We Distinguish: Church and State
It gets rather tiresome: every time a moral issue is debated in society and Christians attempt to contribute, someone will pipe up and argue that church and state have to be kept separate. This happens online, but you see it in letters to the editor and op-eds too. It’s as if the world thinks that Christians believe otherwise.
Over the last few years I’ve especially observed this in Australian politics. Our last Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, identifies as Pentecostal. He’s a member of a Pentecostal church. Any time a moral issue was debated during his time in office, concerns would be expressed that the “church” was interfering with the state. The new PM, Anthony Albanese, is also a member of a church; he’s Roman Catholic. But since he claims to be a “non-practicing Catholic,” no one expects the same rhetoric about church and state. It’s a similar situation with PM Justin Trudeau in Canada. It seems like anytime a politician is even just a little bit serious about their faith, they’ll be suspected of mingling church and state. But as long as your “faith” has so discernible impact on your life, you’re in the clear.
The language used in the world around this is both sloppy and inflammatory. It’s sloppy because there’s no “church” attempting a take-over of the state. There’s no church with a policy whereby the church is aiming to hold political power. It’s inflammatory because it’s meant to recall historical occasions where that kind of thing actually did happen. From the medieval into the early modern period, there was actually a struggle for supremacy between the Roman Catholic Church and various kings and emperors. It’s also provocative language because it’s associated with Islamic states like Iran and (now again) Afghanistan. We’re supposed to worry that there’s some modern church conspiracy to seize political power, create a theocracy, force everyone to believe and, if they won’t, face an inquisition.
The reality is that biblical Christianity has maintained a distinction between church and state. The church administers the Word of God and the sacraments. The state governs and administers justice for its citizens. These are two distinct roles in society. While the church should certainly address the state on matters of common interest, the church doesn’t aspire to rule over the state. The state bears some power over the church – for example, churches are bound to civic building and fire regulations. However, the state shouldn’t rule over the church, dictating what it may and may not preach.
What the world is really saying is that it doesn’t think religion should be brought into politics. This is really where we differ. There are two important points to emphasize.
First, if you’re a Bible-believing Christian, your faith must be brought into politics, just as it must be brought into everything else in life. Proverbs 3:6 says, “In all your ways acknowledge him [God], and he will make straight your paths.” Christians aren’t supposed to compartmentalize their lives and hermetically seal off certain parts from their faith. If you’re a Christian, you’re a Christian all the time in everything you do.
Second, Anthony Albanese and Justin Trudeau are just as religious as Scott Morrison. The objective reality is that all human beings are religious creatures. That doesn’t mean they’re all regularly involved in the institutional trappings of religion. But they do hold to religious beliefs that impact how they live each day. Every human being holds to ultimate beliefs, beliefs which answer questions such as: Who am I? Where do I come from? To whom do I belong? Who is the ultimate authority in life? Who or what determines right and wrong? What happens after we die? These ultimate beliefs are religious in nature and they’re inevitable. The difference is that, for Christians, our beliefs are (or should be) on the table in an obvious way.
So, yes, we distinguish between church and state. However, if we follow the Bible, we don’t believe that religion or faith can be kept separate from politics. Even if you wanted to, you can’t and you won’t keep them separate. Politics is a human activity and that always involves the species homo religiosus. The only question then is: will the religion involved with politics be grounded in truth?