Vail Valley Voices: A historical context
Wolcott, CO Colorado
Here are some thoughts on the separation of church and state.
There has been a great letter-writing dialogue on this over the past many months, so I decided to try to understand the issues from a historical perspective.
My main source has been “Church History in Plain Language,” by Bruce L. Shelley. He taught school here in Colorado and certainly is considered a “Christian.”
I was shocked to learn many, many facts. In 1776, 10 percent of Americans were active churchgoers. What? Oh, it gets better. Ah, but ahead of myself I get.
One must go back to the church much earlier and its existence in Europe.
Church and state, meaning monarchs, were intimately involved in the control of people’s lives since the time of Constantine, the fourth century. When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the German church, the Age of Reformation (1517 to 1648) began.
What is Protestantism? Different solutions to Catholic questions. One, how is a person saved? Two, where does religious authority lie? Three, what is the church? Four, what is the essence of Christian living?
Luther’s radical answers: One, not by works but by faith alone is someone saved. Two, authority lies not in the church alone but in the Bible. Three, the whole community of Christian believers are the church because all are priests before God. Four, the essence of Christian living is serving God in any useful calling whether ordained or lay.
These are the classical truths behind the Reformation.
In 1533, John Calvin wrote “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” which caused even more uproar in the wholly Christian continent of Europe.
England was yet another story as King Henry VIII rejected Rome’s supremacy mainly because he wanted to marry the hot Anne Boleyn in 1533. He kept a lot of the traditional Catholic doctrines and yet firmly placed himself in control of the Church of England.
William Tyndale translated the Bible to English and was executed at the stake in 1536 for his effort because this threatened papal authority.
Reading all this made me realize that it was a very different world.
Loyola and Ignatius and King Charlemagne were some of the other driving forces behind the radical shifts in papal authority and the church.
There are volumes written on this era.
A key event was the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Tens of thousand of Christians murdered Christians over religious and political differences in mainland Europe. The thinking populace realized the old order of church/state controlling everything was simply not working. The modern age separating faith from regimes was fast approaching Europe and Western civilizations.
In America, the Congregational Puritans of Massachusetts Bay were determined to establish a new Zion in the American wilderness – a “due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical,” so said Gov. John Winthrop.
This failed miserably by 1684 and led to a strong reaction to prevent “a religious group” from controlling the government.
Coupled with these changing of norms were the additional changes brought on by “the Age of Reason”(1648-1789).
The Age of Reason was brought on by scientific discovery.
First were Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo and Copernicus. Then came others, notably Alexander Von Humboldt, Charles Darwin (the father of ecology) and on into the 20th century with Einstein, Bohr and hundreds of other incredible minds.
If Tyndale was burned for just translating the Bible, you can imagine how this new threat of scientific explanation of everything threatened religious foundations in Biblical inerrancy belief and traditional explanations, and it continues today.
Just as we think the whole creation/evolution debate started with the Scopes trial, we are in error as this kind of conflict goes back to Newton in the 1600s.
Highlights of this era of radical examination of man’s intellect versus God are many.
Voltaire in Paris arguing vehemently for man’s superior ability to solve all his problems through examination of the natural world and reason versus Blaise Pascal (spokesman for the Pietists) pointing out man’s desperate need for God in a personally transforming relationship with man.
These “reasonable” men gave rise to the deists. They believed in God but did not believe he intervened in human affairs, thence the term “Watchmaker God.” God set it in motion and then stood back.
The deists held sway for a long time until eventually their point of view was logically proved untenable by an Englishman named Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) in his monumental work titled “The Analogy of Religion.”
In short, he undermined deists’ supreme confidence in man’s reason this way: “Reason provides no complete system of knowledge, and in ordinary life can only offer us probabilities.” In the end deism collapsed from its own weaknesses. It had no explanation for the evils and disasters of life.
I could spend pages expounding, but the interested should just Google it.
The damage to the church was done by this movement. No longer was the church central to Western civilization.
“Men made a deliberate attempt to organize religiously neutral civilizations. This meant that faith was to be confined to the home and the heart,” Shelley wrote.
Thus was the world setting when the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written by men, many of them deists.
Many great and important movements were afoot after all this, John Wesley and countless others presenting many changes to our thinking, as the church
is always changing in the culture. A century after the Constitution, the nation was observed by Lord James Bryce in his very accurate analysis “The American Commonwealth.”
He wrote, “The conception of the church as a spiritual body existing for spiritual purposes, and moving along spiritual paths,” is the assumption Americans make. And it never occurs to “the average American that there is any reason why state churches should exist.”
This is the completion of the radical shift in social thinking prior to the Age of Reason.
The central message of Christianity and the transforming power of an individual personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ is still central.
As a Christian, one is taught that preaching and hearing and studying the word of God in the Bible have power beyond human comprehension. God’s will will not be thwarted by man. Jesus
is the messiah fulfilling scripture completely.
Or, as C.S. Lewis questions in “Mere Christianity,” one must decide whether Jesus is the greatest hoax ever to live or exactly who he said he was, the I am.
This is still the basis of the faith as it can never be extinguished since it is the truth that man is always seeking.
The following is direct from Shelley’s book:
“The Age of Reformation was marked by debate among Christians about the way of salvation. The Age of Reason was highlighted by the denial of any supernatural religion. Respect for science and human reason replaced the Christian faith as the cornerstone of Western culture. Many Protestants met the crisis of faith, not by arguments but by the experience of supernatural conversion. Faith was less dogma and more experience. This Evangelical Christianity spread rapidly by the power of preaching alone. And many Christians came to see that state support was no longer essential for Christianity’s survival. Modern Christians could accept religious freedom.”
Furthermore, after much more analysis, the conclusion of this era was this:
“This leaves Christianity with a basic problem. How far can believers go in trying, as citizens, to get the state to enforce Christian standards of conduct? Or if Christians give up the idea of enforcing Christian behavior, then what norm of conduct should they, as citizens, try to make an obligation for everyone?”
We are still pondering this dilemma that started in the 18th century before America became a nation!
This is just a very brief summary with the point to make that our current newspaper debate is indeed to be looked at just as King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Darryl Bangert lives in Wolcott.