Must Protestants be Liberals? 

The Protestant Roots of Christian Nationalism

One of the most pernicious myths of Protestantism is that it’s responsible for creating the liberal, secular state. This myth is a common narrative for Roman Catholics who argue our current modern decay stemmed from Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura and rejections of the Roman Catholic’s authority over the temporal. 

Brad Gregory, in The Unintended Reformation writes, “The drastic transformation of the discourse of natural, universal subjective rights….first used against the Roman church by magisterial Protestants….accompanied a rejection of the idea that a ruler’s foremost duty was to promote a moral community and a substantive common good.”1 For Gregory, the fragmentation of interpretations caused by sola scriptura, led to the creation of a secular state and a state content with merely creating the conditions for people to choose for themselves the good as they see it. The narrative, which is common in Roman Catholic genealogies of Secularism goes like this: sola scriptura gave everyone the freedom to interpret Scripture, which inevitably leads to incontrovertible differences among people. Since these differences can’t be reconciled by a principal authority, like the Roman Catholic Church, the solution to navigating these differences is either violence or allowing everyone to have their own individual interpretations of Scripture. Thus, States no longer had the goal of pursuing the whole good of its citizens, since the highest good, religion, was subject to disagreement. So Brad Gregory writes: “The sanction of an individual right to freedom of religion signaled the renunciation of this aspiration, at least in principle. No more would— or could, it seemed— rulers persist in the long-standing Platonic, Aristotelian, and Christian conviction that politics and ethics formed an integral whole.”2 

The culmination of this development for Gregory is the First Amendment: “[I]t was the deliberate separation of church and state in the United States that helped eventually to ensure a much wider protection of individuals from political coercion in ways that relied both on teachings about nature as God’s creation and about human beings as created in God’s image.”3 In other words, Protestantism’s destruction of the teaching authority of the Magisterium, coupled with its belief in the dignity of every human being, invariably and inevitably leads to a voluntarist moral ethic.

While many Roman Catholics cast this narrative as a stain upon Protestantism, some Evangelicals uphold this narrative as the crowning achievement of historic Protestant political thought. Paul Miller, in The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism, defends his vision for a liberal state on Christian theological grounds:

Political liberty begins with the belief that human beings possess inherent dignity and moral worth. Crucially, our moral worth resides in our essential humanity—which we share equally with everyone else. God has commissioned all of us equally as his image bearers, stewards of creation… No one of us is inherently superior by virtue of birth, lineage, rank, wealth, ethnicity, religion, intelligence, sex, or any other attribute to merit special treatment by the government or special access to power. If none of us merits political power because of some innate trait, we all deserve an equal say in how we are governed.4

In other words, Miller takes the pejorative narrative set forward by Catholics to ground religious liberty and the liberal state in Protestantism itself. 

Hence, Miller and the like often reject Protestant attempts to offer an historically informed corrective to the Catholic smears that Miller embraces. Christian nationalism, one such attempt, is criticized by Miller because it apparently betrays Protestantism’s supposed principle of “religious liberty” for a political configuration of Church and state that resembles Roman Catholic integralism. For Baptists and Roman Catholics alike, the liberal State is the hallmark of Protestant political thought. A Protestant, so the Roman Catholic and Baptist argue, must promote a liberal state which leaves the State disengaged from religious matters to be truly faithful. 

However, this argument runs counter to the Magisterial Reformers’ own vision for church and society. Calvin and Bucer promoted the Magistrate’s duty to lead their citizens to virtue, including their final good in Christ, a position that violates Miller’s and Gregory’s political requirements for Protestantism.

But these examples, some have claimed, are instances of the Reformers deriving their political configuration from Plato’s Laws or Aristotle’s Politics rather than the Bible. Here, I want to commend to the Catholic Integralist, Christian pluralist, and Christian Nationalist, not another theoretical work by a magisterial Reformer, but one of the key treatises of the Reformation itself: Luther’s Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. This treatise is Luther’s first appeal to secular authorities for assistance in the reform of the Church. More than two years after the 95 Theses, Luther became convinced nothing could be expected from Rome except opposition. Luther wrote this treatise to Emperor Charles and the German nobility exhorting them to take extraordinary action to reform the corrupt Catholic Church. While he notes the extraordinary circumstances of his request, the theological nature of his argumentation flows from principles that lie at the heart of the Reformation. 

Consequently, Luther’s appeal contains, in embryonic form, a vision for Christian Nationalism. Specifically, the magistrate must uphold and promote true religion within his own realm. Consequently, far from promoting a liberal, secular state, Protestantism, from its earliest sources, promoted a national theory of international order that commits each ruler to promote true religion. 

Luther begins his treatise by dismantling the three “walls” that uphold the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church, clearing the field for the execution of Luther’s reforms. The first wall he challenges is the mutual exclusivity between the spiritual and secular estate and the supposed superiority of the spiritual estate over the secular.5 Luther undermines this wall by putting forward the common priesthood of all believers. It is not as if the Pope, bishops, and priests belong to the spiritual estate while kings, artists, and farmers belong to the secular estate. Rather, all Christians belong to the spiritual estate. “All Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office.”6 In the spiritual estate, all believers, including bishops and the pope, are equal. Luther cites 1 Peter 2:9 (“You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm”) and Rev 5:9-10 (“Thou hast made us to be priests and kings by thy blood”), to claim that all Christians are consecrated priests. As a result, the offices of the Church are contingent and temporal roles. All Christians are spiritually equal since we have, one baptism, one gospel, and one faith, but our roles differ for the sake of building each other up. Hence, “A priest in Christendom is nothing else but an officeholder.”7 Likewise, a king is one such officeholder. Therefore, the Christian king is also a priest responsible for guarding and strengthening the Church. Luther argues, “Since those who exercise secular authority…have the same faith…we must admit they are priests and bishops, and we must regard their office as one which has a proper and useful place in the Christian community.”8 For Luther, the king has a duty to utilize his authority to assist the Church in times of need, as to do otherwise would be akin to one member of the body refusing to help another. “Since the temporal power is ordained of God to punish the wicked and protect the good, it should be left free to perform its office in the whole body of Christendom without restriction and without respect to persons, whether it affects pope, bishops, priests… or any anyone else.”9 The Christian king, tasked to promote the upbuilding of his citizens, requires him to use his powers to prevent spiritual harm to his subjects, even if it comes from the Church. Positively, the king’s powers can be used to empower and build the Church by setting up laws, customs, and schools beneficial to the flourishing of the Church. The force and reasoning of this first wall form the basis of the execution of the Reformation project itself. The temporal Church, besieged with internal errors, calls upon the magistrate to restore her for the sake of his piety and the piety of his citizens. The priesthood of all believers allows Luther to distinguish between the temporal and spiritual estates to enable the temporal to empower the spiritual. Luther likens the relation between the temporal and spiritual states to how temporal craftsmen provide priests and monks with shoes, clothes, meat, and drink, allowing them to conduct their spiritual work.10 Likewise, as a member of the spiritual priesthood, the king exercises his temporal authority to embolden the Church.  

This vision, of course, depends on the ability of all believers, as priests, to hear and understand the word of God. If the King can not interpret Scripture and adhere to correct interpretations regardless of Rome’s errors, then he can not effectively reform the Church. Hence, Luther moves to break the “Second Wall” that prevents reformation—the Roman Magisterium’s exclusive claim to interpret Scripture. To tear down this wall, Luther cites John 6:45 and John 16:9,20 to demonstrate the believer’s ability to understand Scripture by virtue of the light of faith. “If God spoke then through an ass against a prophet, why should he not be able even now to speak through a righteous man against the pope?”11 Believers are called to judge and test what is right (1 Cor 2:15). How could they do that if Scripture is unclear for all except the Pope? In fact, Luther says, “Has the pope not erred many times? Who would help Christendom when the pope erred if we did not have somebody we could trust more than him, somebody who had the Scriptures on his side?”12 In fact, if the believers have the same Spirit of faith (2 Cor 4:13), should they not be able to perceive what is consistent with faith and what is not, at least as well as an unbelieving Pope? Hence, the Scriptures, not the Pope, are the final authority in matters of faith and life. Sola Scriptura, the norming authority of the Scriptures, is always connected to their subsisting clarity. Consequently, all believers are called to judge what accords with Scripture, even rebuking those in the Church if they err greatly. Thus, as a believer, the magistrate can perceive spiritual matters and, moving by his temporal authority, can act to upbuild the church and commonwealth to promote piety. The magistrate’s mandate to care for the spiritual state of the commonwealth and the Church is enabled by the fact that the king is also a part of the spiritual estate, baptized in Christ, and able to perceive fundamental spiritual manners. To be sure, the magistrate is not expected to be a theologian, but he is to have the same Spirit that indwells all believers, which causes them to submit to the Word and moves them to act for the common good of the Church. The magistrate is not agnostic towards spiritual manners, but rightly submitting to the Word of God, can discern his duty to lead his citizens to love God and neighbor

For Luther, the final leg of his appeal is to exhort the king to call together a council to reprove the Church. Hence, he tackles the “third wall” – the Pope’s exclusive claim to call a council. Luther argues that it is the duty of a believer, when necessary, in so far he is able, to call about a free council. He notes that in Acts 15, the apostles and elders, not St Peter, called the Apostolic council. Likewise, he also notes that “the Council of Nicaea, the most famous of all councils, was neither called nor confirmed by the bishop of Rome, but by the emperor Constantine.”13 If the Pope had the exclusive right to convene these councils, then both of these councils would’ve been heretical. Further, in a time of severe error, a Christian not attempting to convene a council would be tantamount to him not acting to stop a fire because he lacks the authority of a mayor. “In such a situation is it not the duty of every citizen to arouse and summon the rest? How much more should this be done in the spiritual city of Christ?”14 For Luther, the Christian best fit to deal with this fire, is the magistrate, responsible for ruling over the realm. Implicit in Luther’s exhortation is a key claim of nationalism: the freedom of the sovereign to determine the laws in his realm. Before the Reformation, the European international order was an imperial one: one king over all the Earth and one Pope over all the Earth. Luther’s arguments, culminating in the practical exhortation to have the king convene a council, do away with this imperialism in place for a nationalist project that allows independent nations to determine the best practice of true religion. Nationalism, here, emerges as a rejection of Roman Catholic imperialism and an outworking of the priesthood of believers to interpret and apply God’s Word in their own lands. Luther rejects Papal supremacy for an international order of sovereigns seeking to promote right worship for their own peoples. 

Luther’s treatise, which is the theological basis for the Reformation project, far from entailing a secular state, lays out the theological basis for Christian Nationalism. The narratives of Brad Gregory and Paul Miller paint Protestantism as a project of blurring the ultimate good so as to make the state concerned with allowing each citizen to reach his own good. However, a close reading of Luther’s treatise shows the Reformation as a project of diversifying the single imperial order to several sovereign orders, all normed by the Word of God. Consequently, Miller’s vision implicitly denies Scripture’s clarity about the most basic claims of reality and the magistrate’s duty, as a Christian, to acknowledge those claims in his ordering of the realm to conform with God’s law. In short, if Luther conformed to Miller’s vision for Church and State, there would be no Reformation at all. Conversely, Miller and those sympathetic to him should view in Christian Nationalism a political theory rooted fundamentally in Protestantism itself. The “liberalism” that Protestantism puts forward, is not agnosticism toward the good, but the freedom (libertas) and responsibility for every realm to determine the most prudent way to punish evil and promote the good. The laws of flourishing do not change. Protestantism acknowledges that these laws are clearly revealed in Scripture and emboldens us, as members of the same spiritual priesthood and magistrates of lesser and greater statuses, to institute them prudently in each of our domains. So that, in all things, whether we eat, drink, and yes, rule, it is all to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).

Image Credit: Unsplash This statue of Moses, representing the Mosaic Law, appears above the entrance to the LA County Court House along with statues of King John, representing the Magna Carta, and Thomas Jefferson, representing the Declaration of Independence.

Show 14 footnotes
  1. Gregory, Brad S.. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. United States, Harvard University Press, 2015. p.216
  2. Ibid.
  3.  Ibid.
  4. Miller, Paul D., and French, David. The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism. United Kingdom, InterVarsity Press, 2022. p.2
  5.  Luther, Martin. Three Treatises. United States, Fortress Press, 1970. p.12
  6. Ibid.
  7.  Ibid p.14.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid. p.15
  10. Ibid. p.16
  11.  Ibid. p.22
  12.  Ibid. p.20
  13. Ibid. p.23
  14. Ibid.
Print article

Share This

Stiven Peter

Stiven Peter is an M.A. student at Reformed Theological Seminary-NYC. Previously, he graduated from the University of Chicago with a double major in economics and religious studies. He currently lives in NYC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *