(1) Civil government ought to recognize, protect, and privilege true religion.
(2) The Christian religion is the true religion.
(3) Civil government ought to recognize, protect, and privilege the Christian religion.
Though supported by classical pagan authors (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etc.), the medieval tradition, and the Reformed tradition, the major premise is the most controversial today. I don’t want to fight about its truth here.
But I want to point out that the major premise is a claim not grounded in revealed religion, but in the natural order. It speaks of “true religion” without reference to any particular of true religion. It simply says, whatever is true religion, it ought to receive special treatment from the civil government. Nature supplies the major premise and scripture alone provides the minor.
This means that recognizing, protecting, and privileging the Christian religion by the civil government is ultimately the fulfillment of a command or principle of nature, not the fulfillment of revealed religion or the Gospel. This does not spiritualize the civil realm; nor does it bring heaven to earth. It is also not a transformation of the natural order. Rather, the Christian commonwealth qua Christian fulfills the natural command (of the created order) that civil society ought to recognize, protect, and privilege true religion. It fulfills what was commanded from the beginning: the civil protection of true religion. The Christian society then fulfills not something Christianity commands as a revealed religion, but fulfills the prior, natural principle that civil government has special obligations to true religion.
We must distinguish between natural principles of order and spiritual principles of order. The former is determined by civil merit: the ability to lead humans on earth toward their good as earthly beings. Spiritual merit, however, is the merit of heaven, or the merit of the kingdom of God. It is based on fulfilling the spiritual, internal principles of a good work: that one does what he does to the glory of God in Christ, an internal act that is visible only to God and to be revealed and rewarded in eschaton. This means that the first in the kingdom of God is not necessarily the first in the civil realm, for all legitimate vocations can be done to the glory of God and not all vocations are equal in civil merit (i.e., not all qualify one to be a civil leader).
Civil and spiritual merit are not opposed but they are different such that while the spiritual strengthens the former it is not the ground of the qualifications for civil leadership. In other words, one would prefer a king or civil magistrate whose work is approved by God (due to true, godly intentions) but this approval is not the basis of one’s qualification for civil leadership; rather the ground is outward, civil merit.
This distinction helps us see that the Christian commonwealth does not, on account of its Christianity, have to conflate civil and spiritual merit. The principles of order always remain natural and do not transform to spiritual. The lowly, uneducated, and godly laborer is not on account of his godliness qualified for civil leadership. Still, the commonwealth is distinctively Christian because it recognizes, protects, and privileges true religion.
Since all this follows natural principles, the commonwealth can defend its Christianity through natural means. They can use civil force/coercion to protect (civil/cultural) Christianity when in accordance with prudence. Such a defense does not rely on the Gospel or spiritual weapons, and it need not. Just as its civil Christianity follows natural principles so too does its defense of civil Christianity.
(1) Anything natural to a civil community (i.e., that which is conducive to its natural ends) is in principle worthy of civil defense (through law or social capital).
(2) Religious civil culture is natural to a civil community.
Therefore, (3) Religious civil culture is in principle worthy of civil defense.
Given (3), (4) Christian civil culture is in principle worthy of civil defense.
If sound, this argument justifies civil action, official or unofficial, to protect Christian civil culture by appealing to the natural/created order, not the Gospel. So cultural practices such as manners, gestures, social decorum, expectations for church attendance, etc. can be distinctively Christian and be objects of civil defense, including ensuring intergenerational cultural continuity. Such civil action is justified by appealing to natural principles of good civil order. As with our previous syllogism, this one does not spiritualize the civil realm, bring to heaven to earth, or replace natural principles with spiritual ones. Rather, nature is fulfilled.
In my view, however, since Christianity is the full revelation of God, adopting Christian culture perfects civil society relative to the limits of the natural order by adorning itself with symbols, gestures, language, etc. of the the true God as fully revealed. This perfection again does not alter the fundamental, natural principles of civil order, but it adorns civil society with perfective features.
If the two syllogisms are sound, then human civil society can (and ought to) be distinctively Christian, both in religious establishment and civil culture, and protected by civil action, and none of this necessitates the destruction of the natural principles of civil order.
1. For example, “When a single people speaks the same language and observes the same laws you get a certain feeling of community, because everyone shares the same religious rites and so forth.” Plato, Laws (708c)