The president of Southern Seminary is on record as saying that government funding for religious schools is wrong, that Baptists “consistently oppose” the public reading of Scripture in public schools, and he even agonized over whether it would “subsidize religion” for churches to be tax-exempt.1 This president is not Al Mohler, but his predecessor Edgar Mullins, writing in 1908. Some religious outsiders (and perhaps not a few Baptists) would be surprised to learn this. Yet, Mullins was no maverick—so why do his views seem so out of step with evangelical political discourse today?
Broadly speaking, church and state relations can be framed as four choices:2
- Theocracy. The church controls the State. For example, Rousas Rushdoony, an architect of Christian Reconstructionism, believed the Great Commission was about the church’s mandate to remake society. He declared that focus on salvation of souls at the expense of this mandate was “heretical.”3
- Constantianism. The State favors the church, which in turn accommodates itself to the government. This is a quid pro quo partnership.
- Free church in a free state. Government leaves people alone to worship (or not) as they wish, and the church supports that aim so all can freely choose their own path—without implicit or explicit State sanction.
- Isolation. Christians withdraw. They watch their own movies, listen to their own music, go to their own clubs, and effectively segregate themselves from society, culture, and the wider world.
The third path is the historic Baptist position, and it is the one Mullins represented. This is a framework that can bring clarity in polarized times—and, as a bonus, it is enshrined in the 1st Amendment. The position is simple, and one can appreciate it regardless of its sectarian origins:
- Each person is responsible for her own relationship with God,
- In order to be responsible, each person must be free to make her own choice,
- So, the best model for church and state relations is “a free church in a free state.”
Salvation is an individual affair. Jesus calls individuals to “repent and believe,” (Mark 1:15). The Apostle Paul tells believers to put away their old selves, and “put on” their new status as God’s children (Ephesians 4:22-23). The Scriptures speak of individual judgment (1 Corinthians 3:12-15; Revelation 20:11-15). That being the case, choosing God—loving Him with everything you have (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:28-31)—cannot be based on implicit or explicit coercion. It must be a free choice, an intelligent and willful decision. You cannot force love in a marriage, nor can you compel love for Christ. God is interested in our hearts, which must be freely given. As one early Baptist wrote, “You may force men to church against their consciences, but they will believe as they did afore.”4
If all this is true, then it suggests Christians ought to support “a free church in a free state.” The two pillars of this position are codified in the 1st Amendment as the “free exercise” and the “establishment” clauses:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …
Essentially, these two pillars say (1) government will not establish a religion, nor will it (2) prohibit people from freely exercising their religious beliefs. As Christians today survey the evangelical landscape and wonder how to think about the intersection of church and politics, the Baptist ethos is one worth considering. Here are some questions to make this less abstract—consider them in the context of “a free church in a free state,” and the “free exercise” and “establishment” principles.
- Should Christians support compulsory Christian prayer in public schools? This practice would compel all students to pray in a Christian manner, regardless of their own beliefs. This is coercion. It also violates the establishment clause. This is why Engel v. Vitale (370 U.S. 421 (1962)) went the way it did—not because “secularists” were on the march, but on principle.
- Ought a nativity scene be displayed on public property? Would this be favoring Christianity? What should you think if someone says, “This is a Christian nation, and while other faiths can worship as they wish, the nativity scene must go up!” If government cannot “establish” religion, then what is the solution, here?
- May a football coach employed by a public school be fired for engaging in prayer on a football field after a game? The Bremerton, WA school district thought this violated the establishment clause. The Supreme disagreed (Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 597 U.S. ___ (2022)).
More examples could be given. The “free church in a free state” framework is a flexible model that eschews government coercion in matters of faith, while safeguarding a person’s right to exercise that faith. Government has struggled to fairly implement this framework in the messiness of real life; at times favoring accommodationist or separationist views to solve the muddle.5
The point is that there is no theocracy. There is also no church and State quid pro quo partnership. Nor is there a need to withdraw from public life and embrace isolationism. There are only houses of faith being asked to be left alone, declining special treatment, not lobbying for “access” and “power,” not pushing for an explicit or implicit establishment of Christianity—because one day the shoe may be on the other foot. It can do this because the church’s job is not to underwrite American democracy, but to be a counter-cultural community of “foreigners” waiting for the better tomorrow, witnessing for Christ and the Gospel.6 To be this alternative community, the church must demand to be left alone—not cry out for special favors or long for sepia-toned nostalgia of a bygone de facto Christendom. This is what Howard Snyder called the “countersystem” or “subversive” model,7 wherein the church is a community summoning people to leave the secular city and join a new society.
Thinking citizens cannot escape this sectarian discussion, because the post-Trump GOP is suffused with populist derivatives of Christian Reconstructionism. Those unfamiliar with the broader stream of Christian theology may assume Reconstructionism is Christianity. Indeed, the “free church in a free state” ethos has fallen on hard times in public discourse—especially at the hands of leaders who know better. Much of the popular uproar in evangelical circles about “losing our country” is because America has been disestablishing Christianity as its de facto civil religion for at least the past two generations.
This framework is sometimes dismissed as utopian or naïve. Somebody’s values will be legislated, why not make sure they are Christian values? There are good books which flesh out the framework I can only sketch here.8 Suffice it to say that God’s community is not the State; “Church and State might in a perfect society coalesce into one; but meantime their functions must be kept separate.”9 As one theologian observed, “the church is a colony, an island of one culture in the middle of another.”10 Resident aliens never mistake a foreign country as their own.
For healthy civic discourse, to ensure a decision for Christ is freely made (whichever way it may go), so the church can be the church, and for a measure of sane pluralism in an insane world—both Christians and concerned citizens should champion the “free church in a free state” ethos.
1 Edgar Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1908), pp. 197-200.
2 There are many helpful ways to frame this issue—this is merely one of them.
3 Rousas J. Rushdoony, Christianity and the State (Vallecito: Chalcedon, 1986), pp. 19, 35.
4 Leonard Busher, “Religion’s Peace, 1614,” from H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1990), p. 73.
5 Take the example of a nativity scene at the county courthouse. A separationist ethic would ban all religious displays at Christmas. An accommodationist view would allow any group to put up any display it wants at Christmas.
6 See Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, expended ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), ch. 2.
7 Howard Snyder, Models of the Kingdom (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), pp. 77-85.
8 See especially Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens.
9 Mullins, Axioms of Religion, p. 195.
10 Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, p. 12.