Anglican Political Theology and the American Republic

Jon Askonas, a professor of politics at Catholic University of America, recently delivered an address on Anglican political theology to Providence Magazine’s Christianity and National Security Conference. His address is important for several reasons. The first reason is that he conceded there was an Anglican political theology (that has been understudied in Great Britain and in the United States). The second reason Askonas’ address deserves to be viewed widely is that he rightly posited the Anglican political tradition between Roman Catholic and Anabaptist conceptions of the civil order. In this sense the Anglican political tradition is synonymous with the Magisterial Protestant political tradition. An Anabaptist understanding on church and state has been the view of most Evangelical Protestants in the latter half of the Twentieth Century and the early Twenty-First Century. Finally, Askonas noted that Anglicanism did not claim to be sole representation of Christianity on earth. Anglicans did claim that the church was a reality on earth, and therein lie fundamental disagreements between Anglicans and Evangelical groups like Baptists and some modern Presbyterians. Anglican churches were not, and are not, merely spiritual. Because of this, noted Askonas, “Anglican statecraft is realistic about the relationship between faith and the state and faith and the nation.”

            The realism of the Anglican tradition manifested itself from the earliest days of the post-Reformation Kingdom of England. The Church of England conceded the transcendent reality that states governed peoples, and that, in the words of Nineteenth Century Swiss intellectual Frederic de Rougemont, “a people without religion does not exist.” Every people that ever lived was “formed and developed under the influence of a particular religion which determines—along with other causes—its mores and, through them, its laws and political institutions. Every nation has a religion.” And in as much as the state represented the people, a state should have some sort of religion. King James I believed his highest duty was to maintain “the religion presently professed” within his realm and to punish “those that should press to alter or disturb the profession thereof.”

            The religion professed by the Constitution and peoples of the new American republic was a Protestant cultural and social establishment freed from any interference from the federal state. Anglicans in the United States accepted federal disestablishment, but that did not mean they accepted wholesale obliteration of the relationship between church and state. Nor did they affirm a libertarian Anabaptist religious order. Jasper Adams, an Episcopal rector and president of the College of Charleston, knew that “Scriptures fully recognize civil government as binding on the conscience.” This realistic understanding meant that whether Christian liked it or not, “the enactments of the government under which we live, or, in other terms, the law of the land, is one of the rules by which the consciences of individuals are to be regulated.” The laws of the American republic, Adams noted, were “the combined reason, sentiment, and wisdom of the citizens of such country.” The “binding character” of the republic’s laws meant that they were “entitled to the respect of the citizens.” But this did not mean Adams believed the church could eventually be in sort of suicide pact with a potentially irreligious state. Episcopalians who supported disestablishment understood that the laws of the American republic were binding on them but in good realistic Anglican fashion, they, like Presbyterians in the Nineteenth Century, vigorously supported electing magistrates who would rule them in distinctively Christian ways.

            There is more work to be done by historians, political scientists, and theologians on the subject of Anglican political theology, but Anglicans living in the early Twenty-First Century do not need to throw out King James in order to embrace Jasper Adams. Disestablishment cannot be secularization. The American magistrate has promised an expansive protection of religious freedoms, and it is his duty to maintain those freedoms, which include the full freedom of religion of conservative Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, and other groups. That freedom, at least for Anglicans, is not the freedom to adhere to a broadly libertarian or Anabaptist religious order, but to be fully Anglican. This means they are not bound to any other tradition but their own, and that Anglicans have the freedom to practice religion which includes a historic affirmation that princes should protect their kingdom’s religious settlements.

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