“The Christian Statesman”: Why liberal disestablishments need Christianity in government.

Moses Drury Hoge, the Old School Presbyterian minister of Peterburg, Virginia’s Second Presbyterian Church, offered a throaty defense of disestablishmentarianism in his short work on Christian statesmanship. He did not, however, propose that institutional Christianity be removed from public life in Virginia, nor was he indifferent to whether the magistrate was Christian. Hoge stated flatly that disestablished order in fact demanded some form of Christianity in government. “Religion and morality furnish, not only a basis, but ‘the indispensable basis ‘of whatever is great, and pure and permanent in national glory.”

            Human government, Hoge argued, was “the ordinance of God, however its form may be shaped by the hand of man, and Revelation alone unfolds the principles, the observance of which secures individual happiness, social order, and national prosperity.” If a Commonwealth ever became “permanently free, prosperous and great, it must be through the influence of that Celestial Power which ennobles all that it pervades, and gives immortality to all that it animates.”

            By making Christianity “the vitalizing force of a nation,” Hoge was “doing something very different from advocating a union between Church and State. In the American republic “the separation between the two is complete. God grant that it may be perpetual.” The Church never exhibited “herself in an aspect more unseemly than when, abandoning her spiritual vocation, she is seen decking herself with the insignia of temporal power, and assuming the functions of civil government.” State never placed its “liberties in greater jeopardy than when it commits them to the keeping of ecclesiastical rulers, and invites the Church to become its ally in the administration of government.” Hoge’s unambiguous support for disestablishment, however, did not mean he believed the place of Christianity in government or society was negotiable.  

Hoge argued that although it was well “that the ecclesiastical and the temporal power are separated in our country, it does not war with the principle to assert that individual piety should characterize our rulers and public men.” If every man who held “a post of authority and influence” became a devout believer, “so far from leading to such a result as a re-union between Church and State, it would be the very thing to prevent it.” Hoge understood that disestablishment’s surest foundation lay in a Christian magistrate. “Only sincere and enlightened piety that can maintain the separation.” It was not until the Church became corrupt, “and the State enervated, that the one invites the other into an unnatural alliance which confuses the functions of each, and brings ultimate disaster upon both.” It would have been well for the Church “if ambitious prelates had never intermeddled with civil affairs.” But it would have been equally well for the country “if its public men had not so often ignored the teachings of inspiration, and given confirmation to the popular belief, that piety was the exception and not the rule among rulers.”

Nineteenth Century Presbyterians, who Douglas Kelly and other Twentieth Century Reformed theologians understood as Evangelicals, believed disestablishment and a Christian-informed—or perhaps better Christian-educated—government went hand in hand. And although it might be easy to dismiss Hoge as an outdated relic, his proposition ultimately was that Christianity was a constraining force on establishmentarian excess. Public men needed “the teachings of Revelation” and the “restraining and conservative power of religion, because of the peculiar temptations of his position.” A post-Christian government, even if it was nominally secular, was far more likely to force its post-Christian religion on its subjects than a Christian one was.


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