When the Christian right attacked what was understood to be a recently achieved secular humanist hegemony in American politics and culture, the thrust struck deeper than they imagined. The real target, it turns out, was not a humanist conspiracy of the late twentieth century, but one of the fundamental principles of modern political life.

Modern politics was born, in a more than chronological sense, in the aftermath of the wars of religion. Wolfhart Pannenberg has pointed out that until the seventeenth century it was assumed that uniformity of belief was a prerequisite for orderly social life. After decades of bloodshed, violence, and terror in the wars of religion, however, many came to something like the opposite conviction that, in Pannenberg’s words, “religious passion destroys social peace.” Given a violently divided Christendom, the only sensible solution appeared to be to excise from political life the cause of these horrors-namely, particular theological claims-and to replace them with universally acceptable principles derived from human nature and natural law. Modern politics was thus founded on the principle that religion is a private concern, useful insofar as it inculcates socially approved virtues of toleration and honesty, dangerous if vigorously pressed into the political arena.

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to fault those who arrived at this solution; they were, after all, desperate for peace. Yet, understandable as it may be, the solution is impossible to implement. The notion that politics can function in a religious and theological vacuum is a myth. Politics is concerned with justice; justice is inescapably a moral concept; morality in turn is inescapably religious; and true religion, in the Christian perspective, inescapably includes particular theological commitments. Christianity entails the invariably political announcement that Jesus Christ, not Caesar, is Lord; to concede that political actors may legitimately ignore this highly specific theological claim is nothing less than an abandonment of the Christian position. If the Christian right accomplished nothing else, it should be recognized as an historically significant movement for its frontal assault on the modern myth of value-neutral politics.

It remains to be seen, however, whether this foundational modern principle can be challenged without a reversion to the mayhem of religious war. This dilemma has become particularly acute because, for all its animus toward modernity, the Christian right has made one of the most characteristic of modern political beliefs the foundation of its entire agenda. That assumption is, simply put, that the state has jurisdiction over morals. The fact that the name “Moral Majority” was given to what amounted to a political movement betrays this assumption, as does the “social issues agenda” of the Christian right.

This has not, however, been the traditional teaching of the Church. While the Church has insisted that the justice administered by the state should be rooted in Christian principle, historically the Church had not ceded the oversight of morality as such to the state. Of course, the line between administering justice and correcting morals is blurry, as many lines are. But the difficulty of making a distinction does not mean that no distinction can be made. Augustine, to take one example, disapproved of prostitution, but he did not believe that suppressing it was a proper use of civil authority.

As Ruben Alvarado has recently argued in the Reformed journal Contra Mundum , Christian theology has throughout the ages understood the censura morum to be within the jurisdiction of the Church. The Church, it was believed, could afford to be more flexibly responsive to the nuances and contours of individual situations than the state, and the Church was believed to possess more finely grained tools of correction than the blunt instruments of law and punishment. Alvarado cites the example of German Calvinist political theorist Johannes Althusius, who defined the discipline of morals as “the inquisition into and chastisement of those morals and luxuries that are not prevented or punished by laws, but which corrupt the souls of subjects or squander their goods unproductively.” This inquisition is not the same as legal jurisdiction; rather, it acts “with respect to vices that do not come into the courts because of the lack of an accuser or denouncer, and yet offend the eyes of good and pious citizens. For the sake of example, these vices receive a most serious rebuke and notation, even though recourse is not had to legal punishment.” Though assigned to the Church, this was a public, not a private, ministry, “crucial to public health.”

In the wake of the collapse of the ecclesiastical administration of the censura morum in the modern world, there is nowhere else to turn for the correction of morals than the institutions of law and politics. American politics has thus ceased to be an arena of justice and has instead become the battleground on which moral-cultural issues are contested. Historically, the theory was, as articulated by Zacharias Ursinus, that “the Church . . . looks to the reformation and salvation of the offender; the magistrate to the execution of justice and the public peace.” With the Church no longer fulfilling this public ministry, the penal system fills in the gap by shifting its focus from retribution and restitution to rehabilitation.

Both sides of the culture war operate on the premise that if immorality is to be corrected, it must be made illegal; the war is about whose definition of immorality will prevail. The Christian right’s agenda, as much as that of the ACLU, assumes the rightness of what might be called the “ecclesiasticized state.” A more radically Christian approach would be for the Church to challenge this assumption by reasserting her own jurisdiction over morals. In the pluralistic West, of course, the Church cannot claim to exercise this function over the whole of society. The Church could, however, at least begin by accepting responsibility for her own members.

Revival of the Church’s oversight of morals will not occur without conflict; what I am suggesting is emphatically not an easy way out of our political impasse. Already, suits have been filed against churches attempting to exercise precisely this type of oversight with their own members. Logically, it is difficult to see why the gay rights agenda should stop at the door of the church; churches have already been sued for violating the civil rights of members censured for practicing homosexual sodomy. If abortion is the absolute constitutional right that some claim, churches that censure abortion providers and advocates will eventually be perceived as fundamentally treasonous. Nor can a revival of the Church’s oversight of morals take place in the absence of practical catholicity among the churches. How, after all, can we speak realistically about the churches’ accepting responsibility for their members’ morals when the churches cannot agree on what those morals should be?

For all that, a revival of the Church’s active practice of the censura morum -in short, a revival of the practice of church discipline, including the sanctions of rebuke, censure, and excommunication-would challenge, more consistently than the Christian right has done, the modern assumptions both that religion is strictly private and that the state is competent to correct morals. Such a revival would, moreover, provide some glimmer of hope for avoiding the unhappy choice between renewed religious war and privatization of religion.

Peter J. Leithart is Pastor of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alabaster, Alabama, and author of The Kingdom and the Power (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing).

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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