In Defence of Established Churches

Yes, an established church doesn’t always mean persecution or even disenfranchisement. The U.S. Constitution, moreover, doesn’t forbid the states from having established churches, so it’s quite possible in theory to have different established churches in different states, though historically no member of the Union has had an established church since 1833.

Below I consider freedom for nonconformity in a state with an established church, and then the character of religious tests for office.

Quiet nonconformity

In Europe after the Reformation, one arrangement for religious toleration of those not belonging to the established church was the schuilkerk. This was a ‘semi-clandestine church’, a house of worship used by religious minorities whose communal worship was tolerated by those of the majority faith on the condition that it was discreet and not conducted in public spaces. Of course some will object to the need to keep nonconformist religious practice private, insisting on fuller liberation, but I really don’t see this arrangement as much of a problem even for our time, as long as universities protect their academic freedom.

Two practices I might see people really objecting to would be the ones involving money: recusancy fines and tithes taken through Parliament for the established church (e.g. the Church of England). I’ll try to address both of these issues below.

Recusancy fines, in England, were fines imposed for non-attendance of the established church’s services; the 1593 Act against Recusants established penalties for those ‘convicted for not repairing to some Church, Chapel, or usual place of Common Prayer to hear Divine Service there, but forbearing the same, contrary to the tenor of the laws and statutes heretofore made and provided in that behalf’. (N.B.: I don’t approve of imprisoning people who hold or attend private masses, but I think that practice is distinct from fining people for failing to attend services of the established church.) Recusancy fines did sometimes become oppressively burdensome, but that’s due more to disproportionate harshness than to political principle. In any case, compulsory church attendance isn’t actually more coercive than compulsory education, and part of the point of punishing recusancy in Elizabethan times was to promote the people’s conversion to and instruction in the official doctrine of the Church of England. At the same time, this norm for church attendance tends to keep the church from becoming overly narrow, since it has to include the majority of the people.

Tithes collected for the church administration, likewise, are not as objectionable as they seem to those used to disestablishment. As with state sponsorship of marriage, the reason for collecting tithes on behalf of the established church is the state’s rational interest in buttressing its own foundations. If we believe the civil authority’s good governance to be founded on the virtue of the Christian God, then it’s entirely acceptable, if not always practical, for that civil authority to maintain the virtue of the body politic by ensuring that the people pay tithes to their ordained ministers, whose doctrine and alms support the people’s flourishing.

Religious tests for office

Now I have a few words on religious tests for public office. In England, the Test Act of 1678 required the following oath of all persons filling any public office, whether civil or military:

I, N, do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare, that I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper there is not any Transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever: and that the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other Saint, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous.

This act preserved the character of Parliament as the lay synod of the Church of England (paired with Convocation, the clerical synod) without impinging upon anyone’s part in electing Parliament. Even with all adult men and women having the vote, one could easily imagine a religious oath being required for MPs without restricting the religious practice of private citizens. The American constitution, while protecting the free exercise of religion, is no less strict in requiring quasi-religious office tests for American magistrates. As Peter Escalante says,

We actually have office tests too in this country here; if you are committed to an ideology which makes it impossible for you to subscribe the Constitution, then you cannot hold office. That’s a secularized version of the religious test, secularized meaning ‘disguised’, since we refuse to come clean about where exactly the Constitution gets its basic ideas; but it is a test nonetheless.

Nevertheless, religious freedom remains, a religious freedom that most of us hold dear. Similarly, in the British Isles with the Test Acts in force, the Treaty of Limerick affirms some customary privilege of religious freedom for Roman Catholics, albeit for a country that was overwhelmingly not Protestant:

The Roman Catholics of this kingdom [of Ireland] shall enjoy such privileges in the exercise of their religion as are consistent with the laws of Ireland, or as they did enjoy in the reign of king Charles the second: and their majesties [William and Mary], as soon as their affairs will permit them to summon a parliament in this kingdom, will endeavour to procure the said Roman Catholics such farther security in that particular, as may preserve them from any disturbance upon the account of their said religion.

Though the English Parliament broke the terms of this treaty, the treaty’s very negotiation demonstrates that having an established church does not necessarily conflict with protecting the free exercise of other religions. Indeed, it took unlawful tyranny on the part of the English Parliament for the arrangement in Ireland to break down.

Antidisestablishmentarianism doesn’t lead to tyranny. Quite the opposite, since we owe much of our tradition of liberty to the intellectual and moral advances of Christendom.

2 responses to “In Defence of Established Churches

  1. Interesting post – not many people would think to write something like this today. I kind of agree with the religious test idea. I think people are too afraid to have Christianity mentioned in any place in government.

    I think having Schuilkerks would be a bad idea, though. It just wouldn’t fly today. Everyone would think it oppressive, and they might be correct. Also, establishing a state church like the Church of England would also make it hard to Seventh-Day Adventists and other Christian sects to maintain their distinctive doctrines. We respect the right of other Christian denominations to practice without interference from us, but having a state church that is supported by a virtual tax would be an untenable situation, I believe.


    • My political views are unorthodox, as always (for our time, at any rate). This is why I’ll never be elected to any high office.

      Ultimately, I have no interest in maintaining the existence of sects. My interest is instead in open dialogue, which I believe to be the way that the truth must come out historically and eschatologically. If the truth is the truth, then some reasonable people, especially as under the care of the Holy Ghost, should be able to hold fast to it, enough that the ideas should be preserved well enough to carry on. Though the process take centuries more to unfold, the holy Church can finally discern this truth if it remain diligent in searching the Scriptures and in sorting through the patristic witness to the apostolic teaching.

      The Church is not free to splinter into multiple churches who each have their own version of truth, and so I do think that each place should have but one church, without denominational differences. If the Seventh-Day Adventists are practising the soundest and most pious doctrine, then all should follow; if it is the Anglicans who do so, then all should follow. Freedom and latitude without an object is quite worthless.


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