Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Influence of Faith on the State

First Baptist Church in America,
Providence, Rhode Island
According to the online publication Today in Christian History, two contrasting events occurred on September 13.  On this date in 1541, John Calvin returned to Geneva after a period of exile.  He would spend the rest of his life trying “to establish a theocratic society at the request of city authorities who banished him three years earlier.”

On this date in 1635, the Massachusetts General Court ejected Roger Williams from the colony for “his outspoken advocacy of a separation of church and state.” Of course, Williams went on to found Rhode Island colony and establish the first Baptist church in America.

What a great illustration of two approaches to the relationship of church and secular government.  On one hand, authorities asked Calvin to use his ecclesiastical authority to provide stability and peace.  On the other hand, Williams’ refusal to accept the marriage of church and state was perceived as cause for unrest and resulted in his banishment from his home.

I believe that history has shown us that for democracy to thrive, Williams’s approach has served us better than Calvin’s.  Institutionalizing the influence of the church to provide stability might work in the short term but in the long term the imposition of religious authority and tests on individual citizens leads to instability and erodes the influence of faith.

Can Christianity provide a positive influence in a nation?  Yes, if it is the type that Williams practiced which espoused individual decision in matters of faith, freedom of worship for all faiths, and the equality of all people before God.  When these values become motivating factors for citizens and political leaders, the nation will thrive.  When these values become peripheral, a democracy (or a democratic republic such as the United States of America) will suffer.

The choice must be made by each person; it cannot be legislated.

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