Jerry Falwell’s “Two Kingdoms” View is Not Only Wrong, It’s Dangerous

File Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Many of you have seen court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s interview with Joe Heim of The Washington Post.

Falwell Jr. says:

There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

When Heim asked Falwell if there is anything Trump could do that would endanger evangelical support for the President he answers, based on his political theology, with one word: “no.”

Over at Slate, writer Ruth Graham responds to Falwell’s one-word answer:

At one point, reporter Joe Heim asked Falwell whether there is anything Trump could do that would endanger his support from Falwell and other evangelical leaders. He answered, simply, “No.” His explanation was a textbook piece of circular reasoning: Trump wants what’s best for the country, therefore anything he does is good for the country. There’s something almost sad about seeing this kind of idolatry articulated so clearly. In a kind of backhanded insult to his supporters, Trump himself once said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing his base. It’s rare to see a prominent supporter essentially admit that this was true. 

Graham also notes that Falwell’s views seem to contradict the mission statement of Liberty University.  This is true.

In its “Statement of Mission and Purpose,” Liberty claims to “promote the synthesis of academic knowledge and a Christian worldview in order that there might be a maturing of spiritual, intellectual, social and physical value-driven behavior.”  This kind of “worldview” language suggests that students at Liberty will learn to think Christianly about all things, including the ways Christianity intersect with politics and government.  After all, wasn’t this Falwell’s father’s vision for Liberty University?  Wasn’t Liberty University directly linked to Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority–an attempt to bring Christianity to bear on government and politics?

Falwell Jr. seems to believe that the only thing Christianity teaches Christians about their responsibility as citizens is that Christianity has no role to play in our responsibility as citizens.  If I am reading him correctly, he is arguing that the promotion of capitalism, entrepreneurship, free-markets, and the accumulation of wealth is the essence Christian citizenship.  In other words, Falwell Jr. assumes that Christianity and capitalism are virtually the same thing.  I would love to hear from a Liberty professor on this point.  Is there anything about capitalism (as defined by the accumulation of wealth, free markets, and entrepreneurship) that contradicts the teaching of Christianity?   I know some Liberty professors and I DO think that they would say there is a difference between the two, but I wonder how free they are to make that critique in public.

I also wonder if Falwell Jr. believes that there is anything within the Christian tradition that might provide a critique of government.  I don’t have the time to search, but I am sure it is pretty easy to find Falwell Jr. making some kind of theological or Christian critique of Barack Obama.

It is important to note here that Falwell is not arguing, as other court evangelicals have done, that evangelicals should support Trump because he will deliver a conservative Supreme Court or defend religious liberty.  Remember, in this interview he says that there is NOTHING Trump can do to lose his support.  NOTHING!  This, of course, means that if he would commit adultery in the oval office, appoint a radically pro-choice Supreme Court justice, call for the end of the Second Amendment, or shoot someone on 5th Avenue, Trump will not lose Falwell’s support.  I don’t know of any American–Christian or not– who would be so confident about a political candidate.

The Statement of Mission and Purpose also notes that Liberty University will “encourage a commitment to the Christian life, one of personal integrity, sensitivity to the needs of others, social responsibility and active communication of Christian faith….”  Apparently Falwell believes that all these things can be practiced without any connection to politics or government.  In other words, Falwell wants to train students to live personal lives of faith, but never apply that faith to democratic citizenship.  I am not sure his father would have agreed with this.

Which leads me to one more question:  What is taught at the Jesse Helms School of Government at Liberty?  (Yes, THAT Jesse Helms). According to its website, the Helms School of Government develops “leaders who are guided by duty, honor, and morality.  It also claims to instill “a Christian sense of justice and civic duty in our students….”  Dr. Stephen Parke, the Associate Dean of the Helms School, lists his favorite Bible verse as Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do right!  Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”  This is an interesting choice for a dean at a Christian school of government and politics at a university run by Jerry Falwell Jr.

It is also worth noting that legitimate advocates of a Two Kingdoms approach to church-state relations would also reject much of what Falwell has to say in this interview.

Again, here is Falwell:

It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

Martin Luther also believed that government action should not be based on the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus.  For example, Luther defended the right to private property.  As a result, he believed government should not be based on Jesus’s idea of abandoning all of our material possessions and giving them to the poor. (Although he would have certainly warned against materialism rooted in the accumulation of private property).

But Luther’s Two Kingdom belief, as I understand it, is more nuanced and complex than what Falwell Jr. makes it out to be.  (I am happy to be corrected here by Lutheran theologians). In fact, I don’t think Luther would have recognized Falwell Jr.’s political theology.

Ruth Graham links to Missouri-Synod Lutheran writer Lyman Stone’s First Things piece titled “Two Kingdom Theology in the Trump Era.”  Stone writes:

Is it the case that Lutheran theology favors brute political realism, mercilessness in state operations, perhaps even docility in the face of tyranny? Historically, the answer has often been “yes.” But it needn’t have been, if Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine had been understood correctly.

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine originates in Martin Luther’s 1518 tract, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” though before that it has resonance with Augustine’s City of God, which had influenced Christian church-state relations in the West for a millennium. In the 1518 tract, Luther lays out an idea that is central to all Lutheran teaching: There are two kinds of righteousness, civil and spiritual. By civil righteousness, Luther meant that people, by the powers of reason with which they are endowed, can refrain from murdering one another, or stealing, or lying. But no amount of civil righteousness amounts to spiritual righteousness, that is, the right-acting that may earn salvation. Perfect civil righteousness does not undo the basically sinful nature of man; only spiritual righteousness does that, and spiritual righteousness is nothing else than faith in Christ. Without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation. With faith in Christ, no felonious indecency can forestall the saving power of grace.

Stone reminds us here that God has ordained the civil kingdom–the realm of government.  God rules in both kingdoms and he rules, according to Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus, in “goodness, mercy, and love.”  Althaus adds: “Through the political authorities, God protects his people from the violent acts of evil men.” Luther believed in a state where justice prevails as a glimpse–but only a glimpse–of the kingdom of God.

As Christians, we are called to different vocations in this civil kingdom  As Stone writes, “without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation.”  But this does not mean that Christians are not called by God to be engaged citizens.  We must exercise citizenship as a vocational act.

Stone adds:

Does this mean that Luther’s Two Kingdoms should be viewed ignominiously today? I do not think so. Rather, Lutherans should reconsider this doctrine in light of Luther’s teaching on vocation.

In this light, several facts become clear. Citizens have a different vocation than subjects. Modern governments place a duty and a burden upon citizens, demanding that they participate in governance. No modern American has a ruler, in the sense that the Christians did to whom Paul wrote his letters. All the scriptural teachings about governments apply, but the reality of democratic and participatory governments means that a vocation-centered theology cannot view Christians as merely the subjects of the state: By having voice, Christians are participants in the rulership of their state. As such, when considering what sins they should confess, they must consider sins of rebellion against lawful sovereigns and sins of misgovernment, that is, failures to discharge the duties of self-governing citizens.

Beyond this, Lutherans must avoid the mistake of the Reformation leaders who failed to cry out against the sins of monarchs. We must exhort all “sword-bearers,” that is, all agents of the state and public servants, from schoolteachers to the president, to live up to the demands of their vocations. Our Lutheran forefathers failed in this task; all the more reason Lutherans today must not.

Conservatives who fear that President Trump may be more like the decadent Belshazzar, feasting while the kingdom falls, than like the liberating Cyrus must pray that Lutherans remember the Two Kingdoms Doctrine. How we discharge the duties of citizenship—whether by accepting the creeping authoritarianism of the last two decades, or by raising our voices on behalf of the laws and democratic norms of our country—is a question of moral conscience, suitable for confession, and demanding repentance if we err.

A similar Two Kingdoms argument comes from Glenn Tinder in The Political Meaning of Christianity: An Interpretation.  He writes:

Christianity, then, requires acceptance of society, and such acceptance cannot be a matter simply of bowing to bitter worldly necessity.  It is more appreciative than that.  Even if society is not community, it serves community in various and essential ways; and a responsible person will feel obligated to defend society when it is threatened…. (pp. 56-57).

Christians are traditionally, in their relations with governments, obedient yet disrespectful.  Thus, they violate the ethos of both secular radicals (disobedience grounded in disrespect) and of conservatives (obedience grounded in respect).  Eschewing absolute principles, they are unreliable allies of either left or right.  Their attitude, however, is anything but frivolous.  It goes down to the first principles of Christian faith.  Estranged from God, from human beings, and even from ourselves, and in our perversity continually reaffirming our estrangement, we would be overwhelmed by chaos if we did not ordinarily submit to the order contrived by political rulers.  On the other hand, we are, in the Christian vision, recipients of the mercy of God, and if we obeyed unconditionally, we would replace the exalted individual with exalted governments…As an eschatological being, man is always critical, normally acquiescent, and potentially rebellious. (p.210-211).

Falwell Jr’s view of government is dangerous.  It is a corruption of the Two Kingdoms view.  Such a corruption is what led German Lutherans to sit quietly as the Nazis took control of Germany in the 1930s.  Here is University of Virginia theologian Charles Marsh in Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Acting in the name of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms–that God has established two kingdoms (zwei Reiche): the kingdom of the earth, which he rules through human government and law; and the kingdom of heaven, which he directs by grace and through the church–the German Christians determined to achieve an accommodation (however tortured) of the Fuhrer principle and Aryan paragraph under church law.  And this they would do in a spirit of obedience to God!  Under this accommodation, baptized Jews, being a difference race altogether, could no longer serve in the German Protestant Church, whose identity was now rooted in ethnicity, or racial sameness, rather than in the confession of Christ as Lord. (p.162).

In 1938, Freidrich Werner, the director of Germany’s Protestant consistory, was tasked with bringing Lutheran clergy into line with Hitler.  He required that all clergy swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich.  Marsh writes:

Refusing the oath subjected one to dismissal and criminal detention.  To some degree, the underlying idea was consistent with the traditional Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms: Christians must be obedient to the earthly authorities unto God.  But Werner went to an unprecedented extreme, turning a doctrine that had historically yielded a variety of views on church-state matters into an absolutist principle: make a “personal commitment to the Fuhrer under the solemn summons of God,” and forge an “intimate solidarity with the Third Reich” and with the saintly man who both “created that community and embodies it.”  “Submit to Hitler with a joyful heart, in gratitude, as pleasing to the Lord.

In the end, Christians–whether they embrace the Reformed, Catholic, or Lutheran tradition–are called to live out their vocations as citizens.  In this sense, they agree with my good friend Philip Vickers Fithian who believed, with the authors of Cato’s Letters, that “political jealousy” is a “laudable passion.

Dallas Civil Rights Activist Tapes “95 Theses” to First Baptist Church

peter_johnson

Rev. Peter Johnson, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement who now lives in Dallas, just taped his 95 Theses to the doors of court evangelical Robert Jeffress’s First Baptist Church.

If you are not familiar with the Martin Luther and the 95 Theses, click here to learn more.

Here is a taste of the story in Dallas Magazine:

Hoofing it through downtown a bit ago to grab lunch, I ran into the Rev. Peter Johnson, near the corner of St. Paul and San Jacinto streets. He had a sheaf of papers under his arm and a cameraman at his elbow.

“Hey, Peter, what are you up to?” I asked.

“I just taped my 95 theses to the doors of First Baptist,” he said, handing me an 8-page stapled copy. “Channel 8 was there, and we were filming, too, until a security guard made me leave.”

I looked over at the church — or, rather, at the crazy fountain and St. Paul Cafe. One wonders what Martin Luther would have to say about all that and about Robert Jeffress himself, the senior pastor at First Baptist, the one who scurries to television in defense of every Trump utterance, including his recent “shithole” remark. 

“Did you get every door?” I asked Peter.

“Yup.”

“Including the ones to the original sanctuary?”

“Sure did.”

“Were you tempted to use nails, like Martin Luther did it? Oh, I guess you needed tape. Too many glass doors.”

“I didn’t want them to get me for destroying property,” Peter said. “I still thought they might arrest me. I told my personal lawyer not to bail me out. Just let me stay in jail. My wife was giving me all kinds of hell this morning.”

I think he was a little disappointed that he didn’t get to take a ride in the back of a squad car. We parted ways after I promised to write something about what he’d just done. As for his 95 theses, they are a mix of scripture and quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.

Read the rest here.

Is Evangelicalism Experiencing a Lutheran Moment?

luther

Back in 1992, Mark Noll published a piece at First Things titled “The Lutheran Difference.”  In that piece he made the following observations:

  • Despite the popularity of Garrison Keillor, Lutherans have always appeared to be “on the fringe of American life”
  • Lutherans are “remarkably unremarkable.”  They are “pretty ordinary” or “ho-hum.”  Unlike evangelicals, for example, they do not have “spectacular stories of conversion.”
  • The history of Lutherans in America is very interesting.  It needs more attention.
  • Lutherans have much to offer Americans if they contribute to the culture “as Lutherans.” Lutherans can offer “resources” to Americans, especially other Protestants,” that “would be an incalculable benefit.”
  • Lutherans have always insisted history is important for the faith, while other American Protestants, especially evangelicals, have “proclaimed that the past is pollution.”  It was Lutheran Jaroslav Pelikan who wrote “tradition is the living faith of the dead” and “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”  Noll writes: “American liberals, who want to fix things by themselves and right away, both need to learn from Lutherans that God’s concern extends over decades and centuries as well as over days, weeks, and months.”
  • Lutherans have much to offer in thinking about Christian political involvement.  Noll writes: “The dominant pattern of political involvement in America has always been one of direct, aggressive action modeled on Reformed theories of life in the world.”  He adds: “there have been only occasional examples of what could be called ‘Lutheran irony.’ In religious terms, this irony is the sense that precisely when Christians mount their most valiant public efforts for God, they run the greatest risk of substituting their righteousness for the righteousness of Christ, and thereby subverting justification by faith.”

I have been thinking about this piece (and Lutherans) a lot lately.  Evangelicalism may be experiencing (or perhaps should be experiencing) a “Lutheran moment” right now, at least in terms of political engagement.

Let’s remember that Luther believed the purpose of the secular government is to restrain evil, protect citizens, and promote justice. In other words, Lutheranism rejects the idea, made popular by Thomas Aquinas, that government plays a positive role in society by promoting the common good.  God redeems and justifies us in the kingdom of redemption, but government is part of the kingdom of creation.  In other words, government is necessary, but it cannot be redeemed.  Government cannot help in promoting the Kingdom of God.  Most Lutherans call this “2 Kingdom Theology.”

So why might we be having a Lutheran moment right now?  Let me suggest two reasons.

  1.  Many evangelicals who support Donald Trump have justified their vote based on something akin to Lutheranism. (Although they never reference it this way).  They argue that we should not expect government to do anything beyond protecting us and giving us liberty.  Government, for example, is not required to conform to the Sermon on the Mount or other teachings of Jesus.  This is the approach to government I hear most often from court evangelical Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas.  And while I think Jeffress misrepresents Lutheranism in several ways, his view of church-state relations seems closer to Luther (and Augustine?) than it does to Calvin or Aquinas.  As long as Trump is protecting us (building a wall, keeping Muslims out of the country, giving us religious liberty, etc.) then he deserves our vote despite his character.  (Of course even this theory does not explain everything, because many evangelical Trumpers voted for Trump because they believed he was a Christian.  I unpack some of this in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. (Pre-order here).
  2.  Lutherans always remind us that there is a difference between the kingdom of redemption–the place where we are saved–and the kingdom of creation–the place where government resides.  Evangelicals always need to be reminded of this so they don’t confuse the two kingdoms.  Court evangelicals like Jeffress say that the character or policies of the president do not matter as long as he is protecting us. But they don’t usually behave this way.  Their behavior suggests that they REALLY believe that government should be active–very active.  It should be active in promoting their Christian agenda.

Mark Noll: “Martin Luther Where Are You?

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Mark Noll

Writing at LaCroix International, a Catholic website, Villanova theologian Massimo Faggioli argues that the “political legacy of the Reformation” has been “absorbed largely by white evangelicalism, which has given political support and theological justification to Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ platform.”

Midway through the piece Faggioli refers to the work of evangelical historian Mark Noll:

In a sense, if there is an American problem today that is embodied by Donald Trump, there is also a problem of American white Protestantism in Christianity. The German pastor and theologian (and martyr of Nazism), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, famously defined the religious culture of the United States in 1939, during and immediately after his time in America, as “Protestantism without Reformation”. 

But European theologians of one century ago are not the only ones who have identified the genetic mutation of Protestantism into what is known today as American evangelicalism. There are also white evangelicals in the United States today who publicly acknowledging this. 

One of their most important intellectuals to do so is Mark Noll. He is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of several seminal books that deal with the intellectual crisis of evangelicalism, the relationship between Christian theology and racism in the Civil War, and many other issues. 

It was during a panel discussion of Noll’s 2005 book (co-authored with Carolyn Nystrom), Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism, that I witnessed the most powerful indictment of contemporary American evangelicalism. It took place ten years at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta (Georgia). 

In his response to the panel, Noll emphasized that the problem of the Reformation was no longer concerned with Catholicism. He said the Reformation has succeeded to some extent by making Catholicism more evangelical. But the problem, he said, is that it still not clear if American Protestantism has remained faithful to the Reformation. 

Noll gave a quick description of what continues to pass for American Evangelicalism. It is a declared or undeclared theology of the “prosperity gospel”, an aberrant theology that teaches that God rewards faithfulness with financial blessings. Noll concluded his remarks with the powerful question – “Martin Luther, where are you!?”.

Read the entire piece here.

A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Martin Luther and the Usable Past

lutherThe Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association ended yesterday afternoon, but reports from The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondents who covered conference continue to roll in.  We were pleased to have Zachary Cote write for us this weekend.  As a middle-school history teacher he has brought a unique perspective to this annual gathering of historians.  In his final post, Zach reports on a couple of sessions he attended on Martin Luther.  Read all of Zach’s AHA 2017 posts here.–JF

One of the perks of attending the 2017 AHA annual meeting was being able to sit-in on a couple panels that were created with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in mind. As a Protestant, I have always been interested in Luther.  So I was eager to see how historians were going to commemorate the quincentenary of his 95 Theses. I attended two sessions, the first entitled “Memories of Reform: German Commemorations of the Reformation” and the second, “Luther and the ‘Second Reformation’. A common thread in both of these panels was how generations after Luther interpreted his work, impact, and theology.

In the 1617 celebration of the 95 Theses Luther was used to either remind a town of the perceived horrors of Catholicism or to promote local exceptionalism, as was the case in Ulm, Germany. The tercentennial celebration looked at the German monk as a “Luther for Everyone.” For Luther’s 400th birthday, in 1883, the new nation-state of Germany used the anniversary to promote German unity; after all, even “German Catholics were better than the others.” In 1967, on the 45oth anniversary of the Reformation, communist East Germany had to come to grips with the fact that so much of the Reformation originated in that region.  East Germany interpreted the Reformation to fit its own agenda, and therefore made it a secular event heavily attached to the Early Bourgeois Revolution of the Peasants’ War. Luther took on a new identity for each of these commemorations.  He became the Luther that the people of each specific time and place needed.

Luther’s impact on others in the “Second Reformation” revealed similar insights. For example, Luther informed John Wesley’s doctrine of sola fide. While Wesley’s theology often looked much different than Luther’s, his scant references to the German reformer point to an implicit influence on his theology of justification.  Seventeenth-century Puritans, too, found encouragement from Luther when it came to the importance of temptation in the lives of Christians. To these Puritans, Luther “was clearly recognized as a symbol of piety” despite his stronger emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Lastly, in mid-eighteenth-century Denmark, Luther’s historical reading of the Old Testament would eventually lead Danish theologians to end their traditional evaluations of civil law in Amsterdam. This, in turn, actually led to a secularization of Amsterdam’s government.

Listening to these panels enlightened me on the role of Luther over the centuries and left me questioning what Luther will look like in this year’s festivities. But perhaps even more importantly, the research presented by the historians at each panel illuminated a larger theme within history.

Something that we emphasize in our classes is that history is the study of change (and yes, continuity) over time. But the study of Luther demonstrates that history itself changes over time. Not simply in the academic historiography of any given subject, but also in the public’s use of the past.  Luther was perceived very differently by people over time, and perhaps may not even recognize himself in those perceptions; nonetheless, it is through perceptions like those that most understand history. I am reminded of what George Orwell wrote in 1984: “The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon.” How true that is for American society today.

With this in mind, may we, as those who study and teach the past, recognize that history itself is changing, and continue to pursue the goal to teach our students how to navigate those changes in order to paint the most accurate picture of the past available.

"A Might Fortress is Our God," 1922

A Martin Luther classic from the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox:

http://media.loc.gov/player/flowplayer.commercial.swf?0.942927316762507<!–

  • Recording Title

    A mighty fortress is our God
  • Other Title(s)

    • Ein feste Burg (Parallel (translated) title)
    • Hymn (Title descriptor)
  • Vocal group

  • Composer

  • Translator

  • Genre(s)

    Religious
  • Category

    Vocal
  • Description

    Male vocal chorus, with brass quintet
  • Language

    English
  • Instrumentation

    2 cornets, 3 trombones, and tuba
  • Label Name/Number

    Victor 18897
  • Matrix Number/Take Number

    B-26290/2
  • Recording Date

    1922-04-06
  • Place of Recording

    New York, New York
  • Size

    10″
  • Duration

    03:12

Should Christians Embrace Secularism?

I ask this question today in an op-ed at The Washington Post(For some context, check out this post from yesterday).  Here is the piece:

I didn’t know what to think when Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University invited me to be the first plenary speaker at a conference called “Secularism on the Edge.” I am an evangelical Christian who teaches American history at a Christian college. In fact, I am writing this from a hotel room in Pittsburgh where I am attending “Jubilee,” an annual gathering of thousands of evangelical undergraduates from East Coast colleges and universities. In a few hours I will be conducting a seminar on how to integrate Christian faith with the study of history.

Though I do a lot of speaking at events that might be described as “secular” (American history lectures at colleges, universities, libraries, museums, etc…), I don’t normally get invited to public conferences devoted entirely to the subject of secularism.

For many of the culture warriors who share my particular brand of Christianity, “secular” is an adjective used to modify “humanism.” Secular humanists are often described as aggressive atheists and unbelievers who want to remove all traces of Christianity from public life. In the 1970s and 1980s, Jerry Falwell and other members of the emerging Christian Right warned evangelicals about an encroaching secular humanism that was creeping into American schools and threatening the Christian character of the nation.

As an evangelical believer, I, of course, see the world through the eyes of my Christian faith. I have many friends and acquaintances who do not believe in God, but I have profound differences with them about the origin, meaning, and purpose of life. If being secular means living in a disenchanted world in which God does not exist, or abandoning essential Christian beliefs such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ or authority of the Bible, then I am definitely not secular. But if secularism is something akin to what Berlinerblau describes in his book, “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom,” then there is much of it that I can embrace.

Let me explain:

For Berlinerblau, secularism is more of a political philosophy than a religious one. Secularists, he writes, “are often deeply suspicious” of “any and all relations between government and religion.” In other words, secularism is essential to religious freedom.

Many Christians have believed in this kind of secularism. Martin Luther taught his followers that God rules over two kingdoms. The secular kingdom should not be confused with the spiritual kingdom. One kingdom upholds the law and preserves the common good. The other kingdom is a heavenly one where Christians experience God’s grace and find salvation.

Or consider the Baptists. Ever since the devout Puritan exile Roger Williams wrote about “a hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world,” they have defended religious freedom. In colonial Virginia Baptists suffered immensely under a so-called “Christian state” controlled by the Anglican Church. It should thus not surprise us that when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison called for religious freedom and a largely secular state in post-revolutionary Virginia, Baptists rallied to the cause.

Anabaptists—those from the Mennonite and Brethren traditions who founded the college where I work—have long resisted the temptation to equate the kingdom of God and the nation-state. As a result, one would be hard pressed to find an American flag on the campus of Messiah College.

In 2011, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, in his provocative “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World,” urged his fellow Christians to abandon the notion that we can “change the world” through politics. He instead called for evangelicals to leave the political arena, stop trying to Christianize the nation, and practice their faith in the world through acts of Christian love in their local communities and neighborhoods. He described this approach to Christian living in the public square with the phrase “faithful presence.” 

Trying to convince evangelicals that Berlinerblau’s “secularism” is a theologically legitimate way of understanding the relationship between church and state will not be easy. The Christian Right has successfully demonized the word. Many of my fellow evangelicals firmly believe that God has a special plan for the United States and the founding fathers, as servants of God, set out to create a uniquely Christian nation, not a secular one. Such an assertion is problematic on both theological and historical grounds, some of which I look forward to discussing Wednesday at the Secularism on the Edge conference at Georgetown. I hope to see you there.

John Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College.

“Secularism on the Edge,” an international conference exploring secularism in the United States, France, and Israel, opens at Georgetown University Wednesday, February 20, through Friday, February 22. All events are free and open to the public. Visit the Web site for more details and follow the conference on Twitter @SecularismEdge for updates and live tweets of the events.

Luther’s 95 Theses and Social Media

I am not a scholar of the Protestant Reformation, but I found this discussion to be very interesting.  Tom Standage describes how Martin Luther went “viral.”

Here is a taste:

The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.