In the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation during the 1500s, which included various political and religious reformations across Europe, it was not at all clear how Christians in the western world would relate to government. For a long time, the Holy Roman Empire ruled, and the Roman Catholic Church was deeply intertwined with the state. But the structural fragmentation of western Christianity also meant the disintegration of the empire.
When the dust began to settle in the late-1500s, the Roman Catholic Church remained cooperative with the state (at least for a time) in nation-states like France and Italy. But in other places (like Germany, Switzerland, and England), different sorts of Protestants influenced their various political systems. Over time, the shifting tectonic plates of religion and government in Europe resulted in an array of relationships between church and state. And yet, deep into the 18th century, there was no place on earth where religion was completely separate from civil politics.
Sixteenth-century Anabaptists (especially in Switzerland and Southern Germany) were the first recorded Christians to argue for a distinction to be made between the jurisdiction of the state and that of local churches. But these groups made very little headway in changing their political climate. About a hundred years later, Baptists in England were making a similar set of arguments, and there is a hot debate among historians about what connection there might be between early Anabaptists and the Baptists of later centuries. Whatever you might think about a historical connection, later Baptists were quite unlike Anabaptists in their political views.
A small number of English Baptists, following the tradition of John Smyth and the Mennonites, made a sharp distinction between the people and institutions of “the church” and those of “the world.” In their view, church members should have almost nothing to do with politics or civil government. Some Christians still embrace this perspective (to one degree or another), but they are a very small minority today.
Most English Baptists followed the tradition of Thomas Helwys and others, who advocated a distinction for the individual, rather than the whole of society. They distinguished each person as a spiritual and material entity with overlapping interests. Each person ought to engage with the local church on those matters that pertain to one’s “spiritual” life. And each individual ought to participate in the civil institutions of the state with regard for “material” life.
This spiritual-material distinction was coupled with an understanding of the church that placed all members on equal footing. Baptists are congregational in their view of church governance, so an impoverished widow and a wealthy magistrate would both have an equal vote in the most important decisions of a local church. But this dual-citizenship perspective (i.e., simultaneously a citizen of Christ’s kingdom and a citizen of the civil state) provided English Baptists of the 17th century a theological and political foundation for engaging in politics as something distinct from their churches and also as something to be influenced by them.
Across the pond and about a hundred years later, descendants of those English Baptists and colonial Puritans would pick up on and expand this fledgling political theology. And theirs was the substance that shaped the constitutional form of government we have inherited in America. This brief run through history is no argument for any one political theology, but it is evidence that one’s politics will always influence one’s theology and vice versa.
May God help us all to be thoughtful in our engagement with both.