Freedom of Religion and the Christian Ethics of the Nation-State

Freedom of Religion and the Christian Ethics of the Nation-State

“The Future of Patriotism”

There are a number of questions which animate the current political climate. They are age-old questions as to the function of nations, responsibility of citizens, purview of leaders, and mindset of Christians toward this world. The future of American vitality and its effectiveness in the world will be predicated on how the coming generation answers these questions. Providence exists to provide a forum not only to equip the American mind to engage the real world but also for the coming generation to debate these questions and concerns within the light of Christian convictional history. By having these debates and addressing these questions, it is our hope to be a light of certainty amidst the confusion of this present dark age.

To that end, we wanted to know, is patriotism wrong? Is nationalism valid? What role is there for religion in America? Is religious freedom at odds with liberal democracy? We challenged some leading millennial writers and thinkers to step into the arena and assess their generation and their nation in this current moment.

Other articles in this series include:

Millennial Christians Are Often Wrong about Patriotism,” by Ben Palka
Imagine Nations Were Selfless—It’s No Paradise,” by Brad Littlejohn
Should Nation-States Be Thrown in the Dustbin? Five Issues to Consider,” by Barton Gingerich

Recently, my colleague Travis Wussow and I traveled to the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland, where we spent a week advocating the international community to apply pressure on China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on account of their persecution of religious minorities. Over a few days’ time, we met with over a dozen diplomats, bringing to their attention unspeakable crimes against human beings who dare to worship God in countries that see any authority aside from itself as a threat to its own power.

The week we were there, news out of China told of the arrest of over 100 Chinese Christians, leading to a now-viral post of the church’s arrested pastor, Wang Yi. The reality that religious persecution was happening while we were attempting to bring attention to such plight struck a nerve. For the first time in my life, issues of international religious liberty were no longer simply an abstraction or theoretical. For billions, depending on where you live, freedom of religion and belief (FORB) can mean either life or death, incarceration or liberty. The state and fate of religious freedom, it turns out, hinges on the geography and the drawing of borders that comprise nation-states.

This discussion of freedom of religion and belief is a lesson in the importance of the character and quality of the nation-state one calls home. The disparity in how nations treat their religious citizens is a reminder that, as not all cultures are equal, neither are governments. The US Constitution is a better governing document than the ideology of North Korea’s Juche. Some regimes are barbaric, while others produce an ecology of freedom and tolerance. Regardless of what a regime or government stands for, something underwrites both—their situatedness. What do I mean by “situatedness”?

Every nation-state forms a values-milieu or values-context in which its laws occur. This gives shape or moral grammar to the types of laws instantiated as an expression of the broader cultural mood. As an example, a country that puts less value on the natural family will produce laws allowing for the easy dissolution of the family. Following an Augustinian account of what it means to be a political society fashioned by a “concord regarding loved things held in common,” it is right to insist that “surely it is a better or worse people as it is united in loving things that are better or worse.” Some scholars refer to this as a nation’s “moral ecology.” A nation-state must be aware of the values its inculcating. What this entails, then, is that there is no time-space or geopolitical continuum in which valueless contexts are possible. Every nation-state is going to possess a context that is either hospitable to religious matters or inhospitable. This is true for any other moral or political issue as well.

What does this mean for the Christian—one who inhabits a location and citizenship on earth while also claiming that his or her truest political authority is Jesus Christ and their truest membership is within the body of Christ (Acts 17:6-7; 1 Tim. 3:15)? As a matter of statecraft and Christian political reflection, Christians should desire that their global neighbors inhabit a nation-state and experience an ecology that dignifies human rights, human dignity, and promotes just order in accordance with God’s moral law and creation ordinances.

This is done in hopes of securing what the Founders referred to as “domestic tranquility.” As right as the Founders might be using this turn of phrase, it testifies to a broader, deeper biblical principle that rulers are to “punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:14). The Christian social ethic desires to ennoble that which is “good” in keeping with the rule written on the heart (Rom. 2:14-15). This means indifference or hostility toward the political environments and outcomes that impact our global neighbors is an abdication of Christian social responsibility for our global neighbor. Surely, Jesus’ question of “Who is my neighbor?” beckons the Christian to a sober-minded concern for the nation-state on the global stage. The love of one’s neighbor can never be divorced from the political realities and implications that produce either loving or unloving results.

Within the Christian political tradition, the state is a divine ordinance, necessary even in a sinless state (Rom. 13:1-7). Its ordinance is meant for the good of its people, and thus the social situatedness that Christians find themselves in means there’s a responsibility and a stewardship to see such goods and justice instantiated. The reality of the nation-state is a call to both vigilance, gratitude, and responsibility under the umbrella of God’s providence. A socially responsible Christian ethic understands that the ordinance of the nation-state—even in a fallen world—calls for prophetic scrutiny in hopes that it would be brought back in alignment with civic and moral righteousness.

We’re living in a time where citizens of nearly every country in the world are turning inward and growing suspicious of the international order. But Christians must recognize that, while we have our earthly citizenship, the solidarity of Christian community also means that “citizens of a heavenly kingdom” (Phil. 3:20) transcend the natural limits of the nation-state while also working within the parameters of the nation-state on one another’s behalf. This is a tension that God calls Christians to live in. In lobbying for a more just nation-state for others, I am doing what I hope my Christian brothers and sisters would do for me in the context of their own nation-state (Matt. 7:12). We all have a role to play. The job of the missionary is to proclaim and share the Gospel, and it is the job of the lawyer and ethicist to till the soil of the political conditions that will ripen the context for the Gospel to be spread without hindrance or obstacle. While Christians dutifully insist that God’s Gospel will go forward with his providential decree, it is right to see ourselves as instruments of his will that fight for values within the nation-state that love our neighbor by calling the nation-state to the best, most just form of itself.

Andrew T. Walker lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as the Senior Fellow in Christian Ethics with The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Photo Credit: Catholic Church in China, by Peter Griffin.

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