Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Church and State

            Like many Americans I have followed the controversy over the federal government’s requiring Roman Catholic institutions like hospitals and schools to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives for their employees.  Roman Catholic bishops and many supporters from the Evangelical camp expressed outrage at their being required to provide a product they considered immoral.  The controversy was cast as a challenge to religious liberty and, perhaps ironically, the separation of church and state.  Now I don’t want to minimize the serious questions raised by the government’s actions.  But these are complex issues.  All of us, whether people of religious faith or more secular convictions find ourselves paying for things we would rather not support.  Many of us would rather have not seen our tax money go to the Iraq war or nuclear weapons.  I suspect that many atheists would rather not pay for military chaplains or vegans contribute to the salaries of meat inspectors.  

            Be that as it may, I had another problem.  I was concerned that the Roman Catholic Bishops and my (mostly) brothers in the Evangelical world were angling for a kind of de facto state church.  Certain parties within the Evangelical world have been pushing this agenda for a long time.  These are the folks who try to rewrite American history to make it seem that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson actually graduated from Moody Bible Institute.  The Roman Catholic Church well into the 20th century was nervous about Democracy and generally in favor of freedom of religion only where the church was a threatened minority.  While that is certainly less true these days, I suspect there are many corners of the Vatican as there are in Colorado Springs that would prefer a kind of Christian monarch and the enforcement of one brand or the other of Christian morality.

            I am writing, however, to praise the secular state.  I have been convinced by Stanley Hauerwas on the one hand and Rodney Stark on the other that coziness with the state leads to the enervation of the church.  Hauerwas insists that when the church asks the state to do its work it suffers a fatal compromise.  Stark argues that privileged state churches become intellectually and spiritually flabby.  The church, he argues, requires vigorous competition from other faiths and philosophies to sustain its strength and promote its message.  The relative strength of the church in the United States is the result of such competition and pressure.  Even if Christians in the United States could agree on what constitutes “Christian morality” it would be disastrous for the task of enforcing that morality to be handed to the state.  The secular state, in other words, is good for the church.

            Besides all this like many, if not most Americans, I am deeply suspicious of hierarchical structures loudly telling me what I should or should not do and should or should not think.  Whether that hierarchy is in Washington, D. C., Vatican City, Colorado Springs, or Chicago I bristle when the voices from on high tell me how a Christian should think, vote, and believe.  I bristle not because I think there is no Christian way to think, vote, and believe but because I believe in the local church and what the Baptists call “soul competency.”  I am, after all, a Protestant.  Critical issues, I believe, are discerned together with brothers and sisters around the word of God and in service of the people of God.  They are discerned in humility and communicated with grace.  God’s people do not enforce, they persuade, they love, the bear witness.  So to the folks in Vatican City, Colorado Springs and Chicago—thanks but no thanks.  I’m doing OK with the Bible, the font and table, and my brothers and sisters at Resurrection Covenant Church.

John E. Phelan, Jr.


  1. And the "Church" (the clandestine one - like the yeast in the batch; not the institutional hierarchy one that looks like the secular state, but with "God's call" thrown in) is good for the secular state.

  2. I loved the part about Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson going to Moody. It really is so true. I laughed out loud...because it is true. And that just is not okay.