Disestablishment Impossible

I shall say it outright: every state has an established religion, and I think it best that this established religion be Protestant Christianity. Warren Carter says in the postscript of The Roman Empire and the New Testament (HT: Ollie Ip),

The difficulty with empire arises in part because empires often make totalizing claims. They claim to exert complete sovereignty. They claim unrivaled power. They claim to know best. They have the means to accomplish their will regardless of what anyone else thinks. They demand allegiance. They sanction their actions with religious talk (‘God bless America’). They cannot tolerate dissent.

Counterintuitively, I find this to be an argument against disestablishment, not for it. My thought concerns not only empires (or what we usually call empires) but also civil jurisdictions of any kind.

The modern ‘secular’ state claims to judge between YHWH and Baʿal, or between the Bible and the Qurʾān. This is necessary, unavoidable for any state that judges both Christians and Muhammadans. The god proclaimed by the Bible claims all, and the god proclaimed by the Qurʾān claims all. Every person has pretheoretical commitments: Christians have the Bible, and Muhammadans the Qurʾān, and atheists another set of ideas and texts. But every state encodes some ideology or another, in order to decide what may or may not happen in public. May it be permitted, for example, for a Muhammadan to convert to Christianity, or vice versa? Some may think the answer 0bvious, that no one ought to be punished for these choices, but Christians have excommunication, and Muhammadans have their own sanctions for apostasy. The state must decide what to accept and what to outlaw.

I shall put it more starkly. To some Muhammadans, and indeed to almost all orthodox Muhammadans before the late nineteenth century (when the Islamic community met the influence of liberalism), the proper punishment for someone who confesses the Islamic creed and then turns to the worship of Jesus Christ, thus blaspheming Allāh, is death. To much of the civilized world, this is common sense. To reject it, and to outlaw it, is a religious choice whose logic requires the state to say either

  1. that Allāh does not legislate execution for leaving Islam, or
  2. that Allāh does not have the right to legislate the death penalty for leaving Islam.

There is an apparent alternative: multiculturalism. According to multicultural orthodoxy, Muhammadans may follow the Qurʾān, and Christians their Bible, and each his own beliefs. This gets us nowhere in the case of the man who rejects the covenant of Muhammad’s god and is baptized into that of the Trinity: does he fall under the Christian jurisdiction or the Islamic? The decision, unavoidably religious, will reveal the prevailing religion of the state.

There can be no complete disestablishment without another establishment. For this reason I have no moral objection in principle to sharīʿah law, except that it is, in my view, the wrong system. I shall not personally revile those who try to make it the dominant political force: I too deem the civil authority accountable to the laws of my god, and under the belief that these circumscribe the common good I will push for a legal system compatible with these laws.

If there must be no establishment, let’s all be Anabaptists and dissolve the state altogether. If this solution be unacceptable, we’re stuck with what we have, and what we must do is reform what we already have.

So what does a godly magistrate do? He holds the sword to punish wickedness: he stops the rich from devouring the poor by theft, and he stops the poor from devouring themselves with revolutions. He does not, in the name of the realm, make totalizing claims; he does not, in the name of the realm, claim complete sovereignty; he does not, in the name of the realm, claim unrivaled power; he does not, in the name of the realm, claim to judge God. If confronted with his sin as David was confronted by Nathan, he will kneel in penitence before the God and ruler of all.

Disestablish and dislodge the truth of God, and idols will exercise dominion in the persons of the rulers, and the rulers of the Gentiles will lord it over them. We have already seen the face of an idol in Madame Guillotine. Expel one god, and you will get another. As St Augustine would tell us, man always loves something, and man always give his highest allegiance to something. Under the Protestant doctrine, no one gets jailed for believing the wrong things, and there’s no threat of interdict for a ruler who pays no heed to a foreign bishop; at the same time, a bishop can speak out against corruption, and the laws can follow the justice of God. Because it’s right, then, and because it’s the way of liberty, I hope the civil authority gives its allegiance to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

God bless America, and God save her people from their sins; and in the UK, God save the Queen.


3 responses to “Disestablishment Impossible

  1. Well said.


  2. Pingback: Protestant Politics and Eschatology | Cogito, Credo, Petam

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