It wasn’t the only reason, but it was the biggest—when abortion was legalized in Canada in 1969, and in the US in 1973, North American Christians got heavily involved in politics. And as they did, they were criticized for “violating the separation of church and state.” The other side—the secular humanists—used this jargon to try to delegitimize the Christian opposition to their agenda.
The accusation that Christian activism violates the separation of church and state is simply false. The church and the state are separate institutions, and they remain entirely separate even when Christians engage society from an explicitly Christian perspective. Christians are citizens and have just as much right to participate in society and politics as anyone else.
While it’s not hard to understand why secularists don’t want Christians bringing their faith with them into the political realm, it is a mystery as to why some Christians will also accuse explicitly Christian politicians and political activists of violating the separation of church and state. One such example is the book A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State by Darryl G. Hart (Ivan R Dee, 2006). This book is noteworthy because Hart is a well-known elder in the OPC. He speaks for a constituency within the OPC and other conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America.
Religion out of politics = impossible
The basic thrust of this book is perhaps best stated by one of the endorsements on its dust jacket. Respected Christian historian Mark Noll writes, “Darryl Hart is a serious Christian who wants to get religion out of politics.”
It’s important to notice the difference between two different concepts specified here. Hart’s book title talks about the separation of church and state. Noll’s description of the book mentions getting “religion out of politics.” These are not the same thing.
The separation of church and state refers to organizational and functional separation between two entirely different institutions. The separation of church and state is a good thing, and it is Biblical because the Bible establishes both the church and the state as separate entities with different purposes and functions.
Separating religion from politics is a completely different matter. Religion is (generally speaking) a belief system whereas politics consists of activities associated with the government. Separation of religion and politics is impossible, because all political activity is based on ethical concepts that are rooted in religious ideas.
When someone is discussing these kinds of issues, and switches back and forth between “separation of church and state” and “separation of religion and politics” as if the two concepts meant the same thing (like Hart does in this book), confusion is the result—confusion in the reader’s mind to be sure, and one wonders if it also reflects confusion or fuzzy thinking in the writer’s mind.
Back to when faith “knew its place”
Towards the beginning of the book Hart states his purpose this way: “My argument is that the basic teachings of Christianity are virtually useless for resolving America’s political disputes, thus significantly reducing, if not eliminating, the dilemma of how to relate Christianity and American politics” (p. 11). Christianity, in his view, is a private, personal religion. You practice your Christianity in your family and your church, but certainly not in the political sphere.
Hart claims that those who advocate a distinctly Christian approach to politics are being unbiblical. His purpose is to straighten them out: “I want those advocates of Christianity’s public role and political responsibility to take seriously Jesus Christ’s own words when he said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ At one time in American history, sixty or so years ago, evangelical Protestants knew that those words involved an ambivalence about the rulers and principalities of this world. Now otherworldliness seems a fossil of an older time when faith knew its place” (pp. 12-13).
Christ Himself said that His kingdom “is not of this world.” Therefore, in Hart’s view, Christ’s kingdom has nothing to do with government and politics. Christianity is ambivalent about politics. As Hart sees it, Christianity needs to become otherworldly again and get back in “its place,” that is, in the closet rather than in the public arena.
In arguing thusly, Hart recognizes that he is advocating a view at odds with John Calvin. As he puts it, “To say that using Christianity for political purposes is a distortion of the faith is of course to dissent not only from Jerry Falwell or Jim Wallis but also from much more significant church luminaries, from parts of John Calvin to the encyclicals of John Paul II” (pp. 16-17). His position, then, consciously differs from the evangelical position, the historic Reformed position, as well as the Roman Catholic position.