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When the government plays God: The threat of ‘statism'

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 6, 2011.
The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 6, 2011. | AP Images/Alex Brandon

What’s the biggest threat facing Christianity in America today? If you asked 10 different people you would probably get 10 different answers. Some would say that it’s the erosion of our religious liberty and other social freedoms. Others may respond that it’s the aggressive efforts of religiously-hostile secularism. More ecclesiological-minded Christians might point to the rise of pragmatism and the decline of meaningful membership and discipline in local churches.

Shout into the dark hollows of progressive Christianity and no doubt you will hear the repeated refrain of “Christian nationalism” echo back from the netherworld. Still, others would pull up statistics on declining church attendance and religious affiliation by younger generations, captured by the rise of the “nones,” an “attention-grabbing phrase used to describe the well-documented increase in the percentage of Americans who, when queried by survey researchers about their religious identification, say ‘none.’”

But what if the threat has less to do with the decline of faith commitments or First Amendment freedoms (as concerning as those are) and more to do with the ascendance of an alternative and competing faith system altogether? Perhaps more than the rise of the nones, it’s the rise of a dangerously misinformed but rapidly metastasizing vision of government — of the state — which is increasingly held by Americans across our country, both Christians and non-Christians alike, that’s at the root of our peril and predicament. 

If so (and judge for yourself), then Francis Schaeffer saw it coming. As did R.C. Sproul. In fact, Schaeffer prophetically predicted the advent of this idolatry to a young Sproul. What did Schaeffer see as the biggest threat, or concern, for the future Christians in America?

One word: Statism.

Schaeffer, Sproul, and statism: An alliterative and elucidating encounter

In 2008, R.C. Sproul, that late, great Reformed pastor, preacher, and philosopher, published an eponymous article entitled “Statism.” He writes:

“About thirty years ago, I shared a taxi cab in St. Louis with Francis Schaeffer. I had known Dr. Schaeffer for many years, and he had been instrumental in helping us begin our ministry in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, in 1971. Since our time together in St. Louis was during the twilight of Schaeffer’s career, I posed this question to him: ‘Dr. Schaeffer, what is your biggest concern for the future of the church in America?’ Without hesitation, Dr. Schaeffer turned to me and spoke one word: ‘Statism.’ Schaeffer’s biggest concern at that point in his life was that the citizens of the United States were beginning to invest their country with supreme authority, such that the free nation of America would become one that would be dominated by a philosophy of the supremacy of the state.” 

Sproul explains that “in statism, we see the suffix ‘ism,’ which indicates a philosophy or worldview…[this] happens when the government is perceived as or claims to be the ultimate reality. This reality then replaces God as the supreme entity upon which human existence depends.”

In short, statism is when the government replaces God.

The Golden Calf of government

Statism is when the state tries to play God. Statism is what happens when the collective hubris of modern man joins forces to resurrect the tower of Babel, except this time instead of a tower to Heaven it’s bureaucrats building a monument to two years’ worth of inerrant and inspired CDC guidelines. Statism was a distant threat a few decades ago — statism is the enemy breaching our gates today.

Schaeffer also seemed to understand why, in the American context, this was such an ever-present concern for the United States, why “we the people,” of all people, might be so predisposed to one day find the sharp barb of statism in the Achilles heel of our form of government. In A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer explained:

“The Reformation worldview leads in the direction of government freedom. But the humanist worldview with inevitable certainty leads in the direction of statism. This is so because humanists, having no god, just put something at the center, and it is inevitably society, government, or the state.”

Statism, then, is the religion of a secular theocracy. And in a secular theocracy, our high-ranking bureaucrats see themselves as a new class of high priests. When you disagree, it’s not just dissent, it’s heresy. I would suggest this framework helps better explain the last two years in America. Yet Schaeffer saw it on the horizon almost 52 years prior. 

Citizen, know thyself

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu tells all future Alexanders, Washingtons, and Eisenhowers that, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 

We ask, then, who is the enemy here? It’s the worldview, the philosophy, the belief that “every good and perfect gift comes down” to us not from the hands of our Heavenly Father, but by the benevolent decree of Daddy Government. 

Unfortunately, an increasing number of our fellow Americans have been infected with this worldview. They’ve been assimilated. They are triple-jabbed, double-boosted, double-masked vax passport-holders, shuffling toward us chanting, “Resistance is futile.” Yet bear in mind these folks are not the enemy. No, they are casualties.

But who are we? We are Christians. We are those who have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” and possessors of “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven” for us (1 Peter 1:3-4). We aren’t slaves of the sovereign state, we are Sons and Daughters of the King, co-heirs with Christ.

Render to God: The Christian response to Statism

But if knowing is only half the battle, what is the other half? Fighting it! So, here are three closing considerations on how Christians can resist statism.

First, in the American political context, we fight statism by constantly reminding the representatives of the state to stay firmly put in their proper place.

That place, where we say, “This far you may come and no farther,” is the boundaries fixed by the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. 

Every single elected official is beneath the Constitution — and we must never let them forget it. When Paul tells Roman Christians to submit to the governing authorities, that meant something different for them than it does for us. Americans don’t have a Caesar; we have a Constitution, and it is high time we remembered that and acted accordingly. Want to fight statism? The next time the government tries to tell you to close your church while it leaves the local liquor store open, you let your mayor know that service is at 10:30 a.m. and he is welcome to join. Masks optional. 

Second, lend a hand in smashing the absurd myth of a neutral public square. 

You know this idea: That the Christian is free to come out into public and argue for what he thinks is best, but he must do so on the grounds of pure reason — but no metaphysical truth claims. God said men are men and not women? Theonomist! But the truth is that the public square, digital or physical, has never been neutral. Everyone worships — even the most committed atheists, humanists, and secularists among us.

Many well-meaning Christians continue to delude themselves into viewing the public square in America as a neutral landscape. The reality is that all of governing is inherently moral, and never an exercise of pure reason. 

As Christians, we must stop trying to hide our religiously-informed truth claims out of fear of being charged with “trying to impose our morality on others.” The appropriate answer to this accusation is to smile and say, “Yes, absolutely I am. And you are too. Let’s not pretend otherwise.”

Third, and finally, we render to God that which is God’s.

God made us, not the state. Therefore, God owns us, not the government. What a blessed reminder that, “the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100:3).

When we remind ourselves of who the Sovereign of the Universe is, the one who holds the world in the palm of His hand, we won’t be tempted to give the government a greater weight or role than it is due.

Sproul knew this would be a fight. After all, governments don’t have a great track record of happily limiting themselves to a small space. With this in mind, Sproul concluded his 2008 reflections on the memorable moment with Schaeffer like so:

“Throughout the history of the Christian church, Christianity has always stood over against all forms of statism. Statism is the natural and ultimate enemy to Christianity because it involves a usurpation of the reign of God … In the final analysis, if statism prevails in America, it will mean not only the death of our religious freedom, but also the death of the state itself. We face perilous times where Christians and all people need to be vigilant about the rapidly encroaching elevation of the state to supremacy.”

There can only be one Sovereign. One Supreme Power. One God. One Lord. One Savior. And it’s not the nameless and faceless state. It’s the embodied and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. I trust the last few years have made this clear, but we would indeed all do well to heed this warning from our friends Francis and R.C.

Originally published at the Standing for Freedom Center. 

William Wolfe served as a senior official in the Trump administration, both as a deputy assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon and a director of legislative affairs at the State Department. Prior to his service in the administration, Wolfe worked for Heritage Action for America, and as a congressional staffer for three different members of Congress, including the former Rep. Dave Brat. He has a B.A. in history from Covenant College, and is finishing his Masters of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Follow William on Twitter at @William_E_Wolfe

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