A Protestant View of Separation of Church and State

" A Secular Faith: Why Christianity
Favors the Separation of Church and State "

Publisher: Ivan R. Dee, 2006 (Hardcover 288 pp. - $26.95 a copy)


Darryl Hart, a leading historian of American Protestantism and a director of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, lauds Christianity as an apolitical, otherworldly, secular faith (this "secular faith" is not to be confused with the "secularization" that demands a godless, anti-religious State). To enlist the Christian faith for political purposes, he says, is to distort Christianity's essential purpose : the salvation of man from sin and death. Past efforts by Catholics and Protestants to establish Christianity as the religion of the State in either Constantinian or theocratic fashion are condemned by Hart as having done grave harm to Christianity itself. It is not surprising then that Hart sees the American tradition of "Separation of Church and State", safeguarded as it is presumed to be by the Constitution, as rooted in the Gospel.

Declaring himself a "Christian by profession and a conservative by instinct", Hart rejects the proposition that Christianity has any clear political prescriptions, and indicts the conservative Protestant Right, specifically criticizing the Bush Administration's "faith-based initiatives", and the social Gospel which marked a historic shift among Protestants from religious individualism to support for the liberal welfare state.

A Catholic reader will benefit from Hart's summaries of historical studies. But he will not likely agree with the author's assessment that John Kerry is "an observant Roman Catholic". Nor will he agree that Hart's Protestant perspective is faithful to Christian orthodoxy. Hart's plea that Christians live a "hypothetical existence" – i.e., living a life "both secular and Christian" – can only result in a kind of religious schizophrenia wherein Christianity suffers marginalization in the political order of the nation since religious faith is rigidly confined to the "private, personal, and non-public sphere". In this view, government is also liberated from its obligation to legislate in favor of the prescriptions of the Natural Moral Law of God.

The Catholic tradition has never accepted the notion that the political order of any State must be religiously and morally neutral so that an atheistic or agnostic State may well result. Catholic political thought has always acknowledged that the Church is not tied to any particular system or form of government. She has accepted the distinction between the spiritual and the temporal, and seeks to further the common good of all citizens. The "Separation of Church and State" in the American Republic does not mean the imposition of a secular humanist regime on a people whose religious beliefs are allowed to be expressed publicly but cannot be permitted to influence the actual legislation. Contrary to the author's defeatist view that a "Christian faith-politics is inherently incompatible with a pluralistic society", the Catholic view is not that separatist.

It is unfortunate that Hart's "Secular Faith" betrays the influence of that secularization of the West which was strongly advanced by a fideistic Protestantism and evidences the loss by too many Protestants of the tradition of Natural Law positing an objective moral order known to man's reason. Having the advantage of being guided by the perennial philosophy of the Church and by Her teaching authority, Catholics are better positioned to act to improve the political-social order in accordance with those:

"moral judgments even in matters relating to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it."
(Gaudium et Spes, #76)

Years ago, Thomas Molnar noted in his "Politics and the State: the Catholic View" that a "humanistic religion" is, in fact, in the process of being imposed on the American people by powerful elements in academe, the media, government agencies, and the courts:

"It is all the more pernicious as it is not publicly recognized as a religion, thus exempt from the guidelines of the separation of state and Church... The Church owes it to Christ to denounce injustice, immorality, lack of elementary civil and religious freedom, and other acts that negate man's spiritual and social nature."

Correctives to Hart's flawed "Secular Faith" can be found in Catholic social doctrine.

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage