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The ‘King of Israel’: The Caesar strategy or cultural renewal?

President Donald Trump ignited a national debate when he shared a comment referring to him by the messianic title of the “King of Israel.” Whatever this says about President Trump, it unintentionally revealed a great deal about Western Christians’ commitment to salvation by politics, and it brought to the surface a long-simmering question we must answer: Will we pursue cultural renewal through the sustained preaching and incarnation of the Gospel, or will we turn to a secular ruler for deliverance?

The evidence, to date, has not been encouraging. Many U.S. clergy seem to have adopted a strategy for preserving liberty that is diametrically opposed to that of the Founding Fathers. Instead, the modern Christian approach better reflects a biblical warning which, when ignored, leads to both tyranny and apostasy.

“King of Israel”

President Trump tweeted a message from Wayne Allyn Root, saying that Israelis consider the president “the King of Israel” and “the second coming of God.” (Capitalization in original.)

....like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God...But American Jews don’t know him or like him. They don’t even know what they’re doing or saying anymore. It makes no sense! But that’s OK, if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s good for.....

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 21, 2019

To be sure, this statement reflects the president’s singularly high self-regard. But in another sense, it merely encapsulates the views of too many of the faithful. Christians vest political leaders with messianic powers in two ways: They view civic leaders as secular liberators and ask them do the Church’s job.

Christians vest political leaders with messianic powers in two ways: They view civic leaders as secular liberators and ask them do the Church’s job.

One may read this mindset between the lines of a recent Barna survey found that the number of Protestant pastors “very concerned” about religious liberty between 2014 and 2017, even as U.S. citizens’ commitment to religious freedom fell. The reason for their relief during this time is not hard to pinpoint: the change in presidential administrations. One tried to compel nuns to distribute contraception; the other offered a generous conscience exemption to private business owners (although, nota bene, the HHS mandate remains on the books) and stopped trying to use federal education funding to blackmail schools into accepting an innovative view of gender identity.

Christians have a pervasive belief that, by securing the top office in the nation, they have secured religious liberty. I’ll call this “The Caesar Strategy”: Win Caesar’s approval, and the future is assured.

History proves having a leader favorably disposed to holy mother Church is a beneficial, though not necessary, condition for the promulgation of the faith. Winning the governor’s approval has regularly opened the door to spreading the Gospel. The most famous conversion in history may be the Emperor Constantine’s decision to conquer “in this sign,” which set Christianity on its way to becoming the cultus of the West. St. Patrick evangelized Ireland after he earned the favor the king of Tara. Eastern Orthodox Christians call the conversion of Great Prince Vladimir to Christianity in 988 “the baptism of [Kievan] Rus,” which catalyzed the gradual conversion of Russia as a whole.

However, a well-inclined leader is insufficient, and when his power stretches outside the bounds of liberty jealously established by the Founding Fathers, it can become disastrous.

Seduction and reduction

Blurring the lines of Church and State distorts both institutions. This can be seen clearly among Catholic integralists, who would deputize bishops to arrest heretics and schismatics. Thomas Pink, a philosophy professor at King’s College London, writes: “[A]ccording to traditional doctrine, the [Roman Catholic] Church has the right and authority” to enforce its jurisdiction over all baptized Christians “coercively, with temporal or earthly penalties as well as spiritual ones.” (Emphasis added.) Non-Catholic Christians may be punished by the Church for certain acts of “heresy, apostasy, and schism” in order “punitively to reform heretics, apostates, or schismatics, or at least to discourage others from sharing their errors.” Pink adds, ominously, that the Church has the “authority to use the state as her coercive agent.” (See also Pink’s response to our friend, Fr. Martin Rhonheimer.)

This violates the Gospel, which demands that human beings accept divine mercy of their own free will. A coerced faith is no faith. Heresy police would be more compatible with certain Islamic interpretations of dhimmitude than the Christian, patristic doctrine of religious liberty. However, opting to “use the state” also tempts the Church to gradually withdraw from public life.

In the marriage of Church and State, the Church will always be the weaker partner. This has not been lost on politicians.

The baptism of state power predisposes the Church to outsource all her ministries to the State. After all, if government tend souls on the Church’s behalf, it can certainly perform the corporal works of mercy for Her. Witness the Church of England, which once had a thriving ministry of private, parochial schools. When politicians took over this function in 1870, clergy acquiesced or cheered the process on – as they did the formation of the NHS and other state organs that pushed the church to the margins of society. “Christian leaders failed to appreciate the consequences of endorsing a collectivist secular world without redemptive purpose,” wrote Frank Prochaska in his Christianity & Social Service in Modern Britain.

In any merger, both factions vie for control. In the marriage of Church and State, the Church will always be the weaker partner. This has not been lost on politicians.

Elected officials wonder, if they are doing the heavy lifting, why their views should not hold sway over religious life. One modern example came as the Social Democrats gained control of the Church of Sweden. Former Education Minister Arthur Engberg revealed his party’s plan to “de-Christianise the church through its connection with the state” and cause it to proclaim “an atheistic general religiosity.” The roles of Church and State reversed so completely across Europe that, as former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson said, today the NHS is “the closest thing the English people have to a religion.”

No king but …. ?

All of this contrasts with the U.S. conception of religious freedom. The United States emerged from the revolution as a nation without an established national church – but one firmly guided by religious, and explicitly Christian, principles. This view translated to its view of political leadership, as well. “If you ask an American who is his master,” a colonial official informed the Board of Trade in 1774, “he will tell you he has none, nor any Governor but Jesus Christ.”

The Founders saw the only limit to government is a strong, free, and virtuous people. “A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual,” said John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, in a widely circulated sermon in 1776. “On the other hand, when the manners of a nation are pure, when true religion and internal principles maintain their vigour, the attempts of the most powerful enemies to oppress them are commonly baffled and disappointed.”

“He is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion,” Witherspoon concluded.

Today, American clergy seem to have forgotten that national prosperity rests on the bedrock of Judeo-Christian principles. Anyone familiar with the Book of Judges’ is marked by a “pattern of apostasy, judgment, repentance, and deliverance” knows there is nothing new under the sun. The Israelites’ sin led them into tyranny until, having driven His people to penitence, God sent them a judge/liberator. But the subsequent prosperity began the cycle anew, as “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” During times of plenty, the people of God made personal comfort the arbiter of their morality.

“If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”

Scripture meant this as a warning, not a model. Yet the same sequence takes place as Christians disengage from the culture whenever a friendly Caesar reigns instead of promoting a widely diffused virtue. Clergy and laity alike have tuned out each time a friendly candidate swept into the Oval Office – and liberty has declined as the result.

As the last few years have proven, what is given by executive order can be repealed by executive order. This is true even of the most consequential issues facing the most vulnerable. The fact that these sea changes seesaw with every change in political leadership points out the fatal flaw: Those who adopt the Caesar Strategy can never lose control of Caesar. The corollary from history, modern or ancient, is that they inevitably do lose control. And the nation craters once again.

The Fifth Great Awakening

The opposite program may be called cultural renewal. History shows how deeply genuine religious principles affect politics. The American Revolutionary War was dubbed “The Presbyterian Rebellion.” The late Harvard history professor Alan Heimert wrote that the Great Awakening so influenced mid-eighteenth century colonial thought that, when “America was confronted by a genuine revolution, it would often be concluded that what the colonies had awakened to in 1740 was none other than independence and rebellion.”

A twenty-first century cultural renewal requires Christians to speak to those outside the confines of the church, institutional or otherwise. Hostile secularism, which masquerades as rationalism, strikes at the root of Western progress.

American Christians, especially pastors, must appreciate how economic freedom facilitates the rights of all people to live their own values. “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost and religious liberty preserved entire,” Witherspoon warned. “If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”

They can make a case for the value of religious exemptions. But Christians also have to muster the courage to make a direct case for their moral viewpoint, forthrightly and without apology – and persuade others to share in their vision, as well.

They must arrest the ascendancy of Progressive Puritanism, which uses overreaching state power to tell people what to believe, economically punishes dissenters, and physically threatens anyone not enthusiastically taking part in the orgy of nihilism and destruction. And it weaponizes federal funding streams by forcing taxpayers to underwrite the violation of their strongly held moral and religious principles.

Christians must make the case that a peculiar confluence of faith, virtue, and freedom turned the West into the most powerful force in human history. They must have a firm understanding of the economic realities that fuel this advancement and the constitutional boundaries that prevent an unfavorable government from destroying the entire enterprise.

As gargantuan a task as this may seem, it is far from impossible. The public perception of the morality of racism, as well as cultural issues such as tobacco use, recycling, and the morality of an overly large carbon footprint has changed dramatically in a short period of time. And our job will get no easier as societal virtue ebbs.

This is a message that people of faith cannot outsource to a king, a Caesar, or a czar. They must deliver it in person. But before they preach this message, Christians must first be certain that they believe it.

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.