Establishment and Secularization

A Response to Andrew Walker and Jonathan Leeman

A common rejoinder to Christian nationalism is that history and experience do not bear out its viability. Recently, my friend Andrew Walker made this very case on Twitter. Citing the secularism of England and the Nordic countries, all formally still Protestant nations, but only formally so (or so it is argued). Walker concluded that “one of the primary errors of Christian Nationalism” is that it “requires a static and homogeneous culture. And even where those conditions are present, it doesn’t ensure actual orthodoxy. History shows the opposite, in fact.”

For Walker, this is the “greatest argument against Christian Nationalism” and further confirms that “government isn’t suited to this responsibility,” viz., privileging one religion over others via state policy (i.e., establishment) or maintaining orthodoxy (i.e., true religion) by any means, or at least by any direct means. This narrative casts Christian nationalism, which Walker uses interchangeably with establishment, as deleterious to “culture”—whatever that is—and the church. Presumably, Walker employs “church” in an expansive, inclusive way and “culture” in a way that precludes law (thereby denying the latter’s formative effect and embracing liberalism’s assumption that law is disconnected from other cultural phenomena). In his mind, establishment always has, and always will, lead to nominalism, to the detriment of true religiosity.

As a counter, Walker endorses “civil religion” or “civic theism,” both of which, for him, must spring up and maintain via non-governmental means in some sort of revivalist, (humanly) inexplicable fashion.

But this isn’t the slam dunk Walker thinks it is.

First, what should be our metric of “success” in this analysis? Walker seems to think genuine conversions unto saving faith in Jesus Christ is the quantitative and qualitative rule of thumb of any regime. We would both agree that the temporal power cannot coerce conversions; it’s an impossibility by definition, and the attempt is not even desirable. And so for Walker, since conversions are the metric, and the state cannot improve this metric, then the state is necessarily ill-suited to Christianizing the populace. For support, Walker looks to eighteenth and nineteenth century missionary movements sparked by dissenting or disestablished evangelicals in England and America; the point being that true faith and true works naturally and predictably flourish to an extent commensurate with the level of disestablishment.

This reasoning is backward. When discussing socio-political models, the internal life of people is only indirectly considered. More directly in view is outward, moral conduct. On both poles are religious considerations. As to that which is inward, the state possesses a concern for the spiritual wellbeing of the governed, although it lacks the competency to directly serve the soul. Therefore, it must defer to the church to do that job whilst taking on a diaconal role toward the church by supporting her efforts (as Paul puts it in Rom 13:4: “for he is God’s servant [diakonos] for your good”). The state can only create conditions that are conducive to conversion, not conversions themselves. Walker’s analysis demands something of government that it cannot (actually or theoretically) do, and then criticizes establishment regimes for failing to do it. An evangelistic-revivalistic-conversionistic paradigm is improper for assessing socio-political arrangements. Therein, correlation becomes causation. 

As to outward conduct, the state has an interest in encouraging—indeed, commanding—morality unto a just and peaceable polity, one that at the very least is not a hindrance to true religion. Any way you look at that task, some brand of morality is selected by the state to be fostered. The only way to judge the appropriateness of this selection is whether the chosen morality is true and good. This is an inherently religious assessment.

As he’s made clear elsewhere, Walker wants general Christian morality and is comfortable with the state encouraging Christian morality as such, but is against the state determining which church (or denomination) will be the object of deference on moral teaching. This is puzzling insofar as Walker seems to believe that the cake can be had and eaten too.

Historically, he has adopted a false narrative wherein Protestant religiosity spontaneously flourished in America without the encouragement of colonial church establishments and the privileging of Protestants in nearly every original state constitution, and so on.

This leads to the second counter: the process of secularization in England and Scandinavia is complicated and didn’t spring out of nowhere. Indeed, that trajectory generally tracked with disestablishment. Yes, of course, establishments technically and formally remain, but they are about as potent and politically significant as the British monarch. America’s President still undergoes something of a sacralized coronation as well, complete with an oath of office sworn upon the Bible. King Charles III is now head of the Church of England. Do either of these facts yield more than sentimentalism at this point?

The point is that secularization, beginning in the nineteenth century or thereabouts, followed the demise of the old world, the toppling of actual monarchies via violent revolutions, and all the rest. As the means of public moral discipline were stripped from both church and state the effect of establishment was neutralized.

More accurately, we could say that disestablishment (in any functional sense) preceded secularization. This reversal of the causal relationship between the two is as least as plausible as Walker’s more typical explanation.

Briefly, Walker insists that a society must be homogenous if Christian nationalism or establishment is to succeed. Of course, homogeneity is desirable. It provides some measure of cohesion and eases the difficulty of politics in many ways—though homogeneity doesn’t eliminate the effects of the fall: the art of living together is never easy.

There is probably some prerequisite threshold of homogeneity required for any polity, but no historical example presents a perfectly homogenous society. (Contrary to popular belief, medieval societies were quite diverse.)

Look at the Carolingian-Frankish kingdom. Indeed, Charlemagne simultaneously forged a multicultural/ethnic kingdom and enacted sweeping edicts to reform the religious life of much of Europe. Nothing about any of that was “static.” Is shared culture and religion necessary for a coherent, tranquil nation? I think so. But this isn’t a need unique to a Christian country or a Christian political theory.  

Implicit in Walker’s argument too is that America no longer possesses the requisite homogeneity for the Christian nationalist project to work. Well, a supermajority of the country is self-professedly Christian—again, forget about sincerity for a moment. In all but a few small pockets of the country, one language is shared. A question is whether we share a mythos. Progressives know that’s a big battleground (see The 1619 Project). That’s why American Reformer has made a concerted effort to publish accounts of the colonial period and founding era that counter false, but fashionable narratives of the founding.

Walker would not argue that perfect agreement on, for example, what the natural law entails is needed prior to its implementation via positive law. Neither is mass consensus as to what policy means are best fitted to the common good in a given scenario necessary before those charged with care of the community can enact laws to that effect. Why then must there be sweeping agreement—presumably more than 68 percent—on other cultural, moral, or religious norms before Christianization, for lack of a better word, can legitimately commence?

And surely we can recognize the pedagogical effect of laws. Obergefell and Bostock teach; they construct and reinforce and provide rationales for cultural norms and political discourse. These holdings did not need majority consensus or cultural homogeneity to take cultural effect beyond the formal status of precedent. Are these means alone sufficient to maintain “orthodoxy”?

No. The overthrowal of Roe this year demonstrates the contingency of political conditions. Some fifty-odd years was a pretty good run though. The generation after Roe went far beyond the original claim of “safe, legal, and rare” that had justified the pro-abortion position. Equipped with the logic and authority of Roe, this caused a lot of damage in the following decades. Entire pathologies were produced by it; the sexual revolution was fueled by it; “rights” discourse was forever changed by it. In short, our national moral consensus did not precede that edict, that establishment, if you like. The consensus came only in its wake, and even after Dobbs its reverberations will be felt for some time to come. 

The last thing I’ll say (for now) is directed at another friend, Jonathan Leeman. His recurrent objection to proponents of church establishment is that the state is not affirmatively authorized to promote and privilege a particular denomination. As with Baptism, Leeman presumes two things hermeneutically: 1) that the incarnation and introduction of the new covenant radically altered the nature or essence of institutions (or powers) such that the magistrate of the New Testament has little in common in terms of duty, role, or purpose with its Old Testament counterparts. 2) To prove otherwise requires a proof text containing a clear, affirmative authorization of the temporal power to promote one denomination over others—notice too that Leeman presumes a status quo wherein pluralism (religious free markets, as it were) reigns.

Leeman often provides an analogy: he authorizes his babysitter to have limited authority over his children, but does not give her unlimited jurisdiction to coerce his children in things religious even though the babysitter has an interest in their wellbeing. The same, he says, goes for the state. Of course, the problem with this analogy is that Leeman is the source of authority for the babysitter, which sets absolute limits on the babysitter’s exercise of power. In reality, God is the source of authority, power and jurisdiction for both church and state. Scripture has given authorization for those two powers (Matthew 18:18; Romans 13:3-5), whereas the babysitter is a product of practical convention. These things are not the same.

The larger point is that the same hermeneutic of discontinuity that informs Leeman’s sacramentology (i.e., credobaptism) renders a radical distinction between rulers ruling in the OT and NT dispensations. In both cases, presumed discontinuity necessitates affirmative commands to the contrary. So, instead of assuming that Paul’s analogy between circumcision and baptism does not disrupt the application of the same, Leeman demands that Scripture reaffirm what it has never denied. This is because the nature of the admission into the covenant community was altered by the intertestamental period. From a Presbyterian perspective, I find this approach wanting and backward. The same goes for the establishment question. In principle, I see no particular reason that a Baptist cannot agree with establishment models, unless their hermeneutic of discontinuity implies a metaphysical alteration to temporal-civil power itself, something not at all demonstrated by the text (except by absence). And, indeed, older exegetes regularly aligned the great OT kings—Josiah, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, etc.—with the great emperors of Rome—Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian, etc.—to demonstrate this continuity. Once again, Baptists of Leeman’s persuasion must wrestle with the fact that they are at odds with the tradition, in this case, its doctrine and exegesis.

Photo cred: Pexels

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Wright State University. He is an attorney practicing in New Jersey and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Rachel.