Protestantism On Church And State

The birth of Protestantism coincided with the beginning of the end of Christendom—the great medieval vision of the essential unity of church and state, with individual monarchs ruling their territories, all presided over by the pope. From the outset, Protestantism was bound to cause political ripples. Perhaps it should be no cause for surprise that the first mainline Protestant reformers adopted models for understanding the relation of church and state that were adapted to the political realities of their regions.

Luther's doctrine of the "two kingdoms" gave the state (especially "the godly prince") a major say in the running of the church. Zwingli adopted an approach to authority and government within the church that bore a remarkable resemblance to the civic authority structures at Zurich in the 1520s. Calvin's strong republican convictions may have been connected to the fact that the city of Geneva, where he ministered from 1536, had declared itself a republic in 1535. English Protestantism gladly recognized the monarch as the "head of the church," until a theologically prudent Elizabeth I changed the terminology as a matter of theological diplomacy. She and her successors would be the "supreme governors" of the national church.

We see here the political realism of early Protestantism. The price paid in order to secure its reforming measures was to give religious legitimacy to existing authorities. They, in their turn, averted the risk of revolution—always seen as a possibility after the seizure of the German city of Münster by radicals in 1534—but at the price of giving protection to the new religious authorities and enforcing their wishes when this was deemed necessary or expedient. The political conservatism of sixteenth-century Protestantism has often been noted; it is not difficult to understand it. Only the Anabaptists chose to stand apart from this cozy relationship of church and state, believing that something vital had been compromised. The church, they believed, had lost its way after Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor. A fundamentally corrupting alliance had been forged then between the church and political power.

This point is of major importance in relation to the rise of atheism in western Europe, which was often a consequence of the perception that the Protestant churches enjoyed a disproportionate status and in-fluence.33 Karl Marx's criticism of German Lutheranism during the 1840s is a particularly significant example. Protestantism was seen to be privileged and powerful; what better way was there to undermine its conservative political influence than to destroy the ideas upon which it ultimately rested?

The situation in the United States, following the Revolution of 1776, was quite different. The constitutional separation of church and state prevented any Protestant denomination from gaining "established" status and created a level playing field for Christian groups. Alexis de Tocqueville noted the implications of this fact and suggested that the American separation of church and state was directly related to the

American interest in religion—in stark contrast with the situation he knew back in Europe.

The serious consequences of Protestantism's ambivalent relationship with power are best seen in the German church crisis of the 1930s. Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and promptly set about the "Nazification" of German culture. This was relatively easily presented in terms of the renewal of German culture, an effort welcomed by some within liberal Protestantism, which assumed a close link between religion and culture. Nazi rule was at first welcomed by many German churchmen, partly because it offered a bulwark against the ominous state atheism sponsored by the Soviet Union, and partly because it seemed to offer a new cultural role for religion. Indeed, many churchmen—such as Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch, and Gerhard Kittel—supported Hitler.34

A furious debate broke out between the "Confessing Church," led by figures such as Martin Niemoller, who were not willing to cooperate with Hitler in church matters, and the "German Christians," who saw Hitler as the savior of the German nation and church. There were unquestionably many Protestants who took a courageous stance against the Nazi regime, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in the final phase of the Second World War. Yet the Protestant churches as institutions are widely criticized for having failed to provide a credible and cogent alternative to Nazism.

The Nazification of German culture showed up the fatal vulnerability of any form of Christianity that took its lead from contemporary cultural norms. Since liberal Protestantism mirrored the norms of contemporary culture, it had no adequate basis for critiquing that culture. Protestant writers such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer vigorously opposed this trend, arguing that Christianity and the churches should seek their norms and legitimation in Jesus Christ and the Bible, not in cultural norms. But they were a decided minority.

It is therefore not surprising that many Protestant thinkers found both Bonhoeffer and Barth immensely congenial resources as they struggled with similar issues. For example, John de Gruchy, Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Cape Town, pointed out the important of Bonhoeffer for Christians in South Africa at the time of apartheid. Bonhoeffer, he argued, provided a model for challenging prevailing cultural norms and taking a stand against a state that enjoyed a substantial degree of support from the established church of the region—in this case, the Dutch Reformed Church.

Barth and Bonhoeffer vigorously contested any Faustian pact between the church and state, between Christianity and culture. Although both writers had clear political commitments of their own, they regarded these as subservient to the overriding task of remaining faithful to Jesus Christ. A church that smells the powerful fragrance of power and influence shows a worrying ability to become accommodating and flexible on matters some might regard as nonnegotiable. How serious a risk is this? For example, the Church of England is the established state church of England. Might it not run the risk of simply regurgitating the policies and values of successive British governments? That risk is certainly there; it must not, however, be overstated. Even in the depths of the Second World War, some bishops of the Church of England (particularly George Bell) spoke out against the inhumanity of massive Allied bombing raids against German cities, incurring the wrath of the British political establishment in doing so.

The growth of the Religious Right in the United States is often seen as representing a Faustian pact between faith and politics. The rise of this grouping, which is widely held to be linked with the Republican Party, was stimulated by a series of major Supreme Court decisions that the movement perceived as threats to traditional American patterns of social life, perhaps most notably Engej v. Vitale (1962), which banned prayer in public schools.35 To its critics, this association represents precisely the kind of unholy alliance that Christians ought to avoid. In response, the Religious Right argues that many mainline denominations have already fallen into precisely the same kind of alliance with the Democratic Party, leading to an institutionalization of liberalism within these denominations—for example, the Episcopal Church in the northeastern states. Although the Constitution prohibits any alliance of church and state, this has clearly not prevented more informal alliances from taking place. To an outside observer, the United States seems to embrace a variety of "culture Protestantisms," each comfortably attached to a political and social agenda.


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  • Jasper
    How Christian protestants created the separation of church and state.?
    10 months ago

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