Protestantism was birthed in the 16th century as a grassroots movement to reform the existing church. Soon it exploded into a division separate from the Catholic Church. The reformation made its mark on Catholicism as well as causing important renewal to take place. However the rise of the protestant church had a tumultuous phase before it found peaceful co-existence with Catholicism.
I am currently reading a book on the history of the reformation entitled “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea” by Alister McGrath. I am only a third of the way through the book at this time. However, my mind is arrested with the thoughts concerning the drama of the reformation period of history.
I did not previously realize that so much political angst marked the early days of the reformation. Political leaders, governors, Kings, Queens, etc. were dictating what flavor of Christianity their country would align itself with. Some broke off their political allegiances with the pope and established a protestant variant as the religion of the land only to switch back to Catholicism when the next royal took the throne. Kings and Queens were even dictating doctrine and had their hands heavily involved in what the beliefs would be of their respective lands. Basically they were dictating what beliefs best supported their thinking and their power.
Injustices that occurred during the reign of Mary Tudor or other Royals who persecuted those who were not of the state religion were not as I once thought actions of the church that were contrary to the Christian faith, but actions of government that had nothing to do with the Christian faith. It would seem that much of what occurred was politics and not condoned by the church. Not that the church wasn’t involved in the politics of the day vying for state approval, it certainly was involved it would seem. However, in all I read about the turmoil of the age, it all seemed to have little to do with the Gospel and much to do with politics.
As an American used to not having the government tell me how I must believe, it seems so foreign a concept to have the governing authorities dictate religion to the people. However, America is the great exception to the normal way of things in this world. It was because of the problematic policies of Europe that our Founders sought to protect the church from government meddling. Constantine is not seen as a favorable ruler by many American Christians for we do not think the church ought to have ever been enjoined to the state in such a manner.
To have the government dictate religious belief seems akin to going to the doctor to have your car tuned up. Religion might have something to say about governing such as providing leadership principals, ethics, philosophical grounds for laws etc, but the government doesn’t have any jurisdiction dictating religion. It is precisely because religion had something to say that the government was given this restriction. Jefferson wrote so eloquently that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Thus, the Founders believed, our freedom is inextricably tied to our God given unalienable right to liberty and thus the government of America limited itself to make no law regarding the establishment of religion.
I am grateful to live in a nation that values the market place of ideas. I am glad that people don’t have to believe the way their government institutes and that we are free to believe in accordance with our own reason and faith as we choose whether that be Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Atheists, Agnostic, or in Flying Spaghetti Monsters. Certainly there are beliefs that are better for a society than another, but a free society is better than one whose beliefs are forced.
As a Christian, it would be unethical for me to support a nation that dictates everyone be Christian. I will stand for the freedom of others of other worldviews just as quickly as I would stand for Christians to enjoy this freedom. God gave us the freedom from the beginning of time to choose our own path and it’s not for me to impose restrictions on humanity God did not impose in all His wisdom and power. True love is only known through freedom, I wouldn’t want a world where love couldn’t be fully experienced.