Christianity and the State in America
Charles Hodge (1797–1878) was the third professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, once the leading institution of Reformed pastoral education and theology in America. He was also one of the most significant and able defenders of orthodox Christian theology in the years in which theological liberalism began to dominate so many churches, seminaries, and other institutions in America. Hodge was a prolific scholar, writing biblical commentaries, devotional works, and often addressing contemporary cultural issues. His most famous work, however, is his three-volume Systematic Theology, published between 1871–73.
This trilogy, though it does not normally address contemporary political issues, has one major section that does. It is found in Hodge’s treatment of the fourth commandment. In Hodge’s day (and for decades afterward in many places) the majority of American cities and states had “blue laws,” laws requiring businesses to close on Sunday. The basis for such laws was the Bible. Was it right, Hodge asked, in a republic that granted the free exercise of religion to its citizens, to impose upon those citizens biblical injunctions they might not agree with? Hodge devotes eight pages (out of a total of twenty-seven on the fourth commandment) to answer this question. His discussion is beneficial beyond what he says about the Sabbath itself because certain foundational political principles can be extracted from it. It also provides a stimulating treatment for American Christians to consider with regard to the various contemporary debates about the role of Christianity in relation to America’s political system.
Hodge begins his argument with the caveats
(1.) That in every free country every man has equal rights with his fellow-citizens, and stands on the same ground in the eye of law. (2.) That in the United States no form of religion can be established; that no religious test for the exercise of the elective franchise or for holding of office can be imposed; and that no preference can be given to the members of one religious denomination above those of another. (3.) That no man can be forced to contribute to the support of any church, or of any religious institution. (4.) That every man is at liberty to regulate his conduct and life according to his convictions or conscience, provided he does not violate the law of the land.
Some of these sentiments are incompatible with Reformational views on the relationship between the state and the church (some were not even true in America’s more distant past). In that older perspective, although the church and state must always be distinguished vocationally, the state is understood to possess a mandate (within its unique sphere of authority) to see that true religion is protected and promoted in church and society at large.
However, Hodge is not a modern secular liberal either. After the quote above he continues:
On the other hand it is no less true, that a nation is not a mere conglomeration of individuals. It is an organized body. It has of necessity its national life, its national organs, national principles of action, national character, and national responsibility.
men are rational creatures, the government cannot banish all sense and reason from their action, because there may be idiots among the people. As men are moral beings, it is impossible that the government should act as though there were no distinction between right and wrong. . . . As it is impossible for the individual man to disregard all moral obligations, it is no less impossible on the part of civil governments.
Perhaps some modern liberals and progressives could agree with Hodge up to this point, but he then brings religion into the discussion. Religion, Hodge writes,
must influence [man’s] conduct as an individual, as the head of a family, as a man of business, as a legislator, and as an executive officer. It is absurd to say that civil governments have nothing to do with religion. . . . A civil government cannot ignore religion any more than physiology.
Although Hodge maintains that civil government “was not constituted to teach either the one [religion] or the other [physiology] . . . it must, by a like necessity, conform its action to the laws of both.” That is to say, the state is not ordained by God to teach theology (even Calvin would agree with this), but it cannot act wholly independently of religion any more than it could totally disregard the physical constitution of men and women (though our own society is doing its best to prove Hodge wrong on this latter point). “Indeed,” Hodge continues “it would be far safer for a government to pass an act violating the laws of health, than one violating the religious convictions of its citizens. The one would be unwise, the other would be tyrannical.” One example of how the state should “conform its action to [God’s] laws” is through statutes banning public blasphemy, whether by individuals, or even by publishers.
God’s moral law, even if true religious worship and doctrine should not be enforced by the state, is the only true foundation for a just and healthy society. “It is time,” says Hodge,
that blatant atheists, whether communists, scientists, or philosophers, should know that they are as much and as justly the objects of pity and contempt, as of indignation to all right-minded men [BCD: the Old Princeton mood?]. By right-minded men, is meant men who think, feel, and act according to the laws of their nature. Those laws are ordained, administered, and enforced by God, and there is no escape from their obligation, or from the penalties attached to their violation.
Hodge is not a Christian Nationalist in the magisterial Protestant sense, but I think it is safe to say that he is a kind of Christian Nationalist of a more distinctively American variety. In fact, we could with justice call Hodge a Protestant Nationalist. Hodge explains the way in which God’s moral law must be the foundation of American political life like this:
The people of this country being rational, moral, and religious beings, the government must be administered on the principles of reason, morality, and religion. By a like necessity of right, the people being Christians and Protestants, the government must be administered according to the principles of Protestant Christianity.
Hodge insists that by
this is not meant that the government should teach Christianity, or make the profession of it a condition of citizenship, or a test for office. Nor does it mean that the government is called upon to punish every violation of Christian principle of precept.
Nonetheless, “as it cannot violate the moral law in its own action, or require the people to violate it, so neither can it ignore Christianity in its official action.” In other words, “[i]t cannot require the people or any of its own officers to do what Christianity forbids, nor forbid their doing anything which Christianity enjoins.” For example, “[i]t has no more right to forbid that the Bible should be taught in the public schools, than it has to enjoin that the Koran should be taught in them.” Historically Americans have even (and rightly so) “acknowledged God in their legislative assemblies.” Hodge recognizes that the state cannot be neutral with regard to Christian truth. Post-1960s secular liberals cannot follow Hodge in this, even if their professed neutrality regarding Christianity is merely a smokescreen for their own totalitarian moral system.
“The proposition that the United States of America are a Christian and Protestant nation,” Hodges maintains
is not so much the assertion of a principle as the statement of a fact. That fact is not simply that the great majority of the people are Christians and Protestants, but that the organic life, the institutions, laws, and official action of the government, whether that action be legislative, judicial, or executive, is, and of right should be, and in fact must be, in accordance with the principles of Protestant Christianity.
Hodge appears slightly inconsistent here. He says this is not an assertion of principle, but he also insists that America’s laws and governmental institutions “should be, and in fact must be, in accordance with the principles of Protestant Christianity.” That sounds like a principle to me.
To explain how America is “a Christian and Protestant nation” Hodge employs an illustration from organic growth in nature
If you plant an acorn, you get an oak. If you plant a cedar, you get a cedar. If a country be settled by Pagans or Mohammedans, it develops into a Pagan or Mohammedan community. By the same law if a country be taken possession of and settled by Protestant Christians, the nation which they come to constitute must be Protestant and Christian. This country was settled by Protestants.
Christianity is the basis of the common law of England, and is therefore of the law of this country; and so our courts have repeatedly decided. It is so not merely because of such decisions. Courts cannot reverse facts. Protestant Christianity has been, is, and must be the law of the land. Whatever Protestant Christianity forbids, the law of the land (within its sphere, i.e., within the sphere in which civil authority may appropriately act) forbids. Christianity forbids polygamy and arbitrary divorce, so does the civil law.
Hodge willingly grants that
In the process of time thousands have come among us, who are neither Protestants nor Christians. Some are papists, some Jews, some infidels, and some atheists. All are welcomed; all are admitted to equal rights and privileges. . . . All are allowed to worship as they please, or not to worship at all, if they see fit.
But he also insists that
[m]ore than this cannot be reasonably demanded. The infidel demands that the government should be conducted on the principle that Christianity is false. The atheist demands that it should be conducted on the assumption that there is no God . . . .
“The sufficient answer to all this is,” Hodge responds, is
that it cannot properly be done. The demands of those who require that religion, and especially Christianity, should be ignored in our national, state, and municipal laws, are not only unreasonable, but they are in the highest degree unjust and tyrannical.
Applying this to the fourth commandment (the Sabbath command) Hodge contends that
If Christianity requires that one day in seven should be a day of rest from all worldly avocations, the government of a Christian people cannot require any class of the community or its own officers to labour on that day, except in cases of necessity or mercy.
“This civil Sabbath, this cessation from worldly business,” he writes, “is what the civil government in Christian countries is called upon to enforce.” He notes that if non-essential government business is not proscribed on Sundays “no Christian can hold office. We should thus have not a religious, but an anti-religious test-act.”
“Should,” the state Hodge goes so far as to say,
on the ground that it had nothing to do with religion, disregard that day, and direct that the custom-houses, the courts of law, and the legislative halls should be open on the Lord’s Day, and public business be transacted as on other days, it would be an act of tyranny, which would justify rebellion.
Yes, you read that right. Hodge believes that the refusal to cease from governmental work on the Lord’s Day would justify rebellion against the state. Why? Because it “would be tantamount to enacting that no Christian should hold any office under the government, or have any share in making or administering the laws of the country.” “The nation,” then, “would be in complete subjection to a handful of imported atheists and infidels.” And the result of that sorry state of affairs would be that “the foundation of life for the people will be sealed” unto its own destruction.
John Adams famously said that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Echoing Adams’ words Hodge’s defense of Sabbath blue laws arises out of the fact that the
indispensable condition of social order is either despotic power in the magistrate, or good morals among the people. Morality without religion is impossible; religion cannot exist without knowledge; knowledge cannot be disseminated among the people, unless there be a class of teachers, and time allotted for their instruction. . . . [most] have derived their knowledge from the services of the sanctuary.
Thus, ordinary business, commercial and governmental, must cease on Sunday.
Few Christians today even believe that Sunday should be a day of rest. For that reason alone reimposing blue laws would be very difficult, though I would argue that the nation would be in a much better place if we could do so. Regardless, Hodge’s undergirding political principles remain relevant today. The state, as Hodge wrote, “cannot violate the moral law in its own action, or require the people to violate it.” “[N]either can it ignore Christianity in its official action.” Hodge’s arguments for Christianity’s place in our civic life, as hard as it is to believe in our militantly secular environment, were thoroughly at home in America’s past. Our nation’s attempts to reject such truths today, if successful, will lead inevitably to ruin.
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