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Praying for the Church (Part 4):

After considering the church as a whole, its unity in truth and love, the Prayer for the Church turns to consider the ordering of the Christian community under its rulers, both civil and ecclesiastical. The startling aspect for modern Christians is the prominence of prayer for the Christian rulers of the state. To consider that they belong to the well-ordering of the church’s life is alien to our modes of thought, which under the slogan “separation of church and state” have largely excluded religion from the public sphere, and restricted it to the realm of private emotion.

This exclusion of religion from public life is now taken to be axiomatic; but like many other platitudes of our present public religion, does not stand up to close examination. The founding fathers went further than most other states in majority Christian cultures, in prohibiting the establishment of any church by law (though church establishment did not disappear from individual American states until almost half a century later); yet there is abundant evidence that they wanted chiefly to prevent one church from gaining advantage over the other by use of the state’s apparatus. Separating the governing structures of church and state was one thing – separating religion from public life quite another. They are frequently emphatic on the point that a democratic republic is only possible where religion shapes the morals of the people – and by religion, they meant, at the very least, a theistic religion of creation, providence, and judgment, one which could be filled by Christianity, Judaism, and Deism. The Founders, in short, held to the traditional Christian view (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2), that church and state are interdependent institutions. The church needs the state (for the protection of religious freedom, without which the gospel mission cannot be fulfilled), and the state needs the church (for education of its citizens in virtue, without which tyranny is inevitable).

The scriptural anchor for this view is the same Pauline exhortation from 1 Timothy 2 that the Prayer has already quoted, that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men”, and especially “for kings, and for all that are in authority” (1 Tim 2:2). In his letter to Timothy, Paul is instructing him to pray for pagan emperors like Nero – and that “we [Christians] may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty”; but the English Prayer Books ask God “to save and defend all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governours; and specially thy Servant N. our Queen; that under her we may be godly and quietly governed”. The words “quiet” and “godly” have moved from the people governed, to the one governing. What we have here therefore is a doctrine of the Christian prince, who as the chiefest member of the Church has a duty to uphold its true faith and worship. There is a lot to be said for the doctrine of the Christian prince, but given the separation of governing structures of church and state in the American constitution, the American revisers were right to excise the English formulation (though it would have been preferable if they had replaced it with language closer to the original formulation of 1 Timothy 2:2 – “that under them we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty”.)

Yet having thus denied the civil government power over the church (or any particular church advantage over the others through alliance with the state), the American revisers did keep the rest of the English petition for the civil rulers, that God would “direct and dispose the hearts of all Christian Rulers, [so] that they may truly and impartially administer justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue”. I think this is to be construed thus: that when the civil rulers of a Christian society, who themselves can be presumed to be Christians (at least by profession), uphold justice as they ought, then wickedness and vice will be punished, and true religion and virtue will flourish. The wording accommodates the expectation that a democratic republic in a Christian society has a duty to protect moral order and religious freedom for the proclamation of Christian truth.

Whether this classically American understanding of the relation of church and state can be maintained in the face of the rapid cultural and religious changes in American society is a good question: that we should be praying for its continuance and renewal is not.