Why the State Won't Tolerate Independence for Christianity
On February 25, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a bill that is touted as a step forward for civil rights in the United States. If enacted, the bill would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the federally protected classes that cannot be discriminated against and would expand where such protections are applied. While expanding such protections is not necessarily widely opposed (Mormon Republican Chris Stewart has introduced the Fairness for All Act as an alternative bill), the act explicitly says that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 cannot be invoked, and this has generated tremendous concern that both private businesses and religious institutions will be forced to toe the current cultural line regarding sexual and gender ideology, or else face discrimination suits and be sued into oblivion.
Organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and Christianity Today have argued against the bill on the basis of its effects on religious institutions, private schools, the legal rights of parents, and women’s athletics. While a discussion of such effects is important, the conversation has largely been missing the broader context of where this legislation and the numerous other proposals like it emerge from.
In his important essay “The Balance of Power in Society” sociologist Frank Tannenbaum argues that “society is possessed by a series of irreducible institutions, perennial through time, that in effect both describe man and define the basic role he plays.” These perennial institutions are the state, the church, the family, and the market. These institutions have eternally striven against each other to gain dominance and become what sociologist Robert Nisbet would call the primary reference group for its members, meaning the primary way in which they understand themselves and shape their beliefs and actions. At various times we can see one group coming to dominate the others, such as when the “trustee” form of family dominated social life in clan-based societies, or when the Roman Catholic Church exhibited tremendous power over the political affairs of Europe. Currently, we live in an epoch where the state has come to dominate social life to an extent never previously seen in human history.
It is useful to analyze the Equality Act from this perspective to truly understand its full implications. State hostility towards religion and the religious institutions through which religion is exercised is not driven solely, or in some cases even primarily, by the current secular zeitgeist. Rather, religion and religious institutions represent a major obstacle to the exercise of state control and the centralization of social power. In the Western context, orthodox Christianity especially poses a threat to this agenda due to its adherents’ membership in a kingdom “not of this world.” It is difficult for the immanent state to compete to be the primary reference for people who, by virtue of their religion, are members of a transcendent order.
However, it cannot be denied that the state has been very successful in undermining and sapping the power of religious institutions through two different means. The first is by expropriating those mundane areas of social responsibility and function that have traditionally been the purview of the church, such as charity and education. While churches are still involved in such things, the state has supplanted them as the primary social institution that provides them.
As Nisbet argues in his book The Quest for Community, a social group cannot survive for long if its chief functional purpose is lost, and unless new institutional functions are adapted, the group’s “psychological influence will be minimal.” No doubt the state has succeeded in centralizing so much power due to its success in poaching the historical functions of the church and family.
I noted above that in the Western context the emphasis of orthodox Christianity on transcendental concerns has proven to be a stumbling block to the state when it comes to becoming citizens’ primary reference group. However, the state has also attempted to muscle into that territory as well. Earlier I classified the state and the church as being two different institutions with separate functions. While this is often true, especially in the West due to the Augustinian formulation of the City of God and the Earthly City, in various times in history the functions have been unified.
In his work The Political Religions, political theorist Eric Voegelin explored this idea and traced its earliest sophisticated formulation back to Amenhotep IV/Akhenaton, a fourteenth-century BC pharaoh who temporarily upended Egyptian civilization by abolishing the old deities and introducing the monotheistic worship of the sun god Aton. By abolishing the old gods (references to traditional deities were eradicated and Amenhotep changed his name so that it no longer referenced the old god Amon), the newly named Akhenaton also abolished the old priesthood as well. What was new and innovative about Aton was that he was not just a limited god of Egypt, but in fact the god of the universe, who speaks and acts through his son, the Pharaoh. By obliterating the old gods such as Osiris, Voegelin argued that Akhenaton abolished those aspects of the Egyptian religion that were of the utmost importance to individuals, such as judgment and life after death, and replaced them only with a collective political religion of empire. This inability to fulfill the spiritual needs of the people, combined with the reaction of the defrocked priestly caste, led to backlash and restoration of the old order after the death of Akhenaton, when it was his turn to be obliterated from history.
Voegelin traces this idea of political religion through the ages and argues that Christianity, through the work of Augustine, seriously upended “the cosmos of the divinely analogous state” by subordinating the political-temporal sphere to the spiritual one. For hundreds of years this understanding dominated medieval Europe, but with the advent of the Enlightenment began to crack apart under a succession of philosophers, most notably Thomas Hobbes with his conception of the Leviathan state. However, Voegelin notes that over time, as the world has secularized, the political religions have closed themselves off to claims of being the conduit for God’s action on earth and instead have come to embody immanent forces such as “the order of history” or “the order of blood.” Metaphysics and religion have been banished in favor of a vocabulary of “science” that is “inner-worldly” and therefore closed off to what Voegelin would call the ground of being through which humans experience transcendent reality.
In the United States, our political religion takes the form of progressivism, which itself is the product of Protestant clergy who abandoned orthodoxy in the nineteenth century in favor of an immanent ideology in which the US would serve as the instrument to build God’s kingdom on earth. In his essay “The Progressive Era and the Family,” Murray Rothbard traces this movement to the rise of what he terms “evangelical pietism” and the way in which it altered traditional doctrine to require that man work for his own salvation by working for the salvation of the rest of the world through its immanent reformation.
The song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was one product of this way of thinking and, in the words of one Voegelin scholar, its author “transforms Christ’s redemptive mission—which is not of this world—into the world immanent social activism of the Anti‑Slavery movement.” Rather than waiting for Christ to return, when he shall establish a new heaven and a new earth, the progressive creed held that it is the job of every true Christian to redeem the fallen world and to build God’s kingdom on earth right now. The Civil War was understood as one such redemptive episode (complete with a martyr in the form of Abe Lincoln), as was the First World War. In his book The War for Righteousness, historian Richard M. Gamble documents the way in which Progressive Protestant clergy led the charge to bring the US into the war with hopes of redeeming the world. Like Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson was perceived as a tragic martyr for the cause and was viewed with clearly religious veneration.
While the American political religion began by attempting to build the kingdom of God on earth, it has, in Voegelin’s term, ended up as an “inner-worldly” religion that does not even attempt to maintain a connection to the transcendent order of reality, and instead justifies itself as being the conduit through which the inexorable march of “progress” flows forth. Democracy and equality, not the return of Christ, are the new end of history.
The end result is that the state seeks to not only supplant religious institutions by usurping their mundane functions but by usurping their spiritual functions as well. Like the priests of Akhenaton’s day, American religious institutions, especially orthodox Christian ones, are both a competing pole of social power and the manifestation of a rival religion that must be subdued if the “State-God,” in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, is to prevail.
In this context, with legislation like the Equality Act the state is not only seeking to further erode the social power of religious institutions by making religious education or adoption more difficult, but it is also advancing a rival religious doctrine at the same time by foisting progressive sexual and gender ideology on society.
It is likely that the Equality Act will not manage to pass the Senate in its current form, but the reality of the situation is that as long as the progressive political religion remains a potent force in American life, independent repositories of social power such as the family and the church will continually be under sustained attack. We can only hope that one day progressivism will meet the same fate that Aton did after the passing of Akhenaton, but until then, those who do not adhere to the cult of the “State-God” can only resist its impositions as best we can.