I’m reading through a little book Carl Henry wrote during the Reagan years, titled The Christian Mindset in a Secular Society. He writes something here that I felt I must share. It’s about the relationship between the Church and the State. Henry suggests that the church’s job is about more than personal evangelism. Like an occupying army, he suggests the church is to be “light and salt in a darkening and decaying society,” (p. 39). He then writes this (p. 40):
Speaking as a Baptist, should we do as Henry suggests? Should we “insist” on applying Christian ethical absolutes to national life? What is disturbing is that Henry suggests pluralism is a sham. It’s true that somebody’s values will be advanced in any piece of legislation, policy, or administrative rule. It’s also true that a key mark of the Baptist ethos is that we wish government to leave everyone alone so we can all worship as we see fit, without interference or sanction. Baptists believe this because any coercion, any outward pressure, any legal compulsion to “make” someone a Christian is both (1) a waste of time, because it won’t work, and (2) spiritual abuse. So, Baptists have not historically sought or wanted State sanction for religious activities.
Henry was a Baptist. That makes his negative remarks about pluralism (and more recent culture war moves by more modern Baptists) so puzzling. Baptists should not desire State sanction or approval for any religious speech or act, because this would implicitly or explicitly force other faith groups to accept Christian moral values. Baptists recognize that the precedent of State sanction might smile on Christians today, but what about tomorrow? We’re all for State-sponsored approval as long as it favors us. But, what if it doesn’t?
Henry has doubled down. While I admit I’m not sure how to square (1) my Baptist convictions against State sanction for religion in any form, with (2) my desire to see Christ’s values advocated for in the public square, I insist that Henry’s comments here are not Baptistic in the slightest. His reasoning appears to go like this:
- This country was founded on Christian principles
- and it ain’t very Christian anymore
- so we gotta advocate for Christianity in our national life as part of our Gospel mission
This is incorrect. However, it’s complicated. Behold the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.See https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/
You can’t establish a religion, can’t prohibit exercise of religion, and you can’t stop public religious speech. So much is clear. But, it’s also true that the Constitution (and its Amendments) came about in a Christian-ish milieu. The Constitution Annotated, the official “living” government publication providing context for the origin and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, notes this:
The Constitution Annotated, Amendment 1.1.1, Historical Background on Religion ClausesProbablyat the time of the adoption of the constitution and of the amendment to it, now under consideration, the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.8 The object, then, of the religion clauses in this view was not to prevent general governmental encouragement of religion, of Christianity, but to prevent religious persecution and to prevent a national establishment
So, it’s apparent that while America did not have an official State church, its implicit atmosphere was broadly Christian. We can see, then, why Carl Henry and others frame the Church/State relationship the way they do. Are they wrong to do so?
I fear they are indeed wrong. This does not mean I believe Christians should withdraw from society and ignore the moral problems of the day. It also does not mean Christians ought to wed themselves to a particular party, like so many barnacles to a ship. But, these are topics for another time.
I can say, however, that I don’t believe Henry’s approach here can be called Baptist.