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Q&A: Why church-state separation is good for churches

POSTED: October 31, 2017 9:00 a.m.
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Editor's note: Oct. 31 marks 500 years since, according to tradition, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Germany — an act that sparked the Protestant Reformation, changing both religion and Western society. This article is part of a package of stories exploring the Reformation's impact on the world we live in today.

The church-state relationship in America is perpetually unsettled, vulnerable to lawsuits and changing norms. In just the last few months, court rulings and executive actions have again challenged old ideas about the proper distance between religion and government, sparking both outcry and celebration.

It wasn't supposed to be this complicated.

Martin Luther, a professor and priest, claimed to have proper church-state relations figured out 500 years ago. Secular leaders, whether princes or presidents, would handle world affairs, while people of faith kept their attention on God.

The kingdom of heaven "is where Christians' hearts should be set, not on the lumpen business of human politics," explains historian Alec Ryrie in "Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World," published this year to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on Oct. 31.

A critic of the Catholic Church's fundraising methods and the pope's authority, Luther accepted his role as father of the Reformation, the name given to the theological clash that led to the rise of Protestant Christianity and broad cultural changes in Western society. He and other reformers set out to build better churches and a holier society, laying out new ground rules for Christian engagement with government leaders.

The problem, from the beginning, was that secular politics proved hard to resist, wrote Ryrie, a professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University in the United Kingdom and a lay preacher in the Church of England. Worldly leaders had made the Protestant Reformation possible.

"The Reformation was fundamentally a struggle for the backing of secular governments. Without their support, no religious dissidents could last for long," he argued.

Over the last half-millenium, Protestants have fallen in and out of love with state interference, longing for it when they wanted to force religious uniformity and rejecting it when they needed room to change and grow. America was born at a time when Protestants demanded religious freedom and wanted government leaders to stay out of their business.

"When the new American republic was founded in the 1770s, deistic skeptics and pious Protestants united in opposing state-sponsored religion," Ryrie wrote.

Protestantism is fundamentally apolitical, focused instead on a personal love affair with God. And yet time and time again, believers have felt called to get involved in worldly affairs, paving the way toward America's messy and mesmerizing democratic system, Ryrie argued.

Martin Luther "and the Protestants who succeeded him were not trying to modernize the world, but to save it. And yet in the process they profoundly changed how we think about ourselves, our society and our relationship to God," he said.

Ryrie spoke about Protestantism's complicated relationship with politics and believers' slow embrace of religious freedom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Protestants ended the Catholic Church's monopoly on personal faith. Did they imagine a world in which people would be free to choose their own religion?

It seems like such an obvious idea now that you should have religious freedom, but it's one of those ideas that had a really hard birth.

That's partly because people assumed that a religiously divided country was a recipe for chaos and warfare and social collapse, and that, if you wanted peace and order, you had to have religious unity.

At that time, Catholics and Protestants assumed that. Only slowly did people realize that trying to impose religious unity makes things worse rather than better.

Also, if you think that the gospel you believe and preach is true and that it's the way to salvation, it's not that impressive to say, "Well, you can believe this if you want, but if you want to go off and listen to those heretics spouting lies, go ahead."

It was your responsibility as a prince or the leader of a church to make sure people around you were brought up in the truth faith. So the whole society needed to be unified — if necessary, by force.

So where did religious freedom come from? The impression I got from your book was that it was inspired by business interests.

There's a striking contrast you can make between a country like Spain where the idea of religious unity was absolutely dominant and a diverse country like the Netherlands.

Economically, Spain just kind of sank and stagnated from the beginning of the 17th century onwards.

The Netherlands broke free from Spanish rule round about the same time. It was a huge mess of different religions.

Most religious groups were horrified by the (diversity.) They thought, "No, no. We've got to establish unity and get everybody on our side."

But diversity was great for business. Slowly, a sense developed that they weren't going to mess up the good economic thing they'd got going by trying to impose unity by force. That would mean war, which would mean bloodshed, which would mean that everybody would take their business somewhere else.

Did religious freedom eventually get folded into Protestant teachings?

There were people from the beginning saying that it's not just that persecution doesn't work or that it's too expensive. They were saying that you can't force people to believe something because that's not true faith.

What helped these people win the argument by the 1700s was exhaustion. There were religious wars for 200 years, which were attempts to impose religious unity by force. That just didn't work.

So by the time you get into the 1720s and 1730s, you see increasing numbers of people saying that all these attempts to impose religious unity aren't working, so maybe that means religious unity isn't God's will.

How did Martin Luther and other reformers approach politics?

There'd always been this idea of the church and state in medieval Europe having their separate spheres.

Luther said, "Well no, it's not quite like that," and explained that the secular world is the ordinary kingdom, and that the secular government gets to run it. The kingdom of Christ is completely separate, and the secular government has no authority there.

Basically, he said the government has authority over your body but not your soul. It could tell you where to live, tax you and control your property, but it couldn't tell you what to believe or how to worship. If it tried, then the government was straying out of its own realm of authority and into Christ's realm.

This theory of two kingdoms is quite a simple idea, and it's a really powerful idea. But it's really difficult to make it work in practice. There are all kinds of tricky areas in which it's not clear quite who should be in charge.

But Luther seemed to welcome state interference in religious affairs. Why let princes and kings play such a big role in the church?

These guys at the beginning were revolutionaries. They were trying to overthrow the power of the Catholic Church and its structures, as well as the kings and emperors who were supporting the Catholic Church. They badly needed allies, and they weren't in a position to be too fussy.

Quite a lot of them — and certainly Luther himself — were willing to say, "We'll take state help, and we'll pay quite a high price for it if we need to."

Luther had this great theory about the church being completely independent. But in practice, he needed help from the secular powers who could protect him, and he was pretty willing to compromise to get it.

Some early reformers preached that princes were ordained by God. Was this just a politically expedient view or did it stem from the Bible?

There certainly was a political need for it. But there is a theological case for it, too. Paul was making the same kind of judgments back in the first century about the Roman emperors.

Both Paul and the reformers wanted to avoid saying they're opposed to state power. They were going out of their way to say, "We're really good citizens. We're obedient subjects. We're the kind of people who you want in your kingdom."

I do think the early Protestants took the idea that state power comes from God seriously. They could look back not just to the New Testament, but also to the Old Testament, finding kings like David and Solomon who were the heads of the secular government and also had a religious role.

It was easy for early Protestants to think, "Well, maybe that's the model that a Christian king should follow. We should unite church and state together."

By the time you're doing that, you're getting quite far from Luther's two kingdoms idea. But that drift is so easy. It's so tempting politically to find yourself thinking thoughts like that.

By the time early Americans wrote the Constitution, what did Protestants believe was the right relationship between church and state?

The American colonies were right out in front of the (religious freedom) debate because — and I know I was talking about the Netherlands as a diverse place — the Americans colonies were like the Netherlands on steroids. You had immigrants from all over Europe, and it was a pretty dramatic mix.

The idea of imposing religious unity was for the birds. Nobody was in a strong enough position to do that.

Around the time of the Constitutional Convention, America's leaders, many of whom were deists or skeptics, were hostile to the idea of church power. They wanted to separate church from state because they didn't want churches to have power over the state.

And you saw the same view coming from the most committed and passionate church leaders, because they were much more afraid of state power over the church than anything else.

It suited both sides to say the two should just leave each other alone.

Does Luther's theory of two kingdoms still apply today? It feels like some faith groups in the U.S. are deeply intertwined with politics.

What makes the two kingdoms theory such a powerful idea is that you can do lots of different things with it. There are a lot of ways to make that church-state relationship work.

You can withdraw into a little godly commune and let the state do its thing. Or you can say the state should do its thing and offer support, saying it's great, it's legitimate and it's ordained by God.

You can also do the thing that says the state matters very much, so we're going to get involved.

Where I think that last type of thinking gets stretched — and there are quite a few examples in the history of Protestantism of groups falling into this trap — is when groups get so focused on getting involved in the kingdom of this world that they take their eye off where it's supposed to be.

There have been cases where Protestant groups let politics start to define their identity. Doctrine, faith and belief end up following from or being determined by politics.

To me, it looks from the outside as if that's happening to some extent in the United States. I can certainly see it happening in a different way (in the United Kingdom.)

Political religion usually doesn't work out, and I don't mean it leads to political stuff going badly wrong. I just mean that if you're a religious group that stops being interested chiefly in religion, then you're cutting off where you get your energy from. It's hard to sustain that over a couple generations.

People start thinking: What's all this for? If I want to do politics, then I'm just going to get involved in political campaigns.

As you tracked church-state relationships over the last 500 years, what did you learn?

What I would say to American Christians or Americans from any religious background who are campaigning to try to breakdown that barrier between church and state is to be careful what you wish for.

I am in a country where we have an established church and the church and state are incredibly intertwined. We are a much, much more secular country than the United States.

In general, it's not been a good thing for religious communities to have close ties to the state.

I think one of the most powerful things about the American experience is that first lesson back in the time of the founding that the most important thing the state can do for churches is to leave them alone and get out of their way.

I don't know if that's what's best for the state, but I certainly think that's what's best for the churches.

What's next for the world's Protestants? Where will they go from here?

The exciting stuff now is not the political religion that we see among some in the U.S. The really important clue as to where (Protestantism) is going lies in what's happening in other parts of the world: Africa, Latin America, China and East Asia.

My hunch is that some of the more quiet, more nonpolitical, more community-focused kind of Protestantism may be what we begin to see more of in the United States and Europe. Aggressively political religion may look like a dead end in 50 years' time.
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