. Knowing humans as we do, this should not surprise us. Henry VIII disagreed with the Pope as to the annulment of his childless marriage, but what was was a king to do? I don't believe it ever occurred to King Henry or anyone else that the King might simply exercise power without the church, but for the first time it seemed possible that the King might bend the church (his church) to his will. As of 1534, Henry did not believe he could annul his marriage by simply being the King of England, but perhaps he could as the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

This idea would fester. If a king could realign the church, then in some sense the state - the system of human government - could exist apart from the church - the representative of heaven's government. In 1689, John Locke could write, "I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between one and the other" (Concerning Toleration, 17). I cannot stress enough that such a project was in its time a very novel idea.

Novel, but popular. In Europe, the notion of being free from church meddling struck a nerve. For the virtuous ruler, it meant no longer being subject to church corruption or ecclesial chaos. For the unscrupulous ruler, it meant a more liberal moral compass by which to rule.

Thus, the idea of a "secular" state - and I must note that "secular" is a word worthy of its own investigation - was born. It remains to this day the unquestioned assumption of our debate. The question of how a church might relate to the state results in incoherent strategies precisely because it is built on an incoherent premise.

Looking for Jesus to talk about "policies of the secular state" is like looking for Jesus to speak about the internet. It's anachronistic. The (false) concept did not yet exist.

What Would Jesus Say?

I conclude then that Jesus did in fact speak of how a "state" ought to act, because it would never have occurred to Jesus or any other first century person that God's world and Rome's world were two separate realms. Rome was in a very real sense a religion by our current standards. Augustus was commonly titled "Emperor Caesar Augustus, Son of God." Sometimes, it was added, "Ruler of All Land and Sea." Sounds very religious. The historians can debate whether this claimed deity or merely some shade of divinity, but what defies doubt is that Augustus and his loyalists were making what we would now call a "religious" claim. The Imperial Cult was precisely what it sounds like.

When Jesus spoke of the rule (kingdom) of Heaven on Earth by Israel's God, he was directly assaulting the alternative paradigm of a Roman emperor nestled among the Roman pantheon of deities. All claims of authority are political and civil, just as all civil claims reflect "religious" convictions.

Our frustration about church and state is something akin to a mathematician trying to square a circle. Because of the definitions we have adopted, we have cordoned off Jesus' teachings into the ecclesial or "spiritual" realm, and then we find ourselves stymied when the godless region we have created runs amok in rebellion against a Lord we have intentionally removed from it.

We do not have to ask what Jesus would say to the state, because everything he said was to the state. "All authority is given to me in Heaven and Earth." This is his proclamation to the civil state. He has claimed it as his own.

"Yes, But ..." What Remains?

What I cannot easily answer is what the Christian is to do now. I think most Christians want to agree with what I've said in principle, but fear it would leave them with undesirable options. I often feel the same way. Hence, in my last political theory article, I summarized three plausible theories (of which we might list endless variations).

The Anabaptists (long before Dreher but long after Benedict) believed the state to be an irredeemable abomination, a monster from Daniel's dreams. It would never yield to Christ's rule. The Christian had nothing left but to form a separate community were Christ does in fact rule, denying all participation in the corrupt state and its alternative religion/politic.

The Roman Catholics, and later in the Reformation the disciples of Abraham Kuyper, believed the state to be a redeemable institution. If the state could once more exist in the same cosmos as Israel's God, then it could by his authority steward the affairs of men. Laws should generally permit the free exercise of human will, but they should never enjoin evil or punish good.

The Transformationist Project of James K. A. Smith and others remains for me less clearly defined. I honestly struggle to define its entry into this category except to say that it encourages Christian moral witness within the existing system, dragging it somehow back to God. Worship will accomplish what laws will not. This is a softer approach to Kuyper's ends.

I simply do not know how to chose between the options, and my answer to political questions therefore shifts with my current mood. On pessimistic days, I am an Anabaptist, ready to watch the whole world burn while I sit down to take communion with my brethren in patient faith. On optimistic days, I am a firm Kuyper-man, ready to build a Holy Empire beneath the Cross of Jesus (and hoping someone will tell me how to do that without undermining the teachings of Jesus at the same time). Some days I am even attracted to the hopeful if ill-defined plan of Smith, plunging ahead in faith, hoping for transformation.

What I cannot ever do is concede any realm of human action to Hell's rule. I cannot pretend that government exists in some world locked away from the higher reality of God, angels, and demons. Only two, unequal powers exist: Heaven's Glorious God and Hell's sinful rebellion. If government is not subject to the teachings of Jesus Christ, to whom will it yield and to whom must it answer? If not Heaven, only Hell remains.

And surely we have seen enough of Hell's rule to opt against it.

Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Glenpool Church of Christ and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.


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