The Decline of Christianity in the West? A Contrarian View

T. David Gordon

If one is hapless enough to watch television or listen to conservative or religious (or conservative religious) radio, one hears endless rhetorical prefaces that assert the decline of Christianity in the industrialized West (or any of its sub-parts). In almost every case, this narrative of decline and fall is asserted without empirical, sociological, or historical evidence, based instead on extremely limited and highly selective anecdotal evidence.[1] Conservative Christians, for instance, routinely assume as the presupposition of their culture conversations that the sixties were a time of rejection of Christianity and Christian "values," after which our culture has experienced unmitigated decline.

I have often wondered how African-American Christians responded to these statements, since (if they are in their middle-ages or beyond), they can likely recall a time when they could not dine in restaurants with whites, could not always vote in local elections, or could not sit in the front portion of a bus. One might argue that the "good old days" of the Eisenhower administration were not all that good for African-Americans, or for American Christians (who were as segregated as their non-Christian fellow-citizens), for that matter. Since that time, our culture has realized more than ever before the biblical truth of the unity of Adam's race, even by those who disbelieve in Adam. Our culture is more integrated, and racial bigotry and injustice are routinely decried (though still practiced, in some locales, though discreetly). Indeed, I can say as one reared in Richmond, Virginia in the fifties and sixties, that I believe that on this particular score, we are a far more Christian nation than we were when I was a child, and I am entirely delighted by the progress.

The problem with anecdotal evidence is not that it is anecdotal; almost all true human wisdom is anecdotal. We learn by observing human activity that some behaviors are just, and others are unjust. We learn injustice not ordinarily by reading philosophical treatises, but by being treated unjustly. The problem with anecdotal evidence is that it is ordinarily so partial; it focuses on one, two, or three events or actions (mediated to us and selected for us by commercial news media), and draws universal or general conclusions from behaviors that are not, in fact, either universal or general. Worse, such selective anecdotal evidence is often employed in the service of fear-mongering, declaring that we are on the precipice of the return to barbarity, moving an audience to action by stimulating emotion, rather than cautious, critical assessment. In such circumstances, critical assessment tends to disappear altogether, and if the selective, fear-mongering evidence becomes the presuppositional currency we all use, we refuse to debase the currency by genuine critical assessment.

What I would like to suggest in this brief essay is that there is a difference, indeed a profound difference, between the decline of Christianity itself and the decline of culture religion; and further, that it is quite possible, if not altogether likely, that the decline of culture religion will ordinarily correlate with the progress of Christianity, not its regress.[2] Christianity, if Augustine was even remotely correct, recognizes two "kingdoms" or "cities" on earth: the city of God and the city of man. When the two become confused, there may be some small improvement in the city of man, but there will almost certainly be an enormous decline in the city of God.

Christianity, while culturally cooperative in its healthier moments, is always essentially counter-cultural; it is the religion of those whose "citizenship is in heaven," whose ultimate loyalties transcend local or peculiar cultural experiments, whose apostolic ethic demands that it resist conformity to "the world." Indeed, authentic Christianity tends to manifest itself most authentically when it is a minority, and especially when it is a persecuted minority. By contrast, when church-membership or public identity with the Christian religion becomes a means to this-worldly success and ambition, Christianity tends to lose both its vitality and its integrity. The problem with even a general "culture religion," one that is not established by the state, is that we tend to fail to perceive the many antitheses between the city of man and the city of God. American Christianity, for instance, in its prevailing form (evangelicalism), is remarkably American: populist, egalitarian, pragmatic, anti-intellectual, anti-traditional, a-historical, individualistic, paedo-centric, sentimentalist, contemporaneous, etc. Each of these qualifiers reflects a value that is contrary, in my judgment, to authentic Christianity, but contrary in a way that does not appear to be "worldly" in any obvious sense, because these are the values of our culture.

What many historians would therefore describe as "the rise of Christianity" I would describe as its decline. "Constantinianism" is the term that many of us, following people such as Jacques Ellul, use to describe the promotion of Christianity through the powers of the state.[3] While the medieval era witnessed the rise of Constantinianism and Christendom, one may fairly challenge the notion that the medieval era witnessed the rise of Christianity, and indeed may with good reason describe this as Christianity's decline, not its rise. If this is right, then what many decry as the "decline of Christianity" is merely the decline of Constantinianism, which is perhaps the best thing that could ever happen to authentic Christianity.[4]

Indeed, if there is any real evidence of the decline of Christianity in the West, the evidence resides precisely in the eagerness of so many professing Christians to employ the state to advance the Christian religion. That is, if Ellul's theory is right, the evidence of the decline of Christianity resides not in the presence of other religions (including secularism) in our culture, but in the Judge Moores, the hand-wringing over "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, and the whining about the "war on Christmas." If professing Christians believe our religion is advanced by the power of the state rather than by the power of the Spirit, by coercion rather than by example and moral suasion, then perhaps Christianity is indeed in decline. If we can no longer say, with the apostle Paul, "the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly," then perhaps Christianity is indeed in significant decline. If we believe we need Christian presidents, legislators, and judges in order for our faith to advance, then we ourselves no longer believe in Christianity, and it has declined. Christianity does not rise or fall on the basis of governmental activity; it rises or falls on the basis of true ecclesiastical activity. What Christianity needs is competent ministers, not Christian judges, legislators, or executive officers.

The apostle Paul was apparently quite content with the Roman magistrate not being a Christian believer. He encouraged the believers at Rome to submit to such a magistrate, in part because even he, without the light of the law of Moses or the teaching of Christ, would be a "terror to evil conduct," and as such, was a "minister of God for your good" (Rom. 13:3-4). All Paul appealed to the magistrate for were his rights as a Roman citizen; he never asked for any special dispensation as a Christian (Acts 25:11, 28:19).

As American Christians, thinking about these matters in the early twenty-first century, we would do well to remember the American Christians during the time of the founding of our Republic, who only desired from the state the protections other citizens had, nothing more nor less. The only relation between state and church desired by these founders was one of toleration and equal protection; that the state would permit the free assembly of peaceable citizens for either religious or non-religious purposes, and would permit, in this sense, the free exercise of religion. The relation of state and church, as conceived by the Continental Congress, was minimal. This minimalist approach has met with two hostile reactions since the sixties: often the hostility takes on the form of denial, and on other occasions the form of disapproval.

The deniers continue to argue that ours was/is a "Christian nation," without citing any convincing historical evidence. Sometimes this is done by confusing the theocratic Massachusetts Bay Colony with the Republic as a whole, and sometimes this denial takes the form of quotations of individuals associated with the founding (e.g. John Witherspoon) who professed Christian faith. Neither of these will survive critical inspection, however. Massachusetts, for instance, was but one of the thirteen colonies eventually represented at the Continental Congress. William Penn's religiously free Pennsylvania was also there, and was given the same enfranchisement as Massachusetts. Since Pennsylvania was practically founded as a refuge for religious dissidents, one can be sure that its representatives would have approved of no theocracy, and of no establishment. Similarly, quoting individuals such as Witherspoon does not prove that ours was a Christian republic; it merely proves that Witherspoon was a professing Christian. I am a professing Christian also, but I am writing with all the zeal I can muster against the idea of establishment or theocracy. I am a professing Christian and a professing anti-Constantinian, and therefore my profession of faith does not imply that I am Constantinian.

Perhaps the language of "Christian nation" is itself confusing, and should disappear altogether, to be replaced by a choice of two expressions: "Christian republic" and "Christian culture." These terms would bring clarity to the discussion, because I, for instance, would have little objection with saying that late-eighteenth-century America was, largely speaking, a Christian culture. It was a culture influenced not only by the Constantinian West in general, but by Anglican and Puritan England in particular, and among its major intellectual influences (though by no means restricted to it) was Christendom. Its other major intellectual influences were both distant and recent: Athens and the Scottish Enlightenment. Thus, it was a culture that was "Christian" in the sense that the prevailing choice of religious people was Christianity, and in the sense that all members of the culture were familiar with the basic truth-claims and ethical principles associated with it.

This "Christian culture," however, was self-consciously not a Christian republic. The framers appear to have gone out of their way to exclude any explicitly Christian sentiments in the documents themselves. Students of the Constitution, for instance, have found many phrases and clauses that are borrowed, word for word, from David Hume and John Locke, and the conceptual indebtedness to the British Enlightenment is greater still.[5] Yet there are no similar phrases from the Christian Scriptures or creeds. Considering the profound literary influence the Bible had on the colonies, it is a rather remarkable historical fact that a few biblical phrases did not leak into the document accidentally. The framers were careful to protect religion's free exercise, but they were equally careful to avoid establishment.[6]

Some do not deny the minimal relation between state and church in the early Republic, but they nevertheless disapprove it, and dismiss it as an undesirable concession to secularists such as Thomas Jefferson. This theory is plausible, in the general sense that the founding documents required a great deal of compromise among the colonies, not the least of which touched upon slavery. But it is only plausible, and not historically accurate. The opponents of establishment were as often religious as irreligious. Some, such as the Baptist Roger Williams, or Pennsylvania's William Penn, are well-known. Others are less so, and I'd like to mention the example of American Presbyterians in the early pre-republic, not only because their history is less well-known, but because our institution, Grove City College, has historically been associated with American Presbyterianism.

The American Presbyterian Opposition to Constantinianism

Three distinct historical events in the eighteenth century reveal the consistency and clarity with which anti-Constantinianism began to emerge among American Calvinists: the original 1729 Synod of Presbyterians, the Adopting Act of 1787/88, and the overtures of Hanover Presbytery to the Virginia Legislature from 1776 to 1785. In each of these acts, there is an unmistakable and deliberate departure from Constantinianism, and we examine each briefly to demonstrate the point.

In 1729, the first Synod of Presbyterians met to establish a connectional Presbyterian government in the colonies. As they discussed the terms of ministerial membership, one of the questions that arose was the question of what to do with ministerial candidates who objected to the Westminster Confession of Faith (and Larger and Shorter Catechisms) regarding the relationship of the civil magistrate to the church. The original 1647 edition of these standards stated that it was the magistrate's duty to promote the true religion, and to see to it that the sacraments and Word of God were rightly administered in the churches in his realm. Many ministers in the colonies considered this to be an error, and the 1729 Synod deliberated what to do with such ministers, and took an action that expressly admitted such men who had scruples with the Westminster standards on this point. William E. Moore[7] quoted the Synod's opinion on the matter:

The Synod of New York and Philadelphia adopt, according to the known and established meaning of the terms, the Westminster Confession of Faith as the confession of their faith, save that every candidate for the gospel ministry is permitted to except against so much of the twenty-third chapter as gives authority to the civil magistrates in matters of religion. The Presbyterian Church in America considers the Church of Christ as a spiritual society, entirely distinct from the civil government, having a right to regulate their own ecclesiastical policy, independently of the interposition of the magistrate.

Though the American Presbyterians retained the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as their creedal standards, the actions and minutes of their meeting clearly indicate their difference of opinion with the Westminster Assembly on this point.

In 1787 and 1788, the American Presbyterians went even further. The Synod of Philadelphia and New York modified the Westminster standards regarding the authority of the civil magistrate, to remove the authority granted him by the 1647 edition of the standards. Several modifications were necessary, and among them were these. Chapter 20.4 was modified as follows, by removing the italicized words from the 1647 edition: "And for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation...they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the church, and by the power of the civil magistrate." The Synod still retained the right of the ecclesiastical authorities to initiate process against such individuals, but it took from the civil magistrate any power to proceed against them in any way. This change was deliberate, and it reflected the belief, already present in 1729, that the American church not only did not consider it necessary to use the power of the state to penalize religious errors; but that it was erroneous to use the power of the state to do so. The second change made in 1788, regarding chapter 23.3 of the Confession is best disclosed by presenting both the 1647 and the 1788 editions in parallel columns:

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses of worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest in such a manner, that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging, every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth, should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretence of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.

What is evident here is the deliberate removal from the sphere of the magistrate powers formerly considered to be his. It is now inappropriate for him to "in the least, interfere, in matters of faith," whereas previously it was his "duty" that "all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed." Then, in language that would appear in the legislatures of a number of colonies as well as in the documents of the emerging Republic, the Synod asserted that "no law of any commonwealth, should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination." And further, they asserted that the magistrate has the positive duty "to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretence of religion, or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury, to any other person whatsoever (emphasis mine)."

The third change made to the Westminster standards in 1788 was made to Larger Catechism 109:

What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment? A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counselling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God...

The italicized words were removed in 1787. The clause in question, "tolerating a false religion," referred to an act of the magistrate, not to an attitude. In the eighteenth century "tolerating" was not a reference to an individual's attitude, but to the magistrate's action. Various "Acts of Tolerance" had been part of the legislative history of both England and the colonies, and the verb referred to whether the magistrate would permit false religion within his realm or whether he would suppress false religion by the coercive powers of his office. Obviously, the Synod still considered it a sin for an individual Christian to approve of ("tolerate" in the attitudinal sense) false religion or idolatry, but they expressly determined that it was no sin for the magistrate to permit false religion within his realm. Philip Schaff recognized that the American Presbyterian churches thereby accomplished de jure what many European churches had begun to do de facto:

The objectionable clauses in the Confession and Larger Catechism have been mildly interpreted and so modified by the Presbyterian Churches in Europe as to disclaim persecuting sentiments. The Presbyterian Churches in the United States have taken the more frank and effective course of an entire reconstruction of those chapters, so as to make them expressly teach the principle of religious freedom, and claim no favor from the civil magistrate but that protection which it owes to the lives, liberties, and constitutional rights of all its citizens.[8]

These historical actions were not compromises; they were the consistent expression of a clear theological vision that became the prevailing opinion among American Presbyterians. Note, for instance, what Charles Hodge of Princeton Theological Seminary said:

The New Testament, therefore, does not teach that the magistrate is entitled to take care that true religion is established and maintained; that right men are appointed to Church offices; that those officers do their duty;... If to this it be added that experience teaches that the magistrate is the most unfit person to discharge these duties; that his attempting it has always been injurious to religion, and inimical to the rights of conscience, we have reason to rejoice in the recently discovered truth, that the Church is independent of the state, and that the state best promotes her interests by letting her alone.[9]

Robert Lewis Dabney, Hodge's contemporary who taught at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, echoed Hodge's thoughts:

All acts of religious intolerance are inconsistent with the relations which God has established between Himself and rational souls.... The separation and independence of Church and State was not only not the doctrine of the Reformation. No Christian nation holds it to this day, except ours....The ends of the State are for time and earth; those of the Church are for eternity. The weapon of the State is corporeal, that of the Church is spiritual. The two cannot be combined, without confounding heaven and earth.... No man is to be visited with any civil penalty for his belief, as long as he does not directly infringe upon the purpose of the government, which is the protection of the temporal rights of his fellow-citizens...[10]

It is therefore not surprising that two generations later at Princeton, J. Gresham Machen said a similar thing:

... the principle of voluntary association...is at the very roots of human liberty. But with that right of voluntary association goes insistence upon the most complete tolerance on the part of the State (which is an involuntary association) over against all other bodies, religious or social or whatever they may be, no matter how deleterious to the common welfare some men may think that they are.[11]

A third and final example of the American Presbyterian resistance to Constantinianism is found in the overtures of the Hanover Presbytery to the Virginia legislature over a period of roughly a decade.[12] Here in Mr. Jefferson's Virginia, we discover that Hanover Presbytery, not merely the secularist Jefferson, also desired the civil authorities to tolerate religious difference, and even to afford civil protection to Muslims. Jefferson and others may have thought such separation of state and church was essential to the health of the state; Hanover Presbytery considered such separation essential to the health of the church.[13] On October 24, 1776, the Hanover Presbytery overtured the Virginia legislature in words that included these:

We beg leave farther to represent that religious establishments are highly injurious to the temporal interests of a community....such establishments greatly retard population, and consequently the progress of arts, sciences, and manufactories....

Neither can it be made to appear that the gospel needs any such civil aid. We rather conceive that when our blessed Saviour declares his kingdom is not of this world, he renounces all dependence upon State power, and as his weapons are spiritual, and were only designed to have influence on the judgment and heart of man, we are persuaded that if mankind were left in the quiet possession of their unalienable rights and privileges, Christianity, as in the days of the Apostles, would continue to prevail and flourish in the greatest purity by its own native excellence and under the all disposing providence of God.

We would humbly represent that the only proper objects of civil government are the happiness and protection of men in the present state of existence, the security of the life, liberty and property of the citizens, and to restrain the vicious and encourage the virtuous by wholesome laws, equally extending to every individual.[14]

It might be tempting to dismiss this plea for disestablishment as little more than a plea for the freedom of Presbyterians to practice their own religion without molestation of the state. But such a dismissal is inappropriate here for two reasons. First, historically, Samuel Davies (the founding member of the Hanover Presbytery, who died in1761) had already secured such liberty. In 1740, he met with the governor of Virginia and was granted by the legislature the first license to preach ever granted to a dissenting minister in Virginia.[15] In 1753, Davies traveled to England where he preached to King George II, and where he requested that the Act of Toleration be extended to the colonies, and was granted his request. Thus, the Presbyterians in Virginia, in 1776, had already enjoyed freedom to practice their religion for over four decades, and their petition cannot be dismissed as merely an effort to attain such freedom.

The second reason not to dismiss this petition is because of the rationale supplied. Note that Hanover's overture included anti-Constantinian theological sentiment: "Neither can it be made to appear that the gospel needs any such civil aid. We rather conceive that when our blessed Saviour declares his kingdom is not of this world, he renounces all dependence upon State power, and as his weapons are spiritual, and were only designed to have influence on the judgment and heart of man, we are persuaded that if mankind were left in the quiet possession of their unalienable rights and privileges, Christianity, as in the days of the Apostles, would continue to prevail and flourish in the greatest purity" (emphases mine). Hanover's overtures to the Virginia legislature were not merely or primarily motivated by pragmatic concerns, but by theological and religious concerns. They would have agreed entirely with what the Presbyterian Stuart Robinson said nearly a century later, that "the conception of a use of religion for state purposes is Pagan in its origin, and, therefore, impossible, in any form of it, to be actualized under Christianity."[16]

And we must finally note that Hanover Presbytery was not merely seeking freedom of religion for various denominations of Christians. They rightly understood that there was no logical argument for establishing Christianity that would not also be equally cogent for establishing Islam: "Certain it is that...there is no argument in favor of establishing the Christian religion but what may be pleaded, with equal propriety, for establishing the tenets of Mahomed by those who believe the Alcoran..."[17] Hanover Presbytery in Virginia embraced the same religious doctrine of the spirituality of the church that had been articulated by northern Presbyterian synods in 1729 and 1787.

Mr. Jefferson believed the separation of church and state produced a better state; Hanover Presbytery, following their northern Presbyterian colleagues in 1729, thought it produced both a better state and a better church.[18] American Presbyterians, therefore, joined other religious and secular individuals in separating church and state. Such separation cannot be dismissed as a secularist movement alone, since the arguments were also religious.

Contemporary Constantinians

Contemporary Constantinians conveniently overlook the religious arguments, and often dismiss the separation of church and state as incipiently secularist, but the arguments and actions of Presbyterians in the eighteenth century (and their nineteenth-century commentators) refute such ideas starkly. Presbyterians before and during the early Republic argued on scriptural and theological grounds for the complete separation of church and state. They frequently cited Jesus' dictum that "my kingdom is not of this world," quoting his statement to "render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." They cited the apostle Paul's insistence that "our citizenship is in heaven," and argued that the only service that pleases God is that which is freely offered from the conscience. If contemporary Constantinians wish to disagree, they have every right in a free society to do so; but they are not free to ignore history, nor are they free from the obligation to counter theological reasons with theological reasons, and scriptural argumentation with scriptural argumentation.

Curiously, the last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed a resurgence of Constantinianism among Presbyterians on both the left and the right. On the left, Jack P. Maddex vigorously objected to the doctrine of the spirituality of the church in the 1970s, and many (if not all) conservative Presbyterians at the time disagreed. Indeed, when the Presbyterian Church in America was founded in early 1973, one of its stated grounds for leaving the PCUS was the political meddling that was so common in Maddex's communion. But in a very brief time most of the PCA appears to have forgotten its heritage, since its General Assembly has taken up, discussed, and even issued deliverances on such political issues as women in the military. And among its most prominent ministers is Dr. D. James Kennedy, whose God-and-country preaching is notoriously Constantinian. I suppose what is good for the liberal goose is good for the conservative gander, but I believe Constantinianism is bad for all geese.

A Naked Public Square?

Few misunderstandings are more common than the notion that separation of church and state implies a "naked public square." Separating the institutions of church and state does not, in and of itself, have any consequences at all for the public square. Individuals in a free society may speak their mind on all issues of public consequence, and may promote their views by any arguments they choose. Abraham Lincoln was perfectly free to saturate his Second Inaugural Address with biblical themes and quotations. Dr. King was entirely free to address public policy with the teachings of Holy Scripture, including such well-known Christian ethical principles as the Golden Rule. Such reasoning may well fall on deaf ears, of course: Why should individuals who do not acknowledge the Christian scriptures as a source of moral or religious truth be persuaded by appeals to them? But in a free society, we are free to articulate unconvincing as well as convincing arguments, prudent as well as imprudent reasoning, and ineffective as well as effective rationales. My own opinion is that religious reasoning is not very effective in persuading individuals in a post-modern culture, but such talk is entirely permissible in a culture that separates church and state.

Whither Christianity in America?

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that if Christianity is waning in America, it is not because there are secular people in America, or people of other religious persuasions, since such individuals have always constituted a substantial portion of our culture. If Christianity is waning, the evidence of such decline is that religious people themselves have lost confidence in God's ability to promote his worship without the coercive power of the state. If religious people themselves prefer Caesar's sword to the sword of the Spirit; if religious people disbelieve in the power of the Christian gospel to compete on a level playing field; if religious people no longer believe that Christ's example and words have the power to attract people to him, then perhaps Christianity is indeed in decline. But the decline has nothing to do with an assault from without, and everything to do with unbelief from within.

There has been some decline in culture religion in the United States over the last two centuries. A secularist such as Thomas Jefferson knew the tenets of Christianity, was familiar with the Bible, and understood the influence of each on the culture, and appealed to such influence when it suited his purposes. Secularists in the early twenty-first century may be less familiar with Christianity or the Christian scriptures than Jefferson, and may be more thin-skinned about appeals to them in the public square. But true Christianity still exists in the churches; and, more importantly, where it may be in decline it is almost never due to persecuting pressure from without, but to weak faith from within. My greatest fear is not the decline of culture religion, since the presence or absence of such culture religion strikes me as having almost nothing to do with the vitality of true Christian faith and practice anyway. My fear is that those who fear the decline will resort to employing the coercive power of the state to rescue and/or preserve culture religion; a resort that will, in my estimation, damage the evangelistic cause of true Christianity profoundly.

This article was originally presented as a paper at "The De-Christianization of Europe: From Nicaea to Nietzsche," a conference sponsored by the Center for Vision and Values of Grove City College, on April 12-13, 2007.


[1] Careful academic study produces a different picture. Evangelical historians Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George Marsden co-authored over twenty years ago their The Search for Christian America (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1983), in which they argued two theses quite convincingly: first, "that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly, or even predominately Christian," and second, "that the idea of a 'Christian nation' is a very ambiguous concept which is usually harmful to effective Christian action in society" (17).

[2] I therefore use "culture religion" almost identically with "Christendom" to label that mingling of church and state in the West whereby the fortunes of one became inextricably connected to the fortunes of the other.

[3] Cf. Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), and Anarchy and Christianity, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991). There are some who use the term "Constantinianism" more generally, to indicate that believers, informed by a biblical view of humanity and justice, are more likely to be able to frame a just and lasting republic than nonbelievers, and/or that it is the special duty of believers to attempt to influence their respective cultures for good. This more-general definition describes a situation that is less problematic, though I still disagree. Of course, thorough critiques of Constantinianism have tended to come from Anabaptist authors, such as John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). But I will argue below that anti-Constantinianism is a distinctive contribution of American Presbyterianism.

[4] My judgment on this matter is somewhat typically Protestant; many Roman Catholic friends would assess the matter differently. The Vatican is, after all, a state, and there was a time when popes appointed monarchs. "Christendom," then, tends to be more favorably assessed by Roman Catholics than by Protestants. Cf., for example, Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005).

[5] Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003); Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (Boston: Mariner Books, 2002).

[6] Those who wish to study the actual historical question are encouraged to consult the aforementioned The Search for a Christian America, ed. Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden.

[7] Presbyterian Digest, 1886: 50, emphasis mine. For a full discussion of this matter, cf. also Charles Hodge, The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church (1840), Part One, Chapter Three, 127-215.

[8] Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983 reprint of 1931 ed.), vol. I, 799-800.

[9] Discussions in Church Polity (New York: Scribners, 1878), 118-119.

[10] Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985 reprint 1871, 1878 eds.), 877, 880, 879.

[11] Address before the Sentinels of the Republic, Washington, DC, January 12, 1926, regarding a Federal Department of Education, printed in Education, Christianity, and the State (Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1987) 85, emphasis mine; parenthesis his.

[12] Hanover Presbytery sent five pertinent overtures to the Virginia legislative assembly. The first was presented on October 24, 1776, and the last was presented in August of 1785. The text of the five overtures is contained in Charles F. James, Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia (Lynchburg: J. P. Bell, 1900), 222-240.

[13] And their arguments prove that the so-called doctrine of the "Spirituality of the Church" was not a late, nineteenth-century development among Southern Presbyterians to counter Federal abolitionism. Cf. the famous/infamous essay by Jack P. Maddex, Jr., "From Theocracy to Spirituality: The Southern Presbyterian Reversal on Church and State," Journal of Presbyterian History 54 (1976), and the thorough refutation of Maddex by Preston D. Graham, Jr., A Kingdom Not of This World (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002).

[14] James, Documentary History, 223-24.

[15] A brief, accessible introduction to the life of Davies has been written by Thomas Talbot Ellis: "Samuel Davies: Apostle of Virginia," in Banner of Truth Magazine, no. 235, April 1983.

[16] Appendix D, "Relation of the Temporal and Spiritual Powers Historically Considered," in Robinson's Discourses of Redemption (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1866), p. 476. Cf. also Robinson's "Note to Discourse IV: Of the Place of the Church in the Revealed Scheme of Redemption" in the same volume, 453-470.

[17] James, Documentary History, 223.

[18] Mr. Jefferson, while a flawed and sometimes inscrutable individual, accomplished many things in his rather full lifetime. To his great credit, among all his accomplishments, he chose to have only one inscribed on his tombstone: "Thomas Jefferson, author of the act for establishing religious freedom."

T. David Gordon, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, is professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant, May 2007.

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Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

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Ordained Servant: May 2007

The Temporality of the State

Also in this issue

Editorial: What Is the State For?

Church and State in Historical Perspective

Review: Covenantal Theonomy

Review: Separation of Church and State

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