The Government as the Church Militant is ALWAYS a Terrible Idea

A Prayer by the Oklahoma Governor, 2022, speaking in front of the state Capitol,

“Father, we just claim Oklahoma for you. Every square inch, we claim it for you in the name of Jesus. Father, we can do nothing apart from you. We don’t battle against flesh and blood but against principalities and darkness.

And Father, we just come against that, we just loose your will over our state right now in the name of Jesus. We just thank you and we claim Oklahoma for you as the authority that I have as governor and the spiritual authority and the physical authority that you give me.

I claim Oklahoma for you that we will be a light to our country and to the world. We thank you that your will was done on Tuesday and Father, that you will have your way with our state, with our education system, with everything within the walls behind me.

Lord, we pray that you will root out corruption and bring the right people into this building.”

From Pope Boniface VIII, CE 1302, altered from papal supremacy to gubernatorial supremacy to fit the words of the Oklahoma Governor.

By the words of the gospel we are taught that the two swords, namely, the spiritual authority and the temporal, are in the power of the state. …Whoever denies that the spiritual sword is in the power of the governor does not properly understand the word of the Lord when He said: “Put up thy sword into the sheath” [John, xviii. 11]. Both swords, therefore, the spiritual and the temporal, are in the power of the State. The former is to be used by the state, the latter for the state… Moreover, it is necessary for one sword to be under the other, and the spiritual authority to be subjected to the temporal; for the apostle says, “For there is no power but of God: and the powers that be are ordained of God” [Rom., xiii. 1].

The genius of the U.S. Constitution resides in the words of the preamble: “We the people…” Not “In the name of God, amen.” Despite about 200 attempts in history (including the 20th century) to shoehorn some version of God into the Constitution, the document remains without reference to deity. That, I will always assert, is a good thing.

In philosophy, one distinguishes between theoretical reason and practical reason. Theoretical reason is about first principles. In classical philosophy, first principles are unchanging. A first principle is eternally true. Theology, as done by classical theologians, is a matter of discerning first principles and then using logic to derive sub-principles and rules of conduct.

Practical reasoning is reasoning about things that could be other than what they are, about matters that are changeable, contingent. I am amongst those who argue that doing theology involves a lively argument between principles and practice rather than deduction alone.

Politics is and must be seen as an exercise in practical reason rather than theoretical reason. That is not to say there are no principles in politics—er, ah, well, there should be principled politics! But politics, like public morality, involves matters that could be other than what they are, things that are changeable.

But when politics becomes a matter of “therefores” derived from first principles, politics has entered very dangerous territory.

Here’s a principle that was meant to safeguard abuses of power and the integrity of two different realms: neither religious leaders nor secular authorities ought to claim “both swords,” as Boniface VIII put it when he claimed both spiritual and temporary authority, with the power to delegate temporary authority to a regent.

One cannot understand the rise of universities, secular law, capitalism, the Reformation, the development of nation states, democracy, or the United States Constitution per se without seeing the role that separation of powers played and plays. Or, should I say, without understanding the role that suspicion of unchecked power played and plays?

Bringing religious first principles to bear on politics imposes an order, in particular a moral order, on politics that transmutes politics from the realm of practical reason into the realm of theoretical reason. Making that category mistake can and HAS led to persecution, second-class citizens, disenfranchisement, torture, war, and death. That category mistake makes enemies of God out of political opponents and heretics and apostates out of citizens who dissent from the dominant order.

An elected governor cannot claim a state for Jesus and does not hold the sword of the spirit. And when a governor invokes the language of spiritual warfare in front of the Capitol, we all should see red flags waving.

In Christianity, one sometimes hears the distinction between the church militant and the church triumphant. The former refers to the church on earth, the latter in heaven.

Some Catholics have claimed the church militant term in a radical way: the church is FIGHTING for God and against the enemies of God. That rhetoric has a long, damage-strewn history in the church. And that rhetoric has a long, even-more-damage-strewn history in secular society.

Evangelical Christians, who claim the martyrs Hus and Wycliffe as their own—two men who were pierced by those wielding the two swords—should be as outraged by hearing church militant language by the governor as the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Native American Church, and hosts of other Oklahomans–including many Christians–are by the claim to a power that is not his.

Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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