I was sent this article in an email today, and just wanted to present it and my thoughts on it... I'll post the article first, and then my thoughts following.
by R.C. Sproul
"A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered…." In Luke 2, the well-known passage introducing the nativity story, the title accorded to the Roman emperor is Caesar Augustus. Had this census been mandated earlier under the monarchy of Julius Caesar, the Scripture would read: "A decree went out from Julius Caesar…." Had Octavian followed the model of Julius, he would have called himself Octavianus Caesar, and then the text would read: "A decree went out from Octavianus Caesar…." But we note Octavius’ explicit change of his personal name to the title Caesar Augustus. This indicates the emerging dimension of the emperor cult in Rome, by which those who were elevated to the role of emperor were worshiped as deities. To be called "august" would mean to be clothed with supreme dignity, to which is owed the reverence given to the sacred. The elevation of the emperor in Rome to this kind of status was the ancient zenith of statism.
About thirty years ago, I shared a taxi cab in St. Louis with Francis Schaeffer. I had known Dr. Schaeffer for many years, and he had been instrumental in helping us begin our ministry in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, in 1971. Since our time together in St. Louis was during the twilight of Schaeffer’s career, I posed this question to him: "Dr. Schaeffer, what is your biggest concern for the future of the church in America?" Without hesitation, Dr. Schaeffer turned to me and spoke one word: "Statism." Schaeffer’s biggest concern at that point in his life was that the citizens of the United States were beginning to invest their country with supreme authority, such that the free nation of America would become one that would be dominated by a philosophy of the supremacy of the state.
In statism, we see the suffix "ism," which indicates a philosophy or worldview. A decline from statehood to statism happens when the government is perceived as or claims to be the ultimate reality. This reality then replaces God as the supreme entity upon which human existence depends.
In the nineteenth century, Hegel argued in his extensive and complex study of Western history that progress represents the unfolding in time and space of the absolute Idea (Hegel’s vague understanding of God), which would reach its apex in the creation of the Prussian state. The assumption that Hegel made in the nineteenth century was made before the advent of Hitler’s Third Reich, Stalin’s Russia, and Chairman Mao’s communist China. These nations reached an elevation of statism never dreamed of by Hegel in his concept of the Prussian state.
In America, we have a long history of valuing the concept of the separation of church and state. This idea historically referred to a division of labors between the church and the civil magistrate. However, initially both the church and the state were seen as entities ordained by God and subject to His governance. In that sense, the state was considered to be an entity that was "under God." What has happened in the past few decades is the obfuscation of this original distinction between church and state, so that today the language we hear of separation of church and state, when carefully exegeted, communicates the idea of the separation of the state from God. In this sense, it’s not merely that the state declares independence from the church, it also declares independence from God and presumes itself to rule with autonomy.
The whole idea of a nation under God has been challenged again and again, and we have seen the exponential growth of government in our land, particularly the federal government, so that the government now virtually engulfs all of life. Where education once was under the direction of local authorities, it now is controlled and directed by federal legislation. The economy that once was driven by the natural forces of the market has now come under the strict control of the federal government, which not only regulates the economy, but considers itself responsible for controlling it. Where we have seen the largest measure of the loss of liberty is with respect to the function of the church. Though the church is still somewhat tolerated in America (in a way it was not tolerated in Mao’s Red China and under Stalin), it is tolerated only when it remains outside of the public square. In other words, the church has been relegated to a status not unlike that given to the native Americans, where the tribes were allowed to continue to exist as long as they functioned safely on a reservation, outside of any significant influence on the government. So although the church has not been banished completely by the statism that has emerged in America, it has been effectively banished from the public square.
Throughout the history of the Christian church, Christianity has always stood over against all forms of statism. Statism is the natural and ultimate enemy to Christianity because it involves a usurpation of the reign of God. If Francis Schaeffer was right — and each year that passes makes his prognosis seem all the more accurate — it means that the church and the nation face a serious crisis in our day. In the final analysis, if statism prevails in America, it will mean not only the death of our religious freedom, but also the death of the state itself. We face perilous times where Christians and all people need to be vigilant about the rapidly encroaching elevation of the state to supremacy.
I would say I agree with this mostly until the last three paragraphs.
We do have a tradition of valuing the separation of church and state, but I don't believe that the US was founded as a Christian state, and I don't believe that the original definition of separation of church and state in the US was simply a matter of assigning different duties to one or the other. I don't think the founders intended the US to be a Christian state - in fact they wanted the state to be a-religious, allowing citizens to practice what they believed.
I would also argue that Sproul may have misinterpreted what Schaeffer said. In Schaeffer warning about Statism, I would argue (without any further context, as none is given in the article other than Sproul's interpretation of what Schaeffer meant) that he may have been referring to the American Christian tendency to make a particular form of government, a political party, or particular political values synonymous with or a part of their religion. In my (and not just my) view of things, this has happened in America and being a Christian has become synonymous with being a Republican or a Libertarian and a whole slew of other political beliefs that go along with those parties - and thus the political machine of America is determining peoples' religious lives.
I'm not even going to get into the acceptance of the church here, I've done it before on this blog - but I don't think that (in general) people in America are antagonistic towards Christ, they are antagonistic towards Christians and the organized institution of the church as it exists in America now. I think there are a lot of very valid reasons for that.
I would argue that Sproul's view of statism and it's danger to Christianity actually hints at statism in his own view. The only time Statism is a risk to an individual's Christianity is if that individual replaces God with the state in his own mind and heart. The state cannot force this belief on you, therefore if you simply accept the government saying "we are your authority," is that not practicing Statism? I would also argue that if you view the loss of freedom to practice religion as the loss of Christianity, you have a mistaken view of the church. The church is not the building you go to on Sunday, it's every person who knows God. The church institution is also not God, and whether you are allowed to go to church on Sunday or not, you can know God and have a growing relationship with Him.
I think Christians have gotten too caught up with trying to turn the US into a "Christian" state, and we have forgotten that the government doesn't have to agree with everything we say in order for us to both have our faith and live with it. We've made politics our tool for trying to change peoples' lives (even if it is with good intention), and if that isn't Statism, I don't know what is. This is not to say that, as a Christian, you should not be involved in the political system - but you have to clearly distinguish what is politics and what is being a Christian. As Christians, we participate in political systems (just like everyone else), and we should make well-informed decisions within those systems based on our beliefs, but we should never let political agenda become part of our beliefs.