The current political and religious climate in the United States, with the close alliances between conservative evangelicalism and the Republican Party, may seem like a fairly recent phenomenon. But have there been times in the past when the church sought to buttress its power by forming a relationship with the ruling power of its day?
Historically, we can find several examples of this type of thing occurring in the past, as well as today. These examples become a fascinating case study for the purposes of investigating the possible outcomes of what might happen over the next 15-20 years to the fate of the conservative evangelical church in America.
Church & State Alliances
This post investigates the following question: “What tends to happen when the church allies itself with the globalizing power of the day?”
We can observe several historical–as well as current–examples of this phenomenon:
- The Church and Rome under Emperor Constantine—what would become the Roman Catholic church was made the official state religion of Rome in the 4th century AD, and stayed that way for centuries. The first example of such an alliance, the effects of this move are still felt throughout the world even today.
- The Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish conquest of the New World—in the 15th century, the Catholic Church saw the Spanish efforts to colonize South America as a perfect opportunity to spread the message of Catholicism to the New World, and also to eradicate pagan religions at the same time. The Church reaped massive financial benefits from this alliance (witness the stunningly beautiful cathedrals throughout Spain, paid for with stolen silver from the New World); as a result, too, Catholicism became the dominant religion in the New World. Even today, most of South America is deeply Catholic in terms of religious orientation.
- The Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish Inquisition from the 15th-19th centuries–under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s efforts to unite all of Spain, the Spanish State assisted the Church in suppressing Jews and (Moorish) Muslims in Spain, Portugal and New World. Once again, this move seemed like a golden opportunity for both parties involved–to eradicate heresy, cement political power, and establish both the Church and the Spanish state as the dominant factor in parts of Europe and South America alike. The State carried out the tortures and executions of suspected heretics (those who allegedly practiced their religions secretly, like Islam or Judaism), and the Church kept its hands clean.
- Anglican Church + Henry VIII—when the Pope denied Henry VIII a divorce in the 16th century, by way of a response, Henry formed his own Church of England, which promptly granted him his divorce and set up the monarch as the Head of the Church. In return, the Anglican Church became the state church, and the State collected tithes on its behalf; the Archbishop of Canterbury, as the religious leader of the Anglican Church, also wielded much political power also.
- The modern missions movement of the 18th-19th centuries allying itself with European colonization of places such as Africa, China, India, and South America—similar to the Spanish conquest of the New World, this also seemed like a golden opportunity to spread the gospel message, with the backing and protection of the State.
- The German Free Church assisting Adolf Hitler’s rise to power—hailing Hitler as a “messiah figure” who would save Germany from the political and economic fallout of WW1, many prominent church leaders supported him while overlooking many glaring issues (Nazi anti-semitism, brutal suppression of dissenters, etc).
- The American movement of the so-called “Moral Majority” of the 70s-90s—fundamentalist leaders like Jerry Falwell and others supported candidate, and then President, Ronald Reagan; this has given rise to today’s evangelical “Religious Right,” a pro-conservative party believing its Christian values are under attack. Its distinguishing features involve supporting and seeking to elect pro-nationalism, pro-military, pro-gun rights, conservative Republican candidates; strong anti-abortion and anti-homosexual agendas are two of the major planks in their political and moral platform.
- Currently: Witness the American political scene—80-81% of white evangelicals who voted for, and continue to support, Republican politicians such as Donald Trump and Roy Moore. Note also prominent evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham, Pastor Jeffress, Dr James Dobson, and Pastor Paula White, who continue to support Donald Trump, all the while overlooking his glaring moral problems (non-stop lying, sexual harassment of multiple women, well-documented affairs and multiple divorces, etc.). As has been well-documented elsewhere, the impetus behind their votes seems to lie in their belief that candidates like Trump will guarantee their continued religious freedom and rights, well into the future. Many evangelicals would proudly point to Trump’s appointment of conservative judges like Gorsuch, for example, as a shining example as to why they needed to cast their votes for him.
A Critical Assessment
Given these historical (and current) examples, we must ask some critical questions:
Why would the church even attempt to make such an alliance in the first place? Surely, one of the church’s key doctrinal commitments is the belief that God is in control over the secular political realm. We must therefore ask: “Why, if this is the case, do they even require the assistance of the State, or the dominant power of the day?” Shouldn’t they leave it all up to God, who they believe is in control of everything?
Positives and Negatives
Oftentimes, the church views such alliances as involving both short- and long-term gains–as a win-win scenario. The State will help the church in its goal to advance the Kingdom of God, assist in spreading the gospel message, and bring aid in terms of caring for the poor and needy throughout the world. The church, in return, believes it will wisely utilize its political power to hep steer both the course of the nation, and serve as a moral compass for the citizens of the state.
Surely these are worthwhile goals…right?
Despite these seeming positives, nonetheless there are also negatives attached to forging such an alliance.
In turn, let’s examine both:
Positives: What does the church end up getting out of the deal? Historically, we see the following apparent benefits that accrue to the church by allying itself with the dominant power of the day, or the State:
- Protection—by the State of its own religious views, together with the suppression of other, competing religions or views by the State. This often involves the church being in a position to have the State do its dirty work for them, ostensibly “keeping their hands clean” while suppressing alleged heresies, competing religious viewpoints, or other religions.
- Financial benefits—money flows into the church from the direction of the State; often the State will even collect compulsory tithes from the citizenry and funnel it back into the church.
- Buildings—oftentimes the State will help to fund the restoration, repair and ongoing maintenance of church buildings. In the case of Rome, for example, the church took over many formerly pagan temples and turned them into churches; in Europe, many countries still help churches financially with repairs and maintenance costs.
- Political power—the church will be granted varying degrees of influence in the corridors of power. Oftentimes the church views itself as a “moral influence over the State” and the nation as a whole. By extension, this involves the ability to influence and direct legislation that benefits their continued power, prestige and control, and (from their point of view) help guide the nation in godly living and behaviors.
Negatives: What’s the price tag? Is there any downside to making such alliances with the State, or the dominant power of the day?
- Resentment and hostility—often builds from other points of view and/or religions that have been (sometimes violently) suppressed and/or persecuted by the State on the church’s behalf.
- Corruption—due to the oftentimes absurd amounts of money flowing into the Church’s coffers from many directions, often collected by the State, this has historically been a magnet for greed, corruption and abuse on many levels by Church leaders, from the top right the way down to the bottom.
- Disestablishment–in Europe, for example, many nations that formerly had a constitutional connection between State and national church have sought to disestablished the alliance. In many countries today, the current trajectory is moving away from having its rulership possess both secular and spiritual authority, and are instead seeking to establish a completely secular and pluralistic state. Moreover, many feel that the state church should not be seen as an organ (or extension) of the State and its policies, and that such power should be repealed.
- Loss of credibility—by allying themselves with an oftentimes corrupt and brutal State, and/or leaders who completely lack integrity and character, the Church ultimately pays a high long-term price for its loss of credibility and “selling its soul” for short-term gains like money, power, buildings, and political influence.
What may seem like a “win-win” scenario at the time—when the church crawls into bed with the State, or the dominant globalizing power of the day—historically ends up doing more harm than good to the church in the long run. What may seem like a positive scenario at first tends to hurt the credibility of the church over the long haul, and the church typically ends up in a far worse position than when the deal was initially struck.
But from the point of view of the ones in power, the alliance with the church seems like a good deal, too. For quite a few political rulers, the cloak of religion serves to conceal many vices.