Late in 1821, Rev. Frederick Schaeffer presided over the cornerstone laying of a new building for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Matthew* in New York City. Afterward, he sent his homily to James Madison, the “Father of the U.S. Constitution,” and chief author of the Bill of Rights.
Pastor Schaeffer’s address was rather strongly Lutheran, in spite of the general weakness of American Lutheranism prior to 1840. Madison replied:
Montpellier, Dec. 3rd ,1821
Revd Sir,–I have received, with your letter of November 19th, the copy of your address at the ceremonial of laying the corner-stone of St Matthew’s Church in New York.
It is a pleasing and persuasive example of pious zeal, united with pure benevolence and of a cordial attachment to a particular creed, untinctured with sectarian illiberality. It illustrates the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations. The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.
In return for your kind sentiments, I tender
assurances of my esteem and my best wishes.
Schaeffer had struck several notes that resonated with Madison, so much so that the aging former president and constitutional patriarch noted “a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations.” Wow. The drafter of the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”), wrote, “The genius and courage of Luther led the way.”
What is the “due distinction” “between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God”? This is a reference to Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine. Historic, pre-Reformation Catholicism perpetuated the myth of the “Donation of Constantine”–that the Emperor Constantine (ca. A.D. 317) had given authority to the papacy to rule the Roman Empire, and that the Church was supposedly given the divine right and authority to govern both itself and the world. This was used to justify all sorts of mischief through the centuries following, where the Church meddled in governmental affairs and vice versa.
A second approach emerged at the time of the Reformation among the so-called radical reformers. They asserted that society should be ruled only by the Bible. This led to either a radical withdrawal from participation in civil society (e.g., the Amish), or to the view that a “Christian government” is needed to institute biblical principles upon society (e.g., the Puritans and their legacy). The views of both the Roman Catholic as well as the radical reformers resulted in a “mixing the kingdoms.”
Luther’s view, however, is unique. In view of texts like “The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32) and “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” (Matt. 22:21), Luther asserted that the conscience, the religious convictions of the individual Christian, belong to God and not the government. The Bible teaches two distinct realms.
The “right hand” realm or kingdom is that of the Church. In this kingdom there is to be no coercion, no force, no corporal punishment. It is a kingdom ruled solely by the Word of God in service to the Gospel of Christ. “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). It is a kingdom whose glory is hidden in weakness, small numbers, persecution, reviling, etc. It makes no sense to reason whatsoever–things like “the resurrection of the body,” “baptismal regeneration,” “the body and blood of Christ,” in the Lord’s Supper, etc.
The “left hand” kingdom is temporal government. This kingdom, too, is established by God (Rom. 13:1–7). It flows form the Fourth Commandment (“Honor thy father and mother”). This kingdom operates not by revelation, but by reason or natural law. The Gentiles, “when they do the things of the law, demonstrate that the law is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14) The governing authorities “do not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:4). Temporal government is established by God for maintaining good order, peace, to thwart evil (by just war and other means), etc. When government forbids the Gospel, however, or commands us to act against a Christian conscience informed by the inerrant Word of God, then “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
When natural law or reason is functioning properly, it agrees with the Ten Commandments. In fact, the law “written on the heart” is the point of contact with the Law revealed in the Ten Commandments. That’s why the preaching of the Law hits home with people who don’t know Christ. God designed it that way as preparation for the Gospel! When it is commonly said that America was founded as a “Christian Nation,” that is only true in the sense that the overwhelming number of the founders were Christians, and that they recognized the benefit Christianity affords government.
Our founders recognized that “Christian morality” agreed with reason and natural law (law evident to any reasonable person). What was new in America was that there was no nationally established church or religion. But from the beginning, the national government was favorably oriented toward religion and acted to promote it. Even Jefferson (who moved from Deism to Unitarianism) went to church every Sunday of his presidency at Christian services held in the House Chambers! Offering government facilities today for services would be viewed by many secularists and courts as a gross violation of the “separation of church and state.” Yet, there are dozens of such examples of our founders recognizing the great blessing of religion. For the government to thwart religion–so far as it contributes to morality and peace (and this is why orthodox Islam is problematic)–is foolish and self-destructive.
As James Madison indicated to Pastor Schaeffer, our founders had a view of the relationship of church and state that was much closer to Luther than that of modern secularists. The Church serves the state by providing a moral, charitable and decent people. The state serves the Church by providing peace and order, a context in which religious ends may prosper. The state is not to legislate matters of religious conscience. The church is not to meddle in the affairs of the state, nor is it to expect the state to operate according to anything other than sound reason.
“Luther rendered greater services to mankind. . . . At present it is more extensively admitted than formerly that no religious or political institution can be salutary and prosperous, unless it is established on the principles for which he become the successful champion.”
I agree with Pastor Schaeffer . . . and James Madison.