Christianity, The Best Friend to Good Government

Recently there has been a helpful debate between Carl Trueman of Grove City College and Ben Crenshaw of the University of Mississippi over what constitutes proper moral conduct for Christians. Trueman at First Things argued that Aaron Renn’s notion that Christians in 2024 lived in a world oriented against historic Christian moral and social precepts needed modification. Many Christians, particularly those who grew up in Western Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century, always lived in a negative world. More importantly, the church has always, notes Trueman, lived in a negative world. The church is always in an antithesis to the world, and so has a prophetic voice and answers to a higher authority. “She must pursue her task regardless of the crises of the political moment.” Trueman admits this will appear politically anemic. If the Christian call to faithfulness means walking towards a sort of socio-political Calvary, so be it.

Crenshaw sees this as an inappropriate approach to political power. “Trueman” he argues, “is allergic to political power. Any desire or attempt by American Christians to serve in political office in order to bring about moral and social order is met with scorn: this is just ‘worldly power’ and ‘worldly ways of achieving’ it; it’s nothing but the will to power to assert oneself and dominate others.” Crenshaw thinks Christians need to be willing to get their hands dirty in the messy world that is politics, and in fact, Christians might be called to get down in the muck of political action. “While our current political state of things might convince someone that politics is always nasty, requiring immoral behavior and vile compromises and thus a life given over to the flesh’s libido dominandi, such is not necessary.”

The essential disagreement between Trueman and Crenshaw might be theological. But there is good reason to think the disagreement brings Americans back to age-old doctrinal and ecclesiological disagreements about what are the proper spheres of church and state, temporal and spiritual, and how Christianity relates to the political order. Professor Crenshaw and Professor Trueman are, it seems, engaging in this same age-old debate, but neither is actually debating the other on their respective terms. Trueman—understandably—argues as a Presbyterian churchman. The church’s spiritual mission is, ultimately, disinterested in politics. Crenshaw—a trained political philosopher—isn’t arguing about church, or even theology. He’s arguing about politics, and he argues that Trueman doesn’t understand politics. Both men’s respective appeals—Trueman to Christian soteriological commitments, Crenshaw to historic Protestant statesmen—seem to confirm the argument is occurring between two spheres that might otherwise be separate, but that have somehow come to overlap.

In our own time these debates have become more prominent than they have been in at least a half century or more, but they are not new.

At Princeton University at the turn of the twentieth century a similar debate emerged on the relationship between universities, the nation, and religion, with a particular tension regarding whether Princeton was to be producing good ministers or good statesmen. Princeton’s soon-to-be outgoing president Francis Landey Patton (1843-1932) believed that education at religiously affiliated institutions, and the purpose of educational attainment at religiously affiliated institutions, ultimately lay under the authority of churchly pronouncements on the nature of law and politics. His successor, Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), treated religion as a moral guide but ultimately believed it and other fields should be treated scientifically, with their ultimate effects measured by their effectiveness in educating citizens for national service. For Wilson, the fact that education was an undeniably political enterprise did not annihilate religion’s place in it, but his priorities were clear. He wrote an essay called “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” and worked enthusiastically to remove churchly impediments—the use of doctrinal statements in hiring practices, among others—to Princeton serving the nation.[1]

Wilson did not see himself as an innovator. Mark Noll has argued in his work on Princeton University that as early as John Witherspoon’s presidency of the then College of New Jersey in the late eighteenth century, “patriotic public service” replaced Christian ministry “as Princeton’s primary contribution to morality, liberty, and social cohesion.” Barry Hankins rightly notes that this syncretic pastoral and national mission meant that Princeton, like so many other Protestant institutions of higher learning in North America founded during the colonial (and later in the Early Republic United States), “walked a fine line with a dual mission.” Colleges were “not actually an arm of the church and [each] had its own requirements for employment.” Princeton, like Harvard, or Yale, was still a “public institution, or at least quasi-public,” non-sectarian but also still Christian. The crucial difference between Patton and Wilson was that Wilson did not want to prioritize churchly authority, or churchly polemics regarding literature, philosophy, and politics, so that Princeton could serve the nation and Patton wanted the mission of Princeton to still ultimately be in the service of the church. Wilson dismissed concerns like those of Patton’s because Princeton began as an institution with a multi-faceted mission: “training men for the pulpit and for the grave duties of citizens and neighbors.” Intellectuals working in colleges did not work for churches, noted Wilson, and they “acted without ecclesiastical authority, as if under obligation to society rather than to the church.” Princeton’s founders “acted as citizens, not as clergymen, and the charter they obtained never said a word about creed or doctrine.”[2]

Princeton’s founders, like most Presbyterians in the era, saw no incongruity between Christian education and civic education. Likewise, seminaries in the United States did not, it should be noted, reject the notion that ministers should be aware of the relationship between church and state, religion and politics. Charles Hodge (1797–1878), the principal of Princeton Seminary, argued in a sermon that “all men as they fall under the general category of rational creatures. Men as nations, as communities, as societies and as individuals; men in all the capacities in which they act and have moral character. Nations act as nations and have national character, and are therefore dealt with as nations.” God governed nations, Hodge reminded his congregation, “by the providence of God in this world, for they exist as such only on earth. The moral conduct and character of nations are rewarded and punished with certainty and inevitably. This is illustrated by the history of the Jews, of other ancient and modern nations.” For this reason, said Hodge, there was a “duty of individuals to take interest in political affairs.” Christians and Christian ministers both had a right and duty to be civically engaged and to make political judgements, but those judgements, said Hodge, were not judged according to political expediency or utility. “The rule for Christians and ministers in this matter is, not the expediency, but the morality of national acts judged by the standards of the word of God.” For Hodge, the church had the final word on Christian political morality, even in a disestablished order.[3]

Protestant opinion varied on politics and religion, and while most Protestants believed that Christianity rightly influenced politics, they differed on how much influence churchly voices should enjoy in politics. Northern states—with their longer history of established churches—allowed Christian ministers wide influence and authority in politics, often inviting pastors to address the opening of legislative sessions and giving their homilies semi-official sanction. Southern states saw Christianity as a valuable social and moral foundation for the political order, but they were anti-clerical in ways northern Protestants were distinctly uncomfortable with. Ministers needed to stay out of politics.

The most aggressive support for political anti-clericalism in the South came from clerics themselves. Episcopal bishop James Hervey Otey (1800–1863) of Tennessee voiced support for his state’s ban on ordained ministers serving in any political office—elected or otherwise—even as he argued for the necessity of Christianity’s influence in politics. Otey condemned the fact that “the obligations which a Christian profession imposes” had been “practically dissevered from the duties of a citizen, that which the Gospel pointedly condemns becomes, through corruption of moral sentiment, allowable in a partisan, because it is consecrated as a maxim of political wisdom.” Otey’s claim simultaneously argued that Christianity needed to have some influence in government and condemned the idea that Christians had a moral or carte blanche in their political actions. “Licentiousness,” the bishop warned, “thus becomes the unnatural offspring of that freedom which is claimed in the charter of our liberties as God’s gift and man’s inalienable right.” Religion was “the fountain which feeds the stream of public morals; and if the fountain be impure, or cease to send forth its waters, or if they be diverted from their proper channels, moral disease and infection spread around, and cast the pall of death over all the public and private relations of life.” Otey deemed it “especially the duty of the Clergy to inculcate the binding force of Christian obligation upon the people of their charge, in the connection which their profession as Christians has with their personal deportment and conduct as citizens.” Because Christianity was so vital to the political order, Christians had to hold themselves to a particular standard “to show to all men, as occasion may serve, that Christianity understood in its integrity, and practiced in its simplicity, is the surest, safest, and firmest support to good and free government righteously administered, the best friend.” [4]

The church and not the state, Otey implied, was still the final arbiter of what constituted Christian conduct in the service of politics, even as he urged pastors not to speak on partisan political questions. A minister who engaged in politics deserved “the reprobation of his fellow-men, and incurs the displeasure of Heaven” when he abandoned or neglected “the discharge of his high and holy duties as a Minister of Christ” and descended “from the lofty eminence of his received and accredited character, to enter into the angry discussion or contemptible twattle of party politics.” But at the same time, Otey ordered his priests “to instruct the people whom you serve, that they cannot, consistently with their profession, follow the practices and adopt the maxims so current in this age, which lead men to believe that they may claim the privileges and cherish the hope of Christians when they are not acting as Christians.” Pastors needed to point out to their flocks “the enlarged view which the Gospel takes of their duties and responsibilities in every relation of life, and that its claims of obedience to its precepts are paramount to every worldly interest.” Ministers, therefore, had the duty to tell their people to act like Christians. They didn’t have the right to tell them who or who not to vote for.[5]

Crenshaw, isn’t asking for the church to do politics. He’s asking for the church to get out of the way so that Christian statesmen can do the messy, dirty work of politics in 2024; and the rules of politics in 2024 America aren’t what they were in 2000, or 1990, or 1980. Trueman doesn’t think it matters. The church’s spiritual mission is the church’s mission whether its 1024 AD or 2024 AD. And to Trueman’s credit, he rebuked Christianity Today editors for implying that the impeachment of Donald Trump was “not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” Trueman doesn’t want clericalist moral judgements made about partisan politics, and conversely he doesn’t want historic biblical morality or doctrine politicized. Where Trueman is consistent with historic Episcopalian and Presbyterian leaders is an insistence that for Christians—even those involved in politics—final moral judgment remains churchly, rather than political. Crenshaw argues that “Trueman’s faith is too small and anemic for the political.” My hunch is that Trueman isn’t against Christian political action, but that he, like myself, is convinced that morality subjugated to the merely political is too small for the Church.

Miles Smith is Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He is the author of Religion & Republic: Christian America from the Founding to the Civil War (Davenant Press, 2024).

  1. Barry Hankins, Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 63.

  2. Mark Noll, Princeton and the Republic, 1768-1822: The Search for a Christian Enlightenment in the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 36; Hankins, Woodrow Wilson, 93

  3. Charles Hodge, Princeton Sermons (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1879), 24.

  4. William Mercer Green, Memoir of Rt. Rev. James Hervey Otey, D.D., LL. D.: The First Bishop of Tennessee (New York: James Pott & Co,. 1885), 204.

  5. Ibid.


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