Editor’s note: This article was written for a brother in Christ who’d brought this important topic up earlier. Here’s to you, buddy.
Oftentimes, those opposing an establishment of a so-called religiously-affiliated morality in government will argue that people who adopt and promote Christlike standards are the same kind of Pharisees who not only failed to meet God’s standards, but who ultimately killed Jesus. Sometimes they’ll argue this point because they wish to engage in sinful behavior, and other times because they don’t believe enforcing religious morality is conducive to liberty, but the argument is always the same: people should keep their religious beliefs out of the legal system.
Either way, both parties agree on one point, which is the danger presented by a unified church/government structure like the historic Papacy or yesteryear’s Anglican church. But whether or not the state formally declares a separation of church and state, there are only two realistic theological declarations a state can make regarding this issue. The first is that God does exist and our entire existence is therefore predicated upon Him and His law. The second is that He does not exist and our entire existence is futile, directionless, and entirely encapsulated in three concepts: pleasure, pain, and death. It would be incredibly misleading to have a government which declares the sovereignty of God but does not enforce any of His principles, or a government which refuses to acknowledge His existence and yet takes stances only a theist can take.
For example, if the state purposely refuses to acknowledge God’s existence, we find there can be no universal moral standard, and thus no real legal justice when more than one opinion is present. Man–or rather, those with a comparative advantage in violence–must necessarily be the measure of all things. It would be silly for an atheist to demand that everyone subscribe to a universal moral code when none exists beyond the individual human biological machine.
Second, the only truly “reality-based” and Godless form of law would have to accomplish one of three things: either promoting the will of tyrants, preventing the infliction of harm, and/or preventing the restriction of liberty. Either of these last two legal pursuits eventually results in promoting the will of tyrants, because harm and liberty cannot be objectively defined by an atheist institution (since feeling and instinct can be the only sources of truth), and that means one person’s opinion and moral code must be enforced arbitrarily. As a promoter of non-religious government, you must be prepared to live with this.
Third, an irreligious government also necessitates that an evolutionary viewpoint must be taken toward mankind at all times, with very real implications for the treatment of philanthropy and progress. It would be silly to imagine a truly secular government in which non-producers or the infirm were considered valuable, or in which all biologically and functionally unequal men were considered equal. Of course, a purely secular government may absolutely declare the need for equality of all human beings, but when the time comes and an inquisitive student asks “why,” no sensible answer can be given without a theological basis (Liberals may argue that we secularly establish equality out of self-protection, but as soon as someone brings statistics and a poster child to the room, we find that their idea of self-protection necessitates the governmental promotion or subjugation of groups, which is ends in functionally unequal treatment under government).
As such, if a government without a theological basis is what you seek, then you must be willing to not only agree with these irreligious and self-contradictory foundational stances, but you must be willing to enforce them. Doing otherwise would make your government either sloppily inconsistent or violate your policy against a religious stance, something which may be rhetorically appealing, but ultimately leads to dishonesty.
Of course, the opposing philosophy (theism) engenders the idea that there is a God from which humans derive their meaning and value, and necessarily implies that God must be the measure of all things. As A.W. Tozer put it, “Since He is the Being supreme over all, it follows that God cannot be elevated. Nothing is above Him, nothing beyond Him. Any motion in His direction is elevation for the creature; away from Him, descent.”
As such, although theistic libertarians, liberals, and conservatives may agree that a combination between church and state is not preferable (“combination” meaning that the head of the church is the head of the state, or that any denomination should legally ban other denominations), we must realize that an entirely irreligious government in search of fairness and liberty is not only fanciful, as there can be no real truth about fairness or liberty in a subjectively-defined universe, but that it is also dangerous and regressive. After all, if God does truly exist, any such organization which pretends to obtain legitimacy without God cannot be progressive in any sense of the word: the abolition of God’s influence in law would absolutely be a step backward from a theistic point of view. Proper understanding and application of God and His law elevate mankind, improper understanding only devolves. If God exists, progress cannot exist independently of Him.
Also worth noting is that to the believer, there can be no moral law higher than God’s moral law. Although the social benefits of God’s laws are readily visible, the theist must understand that the changing tides of public opinion about those benefits are not worth heeding, but rather God’s perfect declarations should be. When the theist purposely protects a person who engages in sin for the cause of “liberty,” what they are admitting is that liberty can be defined and attained independently from God, society is healthier and safer without people taking God’s law into consideration, and that true moral law is only applicable for the moral self, not society. So although our founding fathers were wise in barring the church from running the state, logic shows us that the abolition of God and His law from our government is neither progressive nor preferable for any believer in God. American history also plainly shows that our founding fathers understood this concept.
Of course, there are those who would argue that giving the capability of instituting religiously-based law to well-intended religious people would be dangerous, as there’s only one person in history who was a good Christian, and that person was Christ Himself (everyone else is a work in progress, and are guaranteed to miss the mark on many issues). But I would argue that the same is true for capitalism and liberty: these hallmarks of Americanism only work when the populace is moral, educated, and driven; and the same goes for the institution of religiously-based law. We must understand that there is no social entity which exists forever, and the only people who deserve a healthy and safe capitalist democracy are those who are principled enough to make one or keep one. And we must remember that a government which holds its populace unfit to govern themselves is not free, but rather tyrannical.
This isn’t to say that the purpose of Christianity is to influence the state, though. A Christian’s primary duties are to the spreading of the Gospel and building a personal relationship with the Savior, and let it be known that these will produce a far greater impact than any sort of political machination. And, of course, we all know that a Christian can be saved by Christ without voting Republican or Democrat…but a Christian’s impact should not be limited to simply the home. Christ should transform the family, the church, the city, the school, the county, the state, the nation, the world. Christianity is not about overthrowing earthly governments, but it must absolutely have an effect upon them. After all, what kind of positive mass transformation would not impact social structure in any way? Even the most hardened secularist Christian applauds the Christan effort to dismantle Roman gladiator warfare, or the abolition of slavery.
But before we can begin on this quest, it’s important to remind people that the Bible is not a cryptic message for which everyone has an equally meaningful interpretation, but rather the clearly-stated word of God with real personal and governmental applicability in real terms for those willing to study it with prayer. If Christians are principled (and why do Christians allow otherwise?) then we have nothing to fear. If our fear is Christians, then maybe we should be cleaning the church up. If the fear is God’s moral law, you shouldn’t call yourself a Christian.
And this brings us back to the Pharisees. Jesus gave us the judges of the Old Testament, told us the law is love, and then commanded us to love. As such, the Pharisees’ problem could not have been that they followed or enforced the law, but rather that God was not the true object of their worship. Rather, Jesus said that their showy forms of religion were intended not for the purpose of furthering God’s will and exaltation, but rather for exalting the self through a law which was intended to display God’s character, a law they could not keep (although they claimed otherwise). Because these Pharisees did not understand the nature of God due to their pride, they were incapable of recognizing the entire purpose of the Old Testament–the advent of the Savior–and ultimately killed the one person they shouldn’t have while barring others from the Kingdom of Heaven.
When people turn their backs on God and look to themselves for meaning, law, direction, salvation, and life, that is when a person becomes a Pharisee. It’s not because they follow laws or take stances: it’s because they’ve replaced the source of existence and meaning with the worship of man, something we would do well to recognize in our so-called “modern” government. And one can be guaranteed that when we as a society decide to replace our Creator with the created, we will get exactly what we deserve: a steady descent into hell on earth.