Review: Separation of Church and State

D. G. Hart

Separation of Church and State: The Myth Revisited, by Norman De Jong and Jack Van Der Slik. Jordan Station, Ontario: Paideia, 1985, xix + 208 pages, $9.95, paper.

Many Reformed Christians, like the authors of Separation of Church and State, take a dim view of the isolation of religion and politics in contemporary America. The divorcing of these two God-ordained spheres, so goes the logic, is the source of the United States' moral declension, a departure from the nation's founders' intentions, and a denial of Christ's rule over all areas of life.

What contemporary Presbyterians may be surprised to learn is that their colonial forefathers regarded the separation of church and state not as a curse but a blessing. Throughout the seventeenth century, England restrained Presbyterian growth in Scotland, even to the point of persecuting Covenanter ministers. Oliver Cromwell was equally rough on Presbyterians in Northern Ireland during the Commonwealth period. In the American colonies Presbyterianism never enjoyed state support and had to work around the established churches. In fact, in New York and Virginia, authorities erected various impediments that afflicted Presbyterian pastors. In contrast, the colonies that practiced a measure of religious neutrality—Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware—were the places where Presbyterianism was strongest. It is no wonder that Quaker Philadelphia proved a more congenial site for the first presbytery in the New World than either Anglican New York City or Puritan Boston.

But this aspect of church-state relations is not the concern of De Jong and Van Der Slik. They are convinced that Christians and their faith are better off in the hands of religiously active magistrates than with rulers who avoid religious tests for office or policy. Their argument comes essentially in two parts. The first concerns the history surrounding church-state relations during the era of the American founding up to 1800. The second involves a critique of the arguments favoring separation of church and state.

In general, De Jong and Van Der Slik are correct in their judgments about early American history. A majority of states continued the pattern of state churches well into the nineteenth century. Public school administrators included large amounts of religious instruction for American boys and girls. And practically all of the American founders, even deistical ones, affirmed the necessity of faith for a free and virtuous republic. The authors' retelling of this history is selective, however. They ignore utilitarian assumptions that informed religious establishment and made Christianity a means toward social harmony rather than an end in itself. For instance, Massachusetts held on to a state church the longest of any of the states (1833) and also witnessed the rise of Unitarianism as part of the religious establishment—two circumstances that were not merely coincidental since government officials often require church leaders to cut and paste Christian teaching for the well-being of the state (think about the condition of the state churches in Europe). Nor do De Jong and Van Der Slik address the important practical reality of taxing non-believers (or simply non-church members) to sustain Christian ministry; such a practice not only seems unfair but also a form of tyranny at odds with liberty of conscience.

The second or theoretical part of the book is actually woven throughout the historical part. Here the authors oppose separation of church and state as part of a broader critique of dualistic or secular worldviews that relegate faith and religion to a private or personal matter. This dualism is at odds, they contend, with the lordship of Christ over all areas of life, and with the historical experience of Western Christendom which held that society ought to be Christian and that such a social order requires the nurturing hand of believing magistrates. Curiously lacking in this argument is attention to the experience of Christ and the apostles who left Christians with almost no expectations for a supportive state. Also notable is the authors' criticism of American Presbyterians for revising the Westminster Confession to insure that George Washington, or any president for that matter, would not be tempted to call a General Assembly and preside over it. De Jong and Van Der Slik's treatment of colonial Baptists is equally anomalous. Instead of praising those Virginia ministers (which included Presbyterians like Samuel Davies) who would not submit to the Anglican establishment but continued to preach and promote revivals, the authors disparage Baptists for popularizing the idea that state control of religion inevitably leads to the persecution of believers.

As helpful as this book is for outlining the historical and religious issues at stake in church-state questions, it is less useful in providing convincing answers that do justice to the dangers of state churches and the possibilities of religious disestablishment. To call the separation of church and state a myth is an attractive rhetorical strategy in an era of monumental moral license. But separating church and state may not be as bad as the authors assume if the teachings of Christ, the apostles, Augustine, Calvin, and Machen recognize that church power is different from the authority of the state, and that these God-ordained powers have responsibilities that are distinct.

D. G. Hart
Intercollegiate Studies Institute
Wilmington, Del.

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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

The Decline of Christianity in the West? A Contrarian View

Review: Covenantal Theonomy

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