As we mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this month, there are problems with its legacy. Martin Luther had the courage to teach many crucial doctrines. But in one area, Luther did not carry his reforms far enough.
He maintained the link between church and state.
In 1517, throne and altar were joined together everywhere in Europe, so that God lent the monarch legitimacy and the monarch lent God muscle. But the bargain attached God’s name to the petty corruption of politics, as well as to the state’s wars.
The Reformation, then, was more than a theological split in Europe. It up-ended the political map. Germany became a literal battlefield during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), a murderous conflict over Protestant and Catholic turf that sucked many nations into its maw. Germany’s recovery took a century.
There was more bloodshed. The English Civil War (1642–1651) was another conflict about political power dressed in pious language. The warfare even found its way to America in the French and Indian War (1754–1763), as the colonists feared Catholic power in their backyard.
To give spiritual power to the state is to start an arms race. Once we dictate to people’s consciences by force, blood flows. That is why our nation refused to establish a state church: we would never have a more perfect union without freedom.
My own tradition belongs to a colorful mashup of “free churches” not tied to any state, emphasizing that God’s Spirit overcomes laws and guns.
More bluntly, we dissent every time the government seeks power over belief. If someone claims that “Christianity” is at war with “Islam,” we counter that the U.S. government does not fight for Christ. If someone wants public school teachers to lead prayers, we counter that the government has no right to give spiritual leadership.
And if we won’t link church and state to “advance” religion, we certainly won’t accept attempts to control our beliefs about sexuality, or force us to pay for abortions, or regulate how we can express our beliefs.
Look at the violence that increasingly surrounds protests in our country. Whether we realize it or not, we are deciding if we’ll still respect freedom of conscience for all, or if we’ll go back to settling our debates with guns.
Religious liberty is the first liberty, the foundational liberty, that holds us together.