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Pontius Pilate and the Trial of Jesus: Politics 101 According to Karl Barth

On Wednesday I challenged Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth’s criticism of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine as a failure to understand the 16th Century reformer’s political theology. But I do not want to obscure the value of Barth’s constructive point. It is necessary for Christians to understand not just how the two kingdoms are different and separate from one another, but how they are connected under the lordship of Christ.

Here Barth does offer some helpful reflection.

He begins (in his essay “Church and State”) by suggesting that we begin not with Romans 13, as is traditionally done, but with the confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate as recorded in John 18-19. Here we see the state in demonic form, Barth argues, in contrast to the homelessness of the church in Christ. And yet, Jesus “expressly confirms Pilate’s claim to have ‘power’ over Him, and not, indeed, an accidental or presumptuous power, but one given to him ‘from above.'” Barth interprets this power not as that of the devil but as that of God. (109)

Pilate’s power gave him several options at Jesus’ trial. First, he could have acquitted Jesus, recognizing him to be the King he claimed to be, the one sent into the world to bear witness to the truth. Barth, in stark contrast to Calvin, declares that “Such ‘recognition’ cannot be and is not Pilate’s business. To the question of truth, the State is neutral. ‘What is truth?'” (110)

Second, Pilate could have released Jesus and offered legal protection to the proclamation of Jesus’ kingship, “the legal granting of the right to preach justification.” (110) This is what Christians who embrace political liberalism would desire. It is appropriate for the state to protect the ministry of Christ’s kingdom without it therefore being appropriate for the state to punish heretics or the adherents of other religions.

But Pilate rejected both of these options for a third. He used his power, the power given to him by God, to crucify Jesus. And as heinous as this act was from the perspective of justice,

“what actually took place in this use of the statesman’s power was the only possible thing that could take place in the fulfilment of the gracious will of the Father of Jesus Christ! Even at the moment when Pilate (still in the garb of justice! and in the exercise of the power given him by God) allowed injustice to run its course, he was the human created instrument of that justification of sinful man that was completed once for all time through that very crucifixion.” (110)

In this act of flagrant injustice the pagan state allied itself with the “sin of Israel,” only to secure “the inheritance of the promise made to Israel.” (111)

This leads Barth to an important conclusion, one that contemporary Christians would do well to consider in the midst of all their angst about the supposed dangers to religious liberty in America.

“What would be the worth of all the legal protection which the State could and should have granted the Church at that moment, compared with this act in which, humanly speaking, the Roman governor became the virtual founder of the Church? … [T]he very State which is ‘demonic’ may will evil, and yet, in an outstanding way, may be constrained to do good. The State, even in this ‘demonic’ form, cannot help rendering the service it is meant to render.” (111)

Barth’s point is worth reflecting on. Where would the Church be today if Pilate had released Barabbas instead of Jesus? (112)

This, of course, is not all that needs to be said on the subject, and this is not all that Barth says. But it is striking that this is where he starts. I do not know how many times I have heard evangelical Christians – admittedly they are typically older Christians – respond to stories about American politics in the following way: “Things are really going badly. We are clearly in the end times.” What is implied in such claims, of course, is that the conservative political agenda in America is a bellwether of the progress of Christ’s kingdom. It is a sentiment that Barth, like Calvin, would have vigorously rejected.

But Barth presses the point a step forward, and here he continues to follow Calvin as well as Luther. Because the state is ordained by God, because God uses it in his purposes in ways that Christians cannot understand, “the State” – and remember Barth writes in the shadow of Nazi Germany here, just as Paul wrote under the shadow of Imperial Rome – “cannot lose the honour that is its due. For that very reason the New Testament ordains that in all circumstances honour must be shown to its representatives (Romans 13:1-8; 1 Peter 2:17).” (111)

I would suggest that the implications of this point extend not only to the individuals who exercise government at the federal, state, and local levels, but also to the institutions through which they govern. The apostles wrote in a time when political power was intrinsically personal; we live in an era in which political power is subject to the rule of written law, bound to concrete rules that channel the use of power through institutions and offices that reflect fundamental principles of justice. This system, which we might refer to in short hand as political liberalism, is for us that which has been established by God, the authority that “exists.” It is worth defending on so many levels, but even for its critics this is an important fact that must be taken into account.

But Barth offers one further point of reflection on Jesus’ encounter with Pilate. He observes that despite the travesty of justice through which Pilate empowered the crucifixion of Jesus, he proclaimed Jesus innocent. In the very act of overthrowing justice “he is fulfilling his specific function.” (112) Had Pilate done what he should have done, had he acquitted Jesus, “the State would have had to grant legal protection to the Church! The fact that this did not actually happen is clearly regarded by the Evangelists as a deviation from the line of duty on the part of Pilate, as a failure on the part of the State.” (113) In other words, “In this encounter of Pilate and Jesus the ‘demonic’ State does not assert itself too much but too little; it is a State which at the decisive moment fails to be true to itself.” (113)

Barth concludes,

“Certainly, in deflecting the course of justice he became the involuntary agent and herald of divine justification; yet at the same time he makes it clear that real human justice, a real exposure of the true face of the State, would inevitably have meant the recognition of the right to proclaim divine justification, the Kingdom of Christ which is not of this world, freely and deliberately.” (113-114)

In other words, the legal administration does have something to do with the order of redemption. Calvin went so far as to claim that the Christian state’s responsibility to defend the ministry of Christ’s kingdom includes the duty to suppress and punish those who polluted its certain truth through their false teaching, at least in a society where that truth was widely embraced as certain. He was surely wrong about this. Yet Barth is correct to characterize the responsibility more narrowly, in a manner reflective of the values of political liberalism. At the heart of the state’s responsibility under the lordship of Christ is the responsibility to protect the freedom to speak the truth.

How we are losing one another for the sake of ourselves: the death of civil society

Sociologists have been writing for years about the weakening of the bonds of association and community that once tied Americans together. My own doctoral adviser Steven Tipton coauthored the classic book Habits of the Heart, followed by its sequel The Good Society, to explore just this theme. As Robert Bellah, Tipton, and their other coauthors emphasized, Americans have long struggled to preserve community, virtue, and common institutions in a nation grounded on a faith in individual rights. Historically, in American history, individual rights nearly always trump group rights. My concerns are necessarily more important than our concerns.

The paradox is that the more weight we put on individuals, the more we need an enormously powerful government to ensure that those individuals rights are preserved. Someone has to prevent any other group or association from interfering with the individual, and ultimately that someone has to be Big Brother. The expansion of individual freedoms therefore goes hand and hand with the extended reach of the state.

In recent years this dynamic has led to growing conflict between government and religious communities. Note I did not say between government and religion. As long as religion is practiced individualistically, government cares little about what you do. Where religion is threatened is in its associational forms. Joseph Knippenburg writes in Christianity Today:

Examples of this intractable conflict come swiftly to mind. World Vision has defended its religious hiring rights against an employee lawsuit. Catholic Charities of Boston has abandoned its adoption placement services rather than submit to a state requirement to place children in same-sex households. The Supreme Court has affirmed the power of Hastings College of the Law to compel its chapter of the Christian Legal Society to consider non-Christian leadership candidates. Only months ago, the Obama administration failed (thanks, ironically, to the same Supreme Court) in its bid to force a Lutheran school to retain a teacher who had violated its teachings on conflict resolution. And the administration continues to defend its policy of mandating that all employers—with only the narrowest exemption for houses of worship—purchase health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.

Knippenburg makes this point in a review of a book by Stephen V. Monsma,Pluralism and Freedom: Faith Based Organizations in a Democratic Society.He goes on,

According to Monsma, both conservatives and liberals devote their attention primarily to the relationship between the (believing or unbelieving) individual and the government. Conservatives see “big government” as shrinking the realm of individual choice, while liberals expect government power to protect and expand that realm. (Consider their vigorous defense of the contraceptive mandate as safeguarding women’s rights.) But Monsma contends that neither side has an adequate theoretical framework for comprehending “the host of intermediary social structures—families, neighborhoods, religious congregations, associations, and nonprofit service organizations—that lie between the individual and the government.”

Darryl Hart makes a similar point in a criticism of Jeffrey Bell’s The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism. Noting Bell’s defense of social conservatism based on the Declaration of Independence and its doctrine of individual rights, Hart explains,

The problem with this way of looking at the American Founding (and in particular, the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution) is that the appeal to fundamental natural rights — as in all men are created equal — has been the way to run rough shod over all sorts of lesser human authorities and institutions.

Sometimes individual rights trumps these lesser authorities and institutions in ways that people approve of. In other cases the consequences are more dire.

But this has played out in more extravagant ways in the twentieth century, with the rights of individuals trumping the authority of local school boards, in some cases churches, and community standards. In other words, the appeal to the rights of individuals is hardly conservative. It is the way to liberate individuals from parental, ecclesial, academic, and community authorities. And who benefits from this? Individuals, of course. But also the federal government, the institution capable of bestowing such individual benefits… In fact, the rise of big government goes hand in hand with the liberation of individuals. The authorities to suffer in all of this power shifting are the mediating structures, those institutions closest to persons which have a much greater stake (than judges in Washington, D.C.) in the well-being of their members.

In fact, most Americans care deeply about the civil institutions threatened by this trend, whether families, churches, communities, schools, or any other institution that makes life worth living. Even those who do not seem to care most definitely do care once these institutions fall apart. No one wants to live in a neighborhood with broken marriages, corrupt churches, and failing schools. No one wants to receive their livelihood in a monthly paycheck from Uncle Sam, particularly if that paycheck is accompanied by a set of regulations thicker than your old-fashioned phonebook.

As we wrestle with what it means to be loving neighbors in a world we share in common with people of many religions and many political persuasions, we would do well to think long and hard about the importance of our common bonds of association and our civil institutions. This is a point at which we can appeal to our neighbors for the advancement of our common good in a manner that makes sense to them because it has to do with what it means to be human, and with what it means to be human together. Again, as Knippenburg points out,

Structural pluralism can make an additional pitch to more secular-minded citizens. Consistent with the view that faith and church membership can’t be compelled, structural pluralists have to be neutral toward the kinds of associations human beings form. I can’t claim for my local Christian homeschooling group any status that I’m not willing to extend to my secular homeschooling neighbors, let alone to Jewish day schools, Catholic and other Christian schools, and charter and other public schools. In other words, there is a common ground that Christians can find with their secular fellows …

Of course, to take this approach we have to appreciate our common human solidarity with those among whom we live, whether they are Christians or not. But as far as I can tell, that is precisely what it means to love our neighbors and to promote the welfare of the city in which we live.

Did we need the Enlightenment to see that government should not enforce true religion?

A few days ago the Aquila Report published my article on the place of the Torah in a Christian approach to politics. In that article I tried to show that early on the reformers followed the best in the Christian tradition not only by insisting that Christians are not bound to the political laws of the Torah, but by arguing that the sword should not be used to coerce pagans, heretics, or apostates. It was only later, I suggested, that they changed their views.

Following that article one reader suggested to me that the reformers were actually right to argue that government should enforce true religion, and that it is only the secular Enlightenment that has misled us into abandoning this clearly biblical view. In other words, the Presbyterians and the Reformed were wrong to change their confessions; governments must still “kiss the Son” by using the sword to punish those who teach false religion or conduct false worship.

Now there is something seriously wrong with viewing the Enlightenment as the one moment in which pagan human thinking distorted the witness of Christianity. It’s not as if the era of Christendom was a bastion of light and purity, with the Gospel shining unclouded for all to see. Was the imperial mindset of Constantine, built upon the reflections of pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, really any less of a distortion of true Christianity?

The reason why most thoughtful Christians today think government should not enforce the true religion is not because they have read John Locke. It is because they see that Jesus himself declared that his kingdom is not of this world, and that therefore it does not make use of the sword to defend itself or advance its interests. Governments submit to Christ by recognizing the limits on their authority and by allowing Christ to do the work of advancing his kingdom by his own means, the Word and Spirit. This view is not grounded in the Enlightenment. It is grounded in Jesus’ own teaching, as demonstrated by the faithful and careful exegesis of Scripture.

In fact, early on I believe Calvin saw this more clearly, and it was only due to the influence of the powers and exigencies of his day that he changed on this point. Note what he says about government in his 1540 commentary on Romans. After explaining Romans 13 without saying a single thing about any obligation of civil government towards the true religion, he comes to Paul’s quotation of the prophecy that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess the Lord. He then writes:

But though in this passage of the Prophet the Lord in general foreshadows that his glory should be known among all nations, and that his majesty should everywhere shine forth, which was then hid among very few, and as it were in an obscure corner of the world; yet if we examine it more closely, it will be evident that its complete fulfillment is not now taking place, nor has it ever taken place, nor is it to be hoped for in future ages. God does not now rule otherwise in the world than by his gospel; nor is his majesty otherwise rightly honored but when it is adored as known from his word… It hence appears, that this prophecy is indeed begun to be fulfilled in this life, but is far from being completed, and will not be so until the day of the last resurrection shall shine forth, when Christ’s enemies shall be laid prostrate, that they may become his footstool. (commentary on Romans 14:11)

Calvin was always very clear that Christ governs and advances his kingdom by the Word and Spirit alone. It will not always be that way, he realized, but the change will come when Christ returns to judge the world, not today. Now God rules by the gospel alone.

Before Jesus proclaimed the kingdom it was legitimate for Israel to typify God’s eschatological judgment by punishing religious crimes with death, but Jesus made it eminently clear that his first coming was as a suffering servant for the salvation of the world, not for its destruction. Jesus therefore repeatedly spurned the eagerness of his disciples to call forth God’s judgment or to take up the sword. Why, if he was the king with all authority on heaven and on earth? It was not because he did not have the authority. It was because today is the day of salvation. The time will come when Christ will judge the world, but thankfully for so many who do not yet know Christ, that time is not today.

[Note: this post has been updated since the original version]

Distorting Calvin on the Aquila Report: Governor Haslam may know his Calvin but David Tulis does not

In a bizarre article on the website Nooganomics, posted by the Aquila Report on its own site (note, the Aquila Report does not agree with everything it publishes), David Tulis claims that Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a Presbyterian elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, was following Calvin’s legacy when he vetoed the General Assembly’s HB 3576/SB 3597 as an illegitimate state intervention into the matters of a private university. Now Governor Haslam may have made the right decision in vetoing the bill, though liberty and limited government based arguments could be made on both sides. But to claim Calvin’s legacy in the decision is misleading and woefully distorting of Calvin’s legacy.

Tulis writes,

Mr. Haslam, an elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, is following the thinking of the world’s foremost Christian reformer, John Calvin, a French theologian who is credited even by his enemies as having systematized the concept of modern political liberty that everyone from the tea party to Occupy Wall Street to Hamilton County government with its divided powers owe their thanks.

Calvin, whose major work is The Institutes of the Christian Religion, followed Martin Luther and Scotsman John Knox in enunciating limitations of the civil magistrate (or, as we say today, the state) that are the bulwark of western political liberty. With Calvin, the doctrines of government by covenant, interposition by the lesser magistrate and the duty of princes to avoid arbitrary and absolutist government came into the modern consciousness. The American colonial concept of fractured national government with its competing power centers (executive, legislative, judicial) is a new historical development — and comes from Calvin.

Let me be clear. I am writing my dissertation on Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine, and have been studying Calvin’s political theology for years now. I have no doubt that Calvin made significant contributions to the development of western theories of political liberty, limits on the civil magistrate, resistance to tyranny, and government by covenant. His two kingdoms doctrine helped set the stage for later progress in all of these areas, and I appreciate Tulis’s article for helping to draw attention to that doctrine.

But to claim that Calvin “systematized the concept of modern political liberty that everyone from the tea party to Occupy Wall Street to Hamilton County government with its divided powers owe their thanks” is absolutely absurd. Calvin did no such thing, and I know of no credible scholar of Calvin who would make this claim. Yes, as my own dear professor John Witte has demonstrated in his The Reformation of Rights, Calvin played a serious role in the development rights theory. But that does not mean he “systematized” the concept of modern political liberty.

Even worse, to claim that “With Calvin, the doctrines of government by covenant, interposition by the lesser magistrate and the duty of princes to avoid arbitrary and absolutist government came into the modern consciousness,” is a woeful distortion that any historian worth his salt – let alone thoughtful Christians aware of the medieval portion of our history and tradition – could refute. All of these elements find their roots well behind Calvin in classic Jewish and Christian thought, and all of them were articulated in some form by medieval theologians and scholars prior to the Reformation. Finally, to say that the American distinction between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the government somehow “comes from” Calvin is simply bewildering.

Yes, Calvin played a role in their development; yes Governor Haslam’s actions make sense in light of a Reformed tradition of political theology that Calvin helped shape. But let’s not make the sort of ridiculous claims that simply make our tradition look full of itself and entirely unaware of our broader Christian legacy.

What make’s all of this ridiculous is that in all probability Calvin would have opposed the Governor’s veto (although, of course, it is absurd to say what Calvin would have thought if he were living in our context today). Calvin had no difficulty with civil government taking action to ensure the freedom of Christianity and the Gospel in private institutions. In fact, he would have seen it as a duty. The reformers certainly made contributions to ideas of political liberty and limited government, but they also did much to expand the role of government in matters of religion. That is a sad part of their legacy, but it is one with which we have to come to grips. Let’s get Calvin right.

Government-enforced religious law: how other religions do it

A few days ago I noted that the ultra-orthodox in Israel want to see the nation governed according to the Torah, the Mosaic Law, in contrast to the generally secular nature of the Israeli state. Now the Washington Post has an article about a similar situation in Tunisia. Here it is the Islamists pressing for the strict application of the Koran’s prohibition of blasphemy in the wake of Tunisia’s revolution a year ago. The most hard core Islamists want to see filmmaker Nabil Karoui executed for broadcasting a cartoon portraying God talking to a young girl.

Shouldn’t the death penalty be considered, asks lawyer Nasser Saidi: “Anything related to God is absolute. This was a test of the Tunisian people’s ability to defend God, and they have passed the test.”

The Post notes that Tunisia has long struggled to blend Islamic and secular western values successfully:

For hundreds of years, Tunisia has boasted a complex blend of Islamic and Western values, and now, having ousted their autocratic leader, Tunisians are struggling to find the right balance. No part of that wrenching, sometimes violent debate has been more divisive than the issue of freedom of speech.

Here’s perhaps the key paragraph:

The two sides argue as if they live in different galaxies. They cite different laws — God’s and man’s. They base their arguments on different histories — Western traditions of transparency and individual rights vs. Islamic concepts of Koranic authority and the obligations of the community of believers.

It is very instructive to compare the way in which Christians have handled the relation between their religion and the state to the way in which other religions like Judaism and Islam have done so. In many respects Christianity has an advantage. Most Christians believe the Gospel requires the separation of church and state in some sense, and in fact, from the very beginning Christianity was profoundly unique in this respect.

When the Gospel exploded into the Roman Empire in the first three centuries after Christ, one of its primary distinctives was that it worked through the establishment of communities that were self-governed and separate from civil governments. Christians did not believe the Roman Empire would be able to enforce God’s law any more than was Old Testament Israel. That would be Christ’s task through the proclamation of the Gospel. In contrast to an Islamic or Jewish state in which God’s law and human law contest for precisely the same space, Christianity acknowledges that honor and obedience is owed to human authorities ordained by but distinct from God: Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

It is to this Christian distinctive that the West owes its legacy of the separation of church and state. Sometimes as Christians we argue over how this should be worked out; we do, after all, believe that secular government should rule consistently with basic justice. But it is worth keeping perspective by remembering how Christianity is different from the other great monotheistic religions. Christians can work with unbelieving neighbors and secular authorities in a way that other religions can’t.

The Law, Israel, and Politics: Coming to Grips with a Reformed Error

In a recent post on his excellent blog, Walter Russel Mead compares the political right in Israel with the political right in America:

Like social conservatives and libertarians in the US, only in a much more polarized way, the right wing of the Israeli electorate includes very religious and very secular voters. The Christian right in the US is mostly focused on a small number of high profile issues like abortion. In Israel, the religious right has a much fuller and more encompassing view on how religion should shape the political agenda. Jewish law in all its complexity, many feel, should be the guiding principle in a Jewish state.  The resulting issues go from how strictly should state entities observe the Sabbath to whether ultra-Orthodox students should be able to defer their military service indefinitely.

In part due to its high birth rate, the ultra-orthodox movement is increasingly asserting itself in Israeli politics. And consistent with their allegiance to the old Mosaic Covenant, they want Israel to be run according to the Torah, the Mosaic Law. As the International Crisis Group quotes one ultra-orthodox student:

There’s a new ultra-orthodox generation that wasn’t born in the diaspora but in the land of Israel. It’s the world of those whose roots belong here and who don’t want to abandon the land. They see the crisis afflicting Israel and want to get involved in mainstream politics for the good of the whole society, not just their interest group. They want to see judges wear skullcaps and act according to Torah law.

Classically, of course, Christians rejected the use of the Torah as a definitive authority for the government of Christian lands. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to claim in his Summa Theologiae that if someone follows the Torah’s political and judicial laws simply because those laws are found in the Torah, that person commits a mortal sin (I-II, Q. 104, Art. 3). Christians were to obey the Torah only insofar as it reflected natural law.

Martin Luther, likewise, argued that Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, and that they should follow its political laws only where those laws can be demonstrated to be expressions of natural law. On this basis he initially opposed the use of the sword for the coercion of false teachers or blasphemers. Unfortunately, he later changed his position.

Even John Calvin took a similar position. As he wrote in his first edition of the Institutes, against those who “deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and [which] is ruled by the common laws of nations,” the judicial laws of the Torah are only binding insofar as they are expressions of the timeless demands of natural law, love, and equity:

For the statement of some, that the law of God given through Moses is dishonored when it is abrogated and new laws preferred to it, is utterly vain… For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere (4.20.14-16).

In fact, it is little known that in the first edition of theInstitutesCalvin criticized the use of the sword for religious persecution. Speaking of the love with which Christians should seek to reconcile those who are excommunicated, as well as “Turks and Saracens, and other enemies of religion,” he wrote:

Far be it from us to approve those methods by which many until now have tried to force them to our faith, when they forbid them the use of fire and water and the common elements, when they deny them all offices of humanity, when they pursue them with sword and arms (1536 Institutes, 2.28).

This is promising stuff. Unfortunately, Calvin dropped that quote from subsequent editions of the Institutes (except, fascinatingly, the final French edition). In practice, he defended government’s use of the sword to punish violators of all of the Ten Commandments, especially in his commentaries and sermons on the Torah. Both Lutheranism and Calvinism became known for their turning to the example of Old Testament Israel as a model for Christian commonwealths. Like the Israelite kings, godly magistrates were to enforce all of God’s laws, including those laws regulating preaching and worship.

It’s not that they didn’t know opposing arguments. In addition to their early positions, as described above, Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers were consistently confronted with arguments from Anabaptists, Evangelical pastors, prominent civil officials, and various intellectuals, to the effect that Christians are not under Israel’s Torah, and that therefore the example of Old Testament Israel did not justify the use of the sword for religious persecution. As one civil official in the city of Nurnberg put it:

Now it is certainly true that the Old Testament no longer binds any man, and if we are bound in one matter on the ground that it is commanded in the Old Testament, how shall we avoid being bound in other such matters? If one thing were necessary, they would all be necessary, as Paul clearly concludes in Gal. 5[:3] and says against those who wanted to make circumcision obligatory: Whoever has himself circumcised is obliged to fulfill the whole law. Therefore we must not be bound by anything in the Old Testament but rather give heed to the New Testament.

Our views of the Mosaic Covenant, of the Torah, and of their relation to politics in the present age are tremendously important. Christians still debate this stuff vigorously today, although the “dominionists” and “theonomists” make up only a small minority within Evangelicalism. Is God’s purpose for modern day America (or for modern day Israel, for that matter), for us to be an imitation of Old Testament Israel, under that Law that Christians – according to Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin in their better moments – have been freed from?

Thankfully in time the Reformed tradition came to see the mistake in insisting that civil magistrates are to enforce the true religion, and both the Westminster Confession of Faith (the Presbyterian confession) and the Belgic Confession of Faith (the Dutch Reformed confession) were modified to eliminate that requirement. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that in part this was simply a shift of convenience. When separation of church and state and religious liberty is so popular all around us, it is hard to keep such an intolerant confession. Have we ever really come to grips with the crucial theological and covenantal issues that led our tradition down the wrong path in the past? Do we still think that in some ideal sense we are “under the Torah”? There still needs to be so much discussion on this topic.

When can the government suppress religious freedom?

There is controversy in Germany about a campaign by a fundamentalist Islamic group to distribute the Koran freely to the public. Apparently 300,000 Korans have been distributed already. Politicians and media are publicly condemning the campaign. The issue, they say, is not the distribution of religious literature; the Gideons distribute 2,000 Bibles a day. The problem is that the group distributing the Korans is a fundamentalist group known for its hateful rhetoric. The Economist states:

There is nothing wrong with distributing religious texts, said Günter Krings, a Christian Democrat member of the Bundestag, but this “aggressive action” disturbs religious peace. Salafism would replace the “sovereignty of the people” with a theocratic state, declared North Rhine-Westphalia’s interior minister, Ralf Jäger.

This is quite interesting. Five hundred years ago in the same country – during the Reformation – many political leaders and theologians justified religious persecution on just these grounds of preserving peace and order. Such argumentation was particularly effective relative to the Anabaptists, who were associated, sometimes fairly, more often not, with the Peasants Revolt of the mid 1520s. The Anabaptists were also criticized for wanting to establish a theocratic state, in that case based on the Mosaic Law. Their suppression was almost always in the name of peace and order. The welfare of the commonwealth demanded the suppression of dangerous teaching. Thousands were killed on the basis of this argument.

Of course, the government is not persecuting the Salafis in Germany today; times have indeed changed quite a bit. But this is all a reminder that the issues of the 16th Century, of church and state, religious liberty, and the relation between religion and peace and order, are still very much with us. No one now, and no one in the 16th Century, believed that government could regulate the conscience, or one’s private beliefs. That is a caricature of arguments for religious persecution, a caricature that made it easy for people like John Locke to reject such arguments. In reality, religion has always been persecuted in the name of peace and order. What is at stake is the right of people to practice their religion publicly and institutionally.

Both in Germany and in America religious liberty and its meaning is hotly debated today. Knowing our tragic history on this point will help us to remember why this matters so much.

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