When the Government Plays God: The Threat of ‘Statism’ to Christianity in America

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“I posed this question to him: ‘Dr. Schaeffer, what is your biggest concern for the future of the church in America?’ Without hesitation, Dr. Schaeffer turned to me and spoke one word: ‘Statism.’”

R.C. Sproul

Here, There be Threats

What’s the biggest threat facing Christianity in America today? If you asked 10 different people you would probably get 10 different answers. Some would say that it’s the erosion of our religious liberty and other social freedoms. Others may respond that it’s the aggressive efforts of religiously-hostile secularism, which aims to entirely out-group Christians from society for our “regressive” views on marriage and sexual morality. More ecclesiological-minded Christians might point to the rise of pragmatism and the decline of meaningful membership and discipline in local churches.

Shout into the dark hollows of progressive Christianity and no doubt you will hear the repeated refrain of “Christian nationalism” echo back from the netherworld. Still, others would pull up statistics on declining church attendance and religious affiliation by younger generations, captured by the rise of the “nones,” an “attention-grabbing phrase used to describe the well-documented increase in the percentage of Americans who, when queried by survey researchers about their religious identification, say ‘none.’”

But what if the threat has less to do with the decline of faith commitments or First Amendment freedoms (as concerning as those are) and more to do with the ascendance of an alternative and competing faith system altogether? One could call it the advent of a new idolatry. But instead of a golden calf that’s getting worshiped, it’s the government. Perhaps more than the rise of the nones, it’s the rise of a dangerously misinformed but rapidly metastasizing vision of government — of the state — which is increasingly held by Americans across our country, both Christians and non-Christians alike, that’s at the root of our peril and predicament. 

If so (and judge for yourself), then Francis Schaeffer saw it coming. As did R.C. Sproul. In fact, Schaeffer prophetically predicted the advent of this idolatry to a young Sproul, all while grabbing a ride in a yellow taxi cab together in the late 1970s. And what is this issue, exactly? What did Schaeffer see as the biggest threat, or concern, for the future Christians in America? With what moniker shall we label this modern monstrosity of a reborn Baal, this replacement god? 

One word: Statism.

Schaeffer, Sproul, and Statism: An Alliterative and Elucidating Encounter

In 2008, R.C. Sproul, that late, great Reformed pastor, preacher, and philosopher, published an eponymous article entitled “Statism.” In this piece, he recollects that cab ride and the ensuing interchange he had with Schaeffer about the future faith in America. He writes:

“About thirty years ago, I shared a taxi cab in St. Louis with Francis Schaeffer. I had known Dr. Schaeffer for many years, and he had been instrumental in helping us begin our ministry in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, in 1971. Since our time together in St. Louis was during the twilight of Schaeffer’s career, I posed this question to him: ‘Dr. Schaeffer, what is your biggest concern for the future of the church in America?’ Without hesitation, Dr. Schaeffer turned to me and spoke one word: ‘Statism.’ Schaeffer’s biggest concern at that point in his life was that the citizens of the United States were beginning to invest their country with supreme authority, such that the free nation of America would become one that would be dominated by a philosophy of the supremacy of the state.” 

Now, I’m neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet (my dad’s an environmental scientist) but Schaeffer sure sounds like one here. He was ready with a Raylan Givens-esque quick-pull trigger response to Sproul, letting that one word fire from his lips at the slightest prompt: Statism. 

Sproul, reflecting further on the conversation, goes on to define the term and raises his concern that the American experiment is indeed drifting from “statehood to statism.” Sproul explains that “in statism, we see the suffix ‘ism,’ which indicates a philosophy or worldview…[this] happens when the government is perceived as or claims to be the ultimate reality. This reality then replaces God as the supreme entity upon which human existence depends.”

In short, statism is when the government replaces God.

The Golden Calf of Government

Statism is when the state tries to play God. Or tries to be God. Or goes all the way and declares that it is God. Statism is what happens when the collective hubris of modern man joins forces to resurrect the tower of Babel, except this time instead of a tower to heaven, it’s bureaucrats building a monument to two years’ worth of inerrant and inspired CDC guidelines. It’s like when Fauci said, “I am the science.” Except this is when the government just says, “I am.” It’s when the state demands your worship, your service, your all. Statism is when the media plays the “horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music” and the bureaucrats demand that you “fall down and worship” before the shrine of our sacred democracy. Statism was a distant threat a few decades ago — statism is the enemy breaching our gates today.

Schaeffer also seemed to understand why, in the American context, this was such an ever-present concern for the United States, why “we the people,” of all people, might be so predisposed to one day find the sharp barb of statism in the Achilles heel of our form of government. In A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer explained,

“The Reformation worldview leads in the direction of government freedom. But the humanist worldview with inevitable certainty leads in the direction of statism. This is so because humanists, having no god, just put something at the center, and it is inevitably society, government, or the state.”

Statism, then, is the religion of a secular theocracy. And in a secular theocracy, our high-ranking bureaucrats see themselves as a new class of high priests. They might wear plastic badges instead of priestly garments, but they certainly intend to mediate between “god” and man all the same. They are the sacred protectors of The Truth and The Way and The Science. Salvation, in such a system, is found in no other name than government alone. When you disagree, it’s not just dissent, it’s heresy. I would suggest this framework helps better explain the last 2 years in America. Yet Schaeffer saw it on the horizon almost 52 years prior. 

Citizen, Know Thyself

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu tells all future Alexanders, Washingtons, and Eisenhowers, that “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 

We ask, then, who is the enemy here? It’s the worldview, the philosophy, the belief that the state is the “supreme entity upon which human existence depends.” The enemy is the idea that “every good and perfect gift comes down” to us not from the hands of our Heavenly Father, but by the benevolent decree of Daddy Government. 

Ok, the enemy is an idea. It’s something abstract until men and women actualize it in the real world. And the enemy is certainly also those who intentionally foist this way of life upon our nation and neighbors. Unfortunately, an increasing number of our fellow Americans have been infected with this worldview. They’ve been assimilated into the Borg Hive Mind, captured by the Collective Consciousness. They are triple-jabbed, double-boosted, double-masked vax passport-holders, shuffling toward us chanting, “Resistance is futile.” Yet bear in mind these folks are not the enemy. No, they are casualties. If we defeat statism, we may yet restore them to free-thinking and freedom-loving citizens, helping them shake off the decay like Théoden shakes free from the poisonous effects of Gríma Wormtongue in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers

But who are we? We are Christians. We are those who have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” and possessors of “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven” for us (1 Peter 1:3-4). We aren’t slaves of the sovereign state, we are Sons and Daughters of the King, co-heirs with Christ. We are kings and queens, and “once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia,” as C.S. Lewis put it. As Christians, we know that God is sovereign over all the affairs of man and that “there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). While the secularists may aim to fill that God-sized gap in their lives with the government, as Christians, we have forsaken such underhanded and foolish ways. This of course does not make us anarchists but instead grounds our feet in the soft and green grass of the real world. We look at life under the sun and see our President, as powerful as he may be, and our governors, mayors, congressmen, and even dog catchers, and we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are not sovereign nor shall they ever be sovereign. We may often obey them — but we will never worship them. 

At this point, acquaintances are made all around. The ice is broken. Appetizers eaten. Small talk made. We know who the enemy is. We know who we are. And regrettably, to a certain degree, we have found ourselves in the same predicament of Pogo the Possum: We have met the enemy and he is us. Not us as Christians on the whole, if we have possession of our right minds and fighting spirits, as I made clear. But sadly, for us as Americans generally. And indeed, in many ways, Christians, too, succumb to the worship of the state, when we find ourselves enticed by the false promises of Leviathan.

Render to God: The Christian Response to Statism

But if knowing is only half the battle, what is the other half? Fighting it! So, here are three closing considerations on how Christians can resist statism.

First, in the American political context, we fight statism by constantly reminding the representatives of the state to stay firmly put in their proper place. 

That place, like the waves of the sea fixed by the hand of the Almighty, where we say “This far you may come and no farther,” is the boundaries fixed by the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. 

Every single elected official is beneath the Constitution — and we must never let them forget it. When Paul tells Roman Christians to submit to the governing authorities, that meant something different for them than it does for us. Not in the spirit of the command, but in the context and the application. Americans don’t have a Caesar; we have a Constitution, and it is high time we remembered that and acted accordingly. Last I checked (which was about five minutes ago) that same Constitution, which is the highest governing authority of our nation, still grants us every bit of freedom of religion under the First Amendment that it did the moment the ink dried on September 17, 1787. Want to fight statism? The next time the government tries to tell you to close your church while it leaves the local liquor store open, you let your mayor know that service is at 10:30 a.m. and he is welcome to join. Masks optional. 

Second, lend a hand in smashing to smithereens the absurd myth of a neutral public square. 

You know this idea: That the Christian is free to come out into public and argue for what he thinks is best, but he must do so on the grounds of pure reason, sheer logic, mere persuasion — but no metaphysical truth claims, thank you very much. God said men are men and not women? Theonomist! But the truth is that the public square, digital or physical, has never been neutral. Everyone worships. Everyone has a faith claim — even, and often, the most committed atheists, humanists, and secularists among us. There is no neutral public square, there is only the “battleground of gods,” as one theologian has put it.

This means it’s imperative that, when you enter the arena to debate the good of society, you must reach down underground and pull up all of the epistemological cables the statists seek to conceal. Because in this era of expressive individualism and increasing antipathy towards metaphysical faith claims, the myth of the “neutral public square,” in fact, tilts the debate in favor of the secularist who claims to not be advocating for a “religious” view. In light of our nation’s mixed Christianity-plus-Enlightenment heritage, as well as our often-misunderstood cardinal virtue of the separation of church and state, far too many “well-meaning” but perhaps not quite “sharp-thinking” Christians (many of them lovely members of our own local churches) wrongly believe that Christians should insist on using government to order the moral imagination and set the boundaries for the good of our shared civic life.

They continue to delude themselves into viewing the public square in America as a neutral landscape, where anyone can make a reason-based argument for their vision of the public good, and those who make the best-but-God-less public arguments can carry the day. The reality is that all of governing is inherently moral, and never an exercise of pure reason. 

Because this is so, Christians sorely need to stop hamstringing themselves in the public debate. We must train ourselves to begin ignoring whatever previously wrong-footed instinct we obey when we try to hide our religiously-informed truth claims out of fear of being charged with “trying to impose our morality on others through the law.” The appropriate answer to this accusation, if and when it’s flung at us as some sort of devasting silencer, is to smile and say “Yes, absolutely I am. And you are too. Let’s not pretend otherwise.”

Third, and finally, we render to God that which is God’s. 

Which, for the Christian, is everything. We owe a certain, even robust and healthy, degree of allegiance to our nation because this is where God has us in the here and now, and that is wholly good and appropriate. We may send in some taxes, with a wince and a whistle, as part of our stewardship. But we do so knowing both of those acts — and a million others — are done in service to the one, true ruler: Jesus Christ. God made us, not the state. Therefore God owns us, not the government. What a blessed reminder this is, that we can “know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100:3).

When we remind ourselves of who the Sovereign of the Universe is, the one who holds the world in the palm of His hand, we won’t be tempted to give the government a greater weight or role than it is due. Instead, we will fight like mad to beat it back into its proper place whenever we see it stretching out its golden hand to take the throne and set itself up as an idol. 

Sproul knew this would be a fight. After all, governments don’t have a great track record of happily limiting themselves to a small space. For the statists, seizing the greener grass on the other side of the fence won’t ever willingly stop at the doors to the church. With this in mind, Sproul concluded his 2008 reflections on the memorable moment with Schaeffer like so:

“Throughout the history of the Christian church, Christianity has always stood over against all forms of statism. Statism is the natural and ultimate enemy to Christianity because it involves a usurpation of the reign of God. If Francis Schaeffer was right — and each year that passes makes his prognosis seem all the more accurate — it means that the church and the nation face a serious crisis in our day. In the final analysis, if statism prevails in America, it will mean not only the death of our religious freedom, but also the death of the state itself. We face perilous times where Christians and all people need to be vigilant about the rapidly encroaching elevation of the state to supremacy.”

There can only be one Sovereign. One Supreme Power. One God. One Lord. One Savior. And it’s not the nameless and faceless state. It’s the embodied and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. I trust the last few years have made this clear, but we would indeed all do well to heed this warning from our friends Francis and R.C., to stand guard against statism, that sworn and natural enemy to Christianity, and to do so by worshiping God, and God alone.