Anglican Political Theology

James Clark recently reviewed The Case for Christian Nationalism at The North American Anglican. He rightly noted that “contemporary effort to formulate an alternative political vision to liberal democracy has been underway for some time now” and that “much of the constructive literature thus far has been produced by Roman Catholics, with little comparable work being done by Protestants.” Most importantly, he noted that The Case for Christian Nationalism included propositions fundamentally at odds with important Anglican particulars.

Clark’s review prompts several important questions. Do Anglicans have a political theology? And perhaps, in our own time when political theology is all the rage among conservative Protestants, do Anglicans need a political theology? This essay is a short attempt to answer both questions, answers that are admittedly from a historian and not a political scientist. The question of the necessity of political theology seems particularly important in an era of polarization wherein politics have increasingly fractured ecclesiastical communities. Litigating the question according to the theological commitments of Reformed Christians or the socio-religious commitments of so-called Evangelicals is alien and inappropriate for Anglicans. We have our own tradition, and it’s there where we should look to understand our political theology.

When the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States was born in the aftermath of the American Revolution, its leadership acceded to the republican and liberal commitments of the new American union to the degree they believed possible in accordance with Scripture. Church of England and subsequently Episcopal laypeople were well-represented in Constitutional Convention that wrote the United States’ basic law. And they were at least willing to tolerate—with varying degrees of grousing or enthusiasm—disestablishment. Tolerating disestablishment did not mean liking it; the effective theft of church lands by the Commonwealth of Virginia occurred over the protest of rectors who nonetheless recognized their relative political impotence in an era of rising Evangelical—Baptist or Methodist usually—numbers in Virginia and across the new republic. By necessity, Christian realism defined Episcopal political theology.

Realism over aspiration distinguished Episcopalians from other Protestant sects. Clark rightly noted in his review that Anglican audiences should be concerned regarding the book’s “affirmation of the ‘right to revolution,’ which takes on heightened significance in light of the larger question of how Christians might make the ideas in Wolfe’s book a reality.” In particular, Clark took issue with the assertion “that in many nations, including the United States, the failure to enforce Christianity via civil power is ’a problem of will rather than numbers.’” Clark did not see how this conclusion was reached and neither do I, “given that the current percentage of Protestant Christians in the United States is estimated to be around 40%, and this is before subtracting all the apostate, mainline denominations.”

Episcopal leadership in the Nineteenth Century United States adopted a grave and sober recognition that the religious settlement in the United States was here to stay. There was no return to a national establishment. That did not mean, said Bishop Nathaniel Bowen, that disestablishment was moral, biblical, or even prudential. He recognized that seminarians, priests, and bishops all had important questions regarding the relationship between church and state in the American order. He addressed these concerns in a speech at General Seminary in New York City in 1836:

It is not to be supposed, my friends, that in contemplating the Christian ministry for your calling, you have not adverted to its condition in reference to the governments under which we live. The question is not here to be touched, whether in its provisions, where religion is concerned, the constitution of the United States has been settled in the best and wisest manner that it could have been, as to an interest universally admitted to be vitally important to the civil state; nor whether in reference to that interest, the silence of the constitutions, in particular of the States, best consists with sound and wholesome policy. It is enough for us to avail ourselves of the freedom of action to which we are left, for the advancement of that interest, according to our impression of the principles of which it consists; and rejoice in any degree and manner in which we may see it minister to the happiness and welfare of our country.

Bowen and his fellow bishops recognized that the American order was a settled fact, for better or worse. They did not fall prey to a quietism that denied their ability to change their society or to work for its good. Bowen’s admonition to his charges was predicated on them using their ministries to better society, their fellow man, and their parishioners to affect the happiness and welfare of their century. This was not running or hiding from society’s potential ills, but a recognition that the church would change society in a churchly way, and not through a Protestant caesaropapism.[1]

Bishop George Washington Doane addressed objections to prayers for the state by noting St Paul gave “’the reason why we should pray for all that are in authority,’—a reason which ever must exist, and be of equal force whatever be the form of government.” Doane wrote that in the American republic in his own day, there was an “increased necessity for fervent supplication for our rulers.” He found it hard to imagine that any Christian could believe “any possible apology for the omission of that duty.” For Episcopalians and for Anglicans generally “the prayer in question, and the prayer for Congress… gather with each renewed use of them new interest.” The bishop confidently believed that “to the Church…the state must ever look, for that prevailing intercession with the Arbiter of nations, without which national power is but national corruption, and national prosperity the hectic flush that harbingers national decay and ruin.”[2]

The Anglicans of the American Republic were not quietists nor were they convinced—like Baptists and Presbyterians in the era—that church and state were entirely disconnected. But they also did not look to an Anglican-led revolution to secure lost ecclesiastical rights, nor to an Episcopal Caesar to restore the church’s previous status. Instead, they relied on churchly workings within the flawed liberal republican framework that they nonetheless—in the words of St Paul echoed by Bishop Doane—still believed was ordained by God.[3]

Notes

  1. Nathaniel Bowen, Address delivered at the Commencement of the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States (New York: Protestant Episcopal Press, 1836), 6.
  2. George Washington Doane, The Life and Writings of George Washington Doane, D.D. LL.D. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1860), 132-33.
  3. Doane, 133.

 



Miles Smith is a historian of the American South and the Atlantic World. He has taught at Hillsdale College, Regent University, and Texas Christian University. His research interests and his writing focus on intellectual life and religion in the Nineteenth Century United States and Europe. He lives in Hillsdale, Michigan.


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