This is a supporting draft to a conference held at Aberdeen University in 2015.

"Creating a holistic context as a basis for a defensible understanding of the categories of religion and state."


Michael Macneil MSc BSc(Hons) PGCE BD(hons), University of Bangor, mmacneill123@gmail.com


The purpose of this essay is to review why we are where we are with the categories of religion and state, why this obscures what should be important in them and posits an approach to reforming the institutions.  The essay is unapologetically theological but believes that a theological perspective as provided by reinterpreting the biblical narrative, helps delineate clearly the barriers and roles of religion and state.  The object of our study should not just be to analyse and describe accurately but to offers a prescription for reformation.  This early draft is humbly submitted to the reader on that basis.


The categories of Church and State or their corollaries religion and politics are vexed and involved questions.  One of the fundamental problem with these categories is their fluid, imprecise and contextual meaning.  As Goldenberg notes:

“…the terms ‘religion’ and ‘state’ [are] concepts that do not denote a singular or consistent meaning throughout their linguistic and political history.  The significance of both words shifts considerably through time and continues to change.” [1]

What one might mean as a theologian is very different to what one may mean as an anthropologist or a sociologist.  The political left Tribune editorial once labelled anyone with a religious belief as “mentally ill” [2] and Professor Dawkins would like to charge religious parents with “child abuse” [3] unless they “teach religion” as a vestigial [4] or primitive state of understanding.  However, the problem becomes compounded by the religious frame of reference itself – what one will understand by these terms as a conservative evangelical or as a Christian socialist are different.  Indeed the latter category is for many British a peculiar oxymoron and for an American an outright contradiction but it cannot be denied that this category has a rich history documented for example in Omrod [5] and still enjoys a persistent though contested presence with Tribune some 70 years after the polemic cited previously [6] .


Goldenberg identifies the possible shortcomings in our current conceptions of Church and State, it is required that we ‘[productively interrogate] the evolution of the putative separateness [7] .     We are at once wedded to our philosophical grid and consequently restricted by the desire to analyse.  In the name of effective analysis there is the need to create the objective criteria so that they are amenable to analysis and it is then possible to present our “evidence based beliefs” which are viewed of intrinsically more valuable than non-evidence based beliefs.  This of course works well within a closed epistemological system of “natural science” and perhaps most famously has delivered for humanity the technological revolution of the 20th century where within fifty years rural farms went from horse and cart to 4x4.  Evidence based becomes synonymous with scientific and the scientific gives birth to scientism [8] in which the only questions worth asking are those which science can answer [9] :

‘the success of this system of [scientific] knowledge shows up every day…the only proper alternative, when there is no evidence, is not a mere suspension of belief…it is disbelief…atheism is obligatory in the absence of any [scientific] evidence...’ [10]

This desire for certainty drove the engine of logical positivism that took the anglophile academic world by storm with the publication of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic in the 1930s.  Ayer, who made the first definitive statement of logical positivism in the English language was to write, “ the propositions of philosophy are not factual, but linguistic in character” [11] and that “philosophy” should be considered a part of science [12] .  The father of positivism [13] was Wittgenstein and it was by interpreting some of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy [14] that gave positivism its framework and its early confidence.  Wittgenstein “solved” the problems of philosophy by simply demonstrating they resulted from a confusion of language:

“what can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak [clearly] one must be silent, [to speak] the other side of this limit will be simply nonsense…when someone...wished to say something metaphysical [you] demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions…whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. [15]

Wittgenstein’s analysis rested on a linguistic theory of strong logical form.  Any utterance to be meaningful had to have a correspondence with physical reality and was adopted within positivism as the ‘verification principle’.  For the positivists, this dispensed with all metaphysical propositions and had theologians, social scientists, philosophers, psychologists and sociologists in near intellectual panic at falling foul of this “verification principle” and the scramble for empirical evidence.  Ayer asserted that traditional metaphysical propositions in the philosophy of religion, such as talk of a transcendent Being, vanish from philosophy as literally “nonsensical ...entirely false [16] .  The proposition which cannot express an empirically verifiable proposition or be re-posited in such a way that it could do [17] , cannot be classed as genuine knowledge, “ metaphysics [is not] philosophy…because it is not a branch of knowledge [18] .  Though Ayer later repudiated this central thesis of LTL, the verification principle still has apologists that employ it, though admittedly in a radically modified form, specifically regarding the religious category [19] .  For positivism and its spiritual heirs within naturalism, who though they do not out of intellectual sense argue for positivism nevertheless tacitly accept its fundamental principles as a working hypothesis, namely that any metaphysical discourse is meaningless and an explanation of reality lies outside of God [20] .


Of course, what is actually happening is that this most cursory of analyses is highlighting the presuppositional grid that is used to process the data.  For the purposes of this essay, this is a major hermeneutical point.  The concept of truth that a naturalist uses is essentially an Enlightenment one.  Truth is within the province of reason.  It may be more exotically argued for in the induction of scientific late modernism and a post-modernist might wish to deny the tyranny of modernism but he or she does so from within that realm of reason and remains essentially modern.  One is post-modern only because of the connection with the modern.  Thus, as Plantinga demonstrates in his analysis, naturalism is the worldwide assumption of most academic research whether it is conscious or unconscious.  In the words of Van Til, some sixty years ago but with words that have the contemporary resonance of Plantinga:

“The universe is a Chance controlled universe.  It is a wholly open universe.  Yet, at the same time, it is a closed universe…there can be no such God as the Bible reveals.  This is the universal negative of the open-minded men of philosophy and science” [21]

In the realm of the “soft” sciences or domains in which the “methods of science” were imported to “solve” the problems caused by woolly subjectivist thinking [22] , it proves disastrous by demanding “a meaning” assigned to a phenomena with its cognisant theory.  The premise leads us to conclusions, valid but oblique to any holistic understanding of the category.


For example, consider the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle.  It is possible to state when it was built and why, describe its length, its colour, the number of bolts in the girders, the width and quality of the steel, even describe with mathematical calculus its curvature, stresses, strain quotient and even describe some aesthetic generalities.  It is possible to present an in-depth, impressive summary of the Tyne Bridge and then bequeath those results for research as telling future generations what the verbal sign ‘Tyne Bridge’ means.  It would provide good source material for the discursive category of “bridges in politics and the state”.  However, for Geordies worldwide, there is seldom a dry eye when they return from a time absent from the holy city.  The Tyne Bridge does not “mean” anything as rendered by the historical or empirical analysis but represents something that is felt rather than expressed.  All sorts of discursive psychological categories may then be invoked to re-render this emotional fact to comply with Enlightenment presumptions but it is more elegantly expressed in the words of Pascal, “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows not [23] .  The philosophical issue at stake is the limits of reason.  To Enlightenment thinkers and their heirs, conscious or unconscious, there are none.  This is the fundamental epistemological point upon which all scholarship must turn as Russell unequivocally asserts:

“[we] refuse to believe that there is some ‘higher’ way of knowing, by which we can discover truths hidden from science and the intellect” [24]

This was also a fundamental realisation of the later Wittgenstein but unlike Russell that he felt that it undid the entire edifice of positivism:

“Why shouldn’t I apply words in opposition to their original usage?...Where is the difference?  In the scientific approach the new use is justified through a theory.  And if this theory is false then the new extended use has to be given up too.  But in philosophy the new use is not supported by true or false opinions about natural processes.  No fact (experience) justifies it and none can overturn it .” [25] (emphasis added)

The empirical realm is one source of knowledge but it is not the only one and empirical data is just that, data or information, in need of interpretation.  It is the essence of poetry and even in his time with the Vienna circle, Wittgenstein preferred to read them the poetry of Tagore suggesting even then they had not grasped what he was really saying about language [26] .  No amount of analysis of the words, the grammar and the syntax will get us to the place of meaning.  It may assist that process but objective description after the manner of “hard science” is impossible. 


The argument of what we mean by religion will be governed by our starting point.  Goldenberg again identifies this clearly but makes the remarkable decision to effectively separate religion from theology “distancing religion from definitions that use the word to imply any special spiritual essence to psychological or social experiences classified as religious” [27] . However, this is the necessary foundation for her view of religion which must be “how institutions and aspects of culture come to be classified under the heading of religion” [28] .  Such a view of religion is as a discursive concept and “theism” would be preferred if the starting point would be theological [29] .  Now many conservatives would, unintentionally, endorse this separation from religion but for very different reasons by using terms such as “living faith”.  Religion is formalism, “the faith” is living but the term remains firmly theological.  The point being made here is that the definition of “religion” governs the conceptual grid and the application to life.  To set aside the theological context of religion is to deny the putative context of the word but it is further to deny its history in the Western world.  Unless religion is rooted in a theological understanding, it is as reified of meaning as the positivist account of the Tyne Bridge. 


However, and perhaps most surprising to modern scholarship, is that this reification is as equally applicable to the concept of the state and politics.  To deny the theological basis of the state is to misrepresent the state and the role of politics by accepting the late-modern separation of church and state:

“Instead of asserting man’s autonomy, they should firmly believe in God’s…total government for every sphere of life and thought…to economics, politics, medicine, science” [30]

“Even a cursory reading of historical records will show that for many centuries, the church, both individually and corporately, has been involved in applying the Bible to society…The first colleges in America were started by Christians – Harvard, Yale and Princeton...State constitutions were explicitly Christian.  Our nations laws presuppose the Christian religion.” [31]

Late modern Christianity retreated into what Rushdooney calls “pietism”, an emphasis on individual experience:

“For virtually all Reformed and evangelical churches, their faith and theology ends at the church door…this is Pietism.  The sum total of the Christian religion is supposedly the spiritual relationship of the soul to God.” [32]

This perhaps became most formally embedded in the modern Enlightenment psyche with Kant.  Kant’s parents were Pietists and he attended a pietist school.  It is much under studied that the philosopher of the Enlightenment was greatly concerned with Hume’s dismissal of natural religion and sought to find a new context for religious belief.  This was the context of religion within the bounds of reason:

“whence it is obvious that not scriptural scholarship but the pure religion of reason must be the law’s interpreter, for taken according to the letter, it allowed the very opposite of all this.” [33]

Kant still held that God was the author of the kingdom but human beings were the organisers of it and the state was to be subject to the moral prerogative (‘the Good Principle’) but organised distinctly and differently but holding a “commonwealth” [34] of ethics that encapsulates the Kingdom of God principles [35] .  Now it is Kant’s separation of the realms of Church and State, of religion and politics (the ‘pure laws of virtue’, the ‘ethico-civil’ state) [36] and the primacy of reason that was emphasised by his atheist interpreters which came to dominate the application of his thought.  By reifying Kant of this important conception of religion as signposts for the judicial and civil and instead transposing the principle of the supremacy of reason, the late modern evolutionary thinkers were able to dismiss with ridicule the religious narrative and proto-naturalism, in the form of developments of Darwinian thought, was seen as an edifice of indisputable reason.  Theology lost much of its confidence and intellectual prestige, ceding both to Liberalism and then dying with it but at once the contrary reaction of Fundamentalism which signalled a retreat into premillennial dispensationalist eschatology providing the opium for the Christian in a cultural ghetto.  The exit of the Church into the private sphere, tolerated on the edges of society, the chosen remnant but “vestigial” [37] , was complete.


However, with the deconstruction of the over-confident rationalism, the bankruptcy of Marxism in both its Red and Brown forms, the philosophers of science whom rightly identify the shaky epistemological foundations of science [38] and the post-modern malaise, there is a need to unrecognise this late modern framework as meaningful for the understanding of religion and state which will then enable an appropriate hermeneutical lens with which to understand world history.  Following is necessarily a brief sketch with which the author suggests is a holistic framework.


John Wycliffe is known as the “morning star of the reformation” but his star rose within the politics and intrigue of papal Europe where the monarchs at once opposed papal excesses and connived with them [39] .  Papal authority as the “vicar of Christ” was straightforward and absolute, all non-papal authority was illegitimate and the pope had full claim over all the resources of the world and it was the duty of the Christian monarchs of Europe to get it for him [40] .   Within the papacy, the Pope was a military leader with his own armies and executive authority over the armies of his monarchs.  There was no separation between Church and State, the religious or the secular, they were one. 


However, Wycliffe asserted that in Moses and Aaron the executive (state) and religious offices were intentionally separated.  This was seen as a providential separation and the religious office was subject to the state office in that the authority of the state was ultimately divested upon it to permit a state to act when the Church apostatised [41] .  In his sermon Wycliffe asserts that Christ in his kingly role demonstrated his lordship over the apostate clergy.  Moses invested the state with divine authority when the State respected the divine law, empowering and investing the religious authority with its institutes and its responsibilities which included interestingly education, primary healthcare, building inspection and a role in civil governance [42]


The primary role of the state was seen to be in the delivery of justice for the people – Moses divested his authority to civil leaders chosen by the people and only became involved in the difficult cases.  The state was also responsible for organising the military for defence of the people and for public infrastructure.  Even the death penalty was put within the civil governance and executed by the people directly with the role of the state to ensure the legal process was followed before it was administered.  Treason was with respect to the family, not against the state [43] .  Taxation was limited to a simple head-tax payable by each adult male above 20 years old.  The vision and limits of the state as presented in this model are clear – the state is small and exists for managing national level issues.  Cope in discussing this [44] , posits the contemporary Swiss model is analogous to this.  Power in Switzerland is at the Canton (State) level, a national leader only emerges in a time of crisis and is a military figure.


The prophets indicate the state loses its divine authority and right to exist when it fails to execute justice for the people and misappropriates the priestly authority for itself [45] .  The Queen of Sheba’s adoration for Solomon was with regard to the apparatus of government, the civil order that she witnessed, the prosperity of the nation and the spirituality of the monarch [46] .  However for the biblical narrative, the state failed a generation later when it became self-serving, assuming an existence and a role outside of its providential appointment. When the authority of the state was derived from the will of the people, it had a legitimate right to exist.  When it failed the will of the people, it lost its right to exist.  It was a legitimate role for the religious leaders to censure the state when it was failing to deliver justice for the people and for the state to censure the religious leaders when they were failing in their religious duties.


This relationship between state and religion is confirmed in the work of Wycliff’s successors, most famously and infamously in the work of Martin Luther and John Calvin especially.  Luther emphasised that the vocations outside the ecclesia were as important, necessary and valid as those within it [47] .  Calvin organised the civil government of Geneva during a time where its population had been saturated with refugees from papist persecution.  To Calvin, the concept of public education was essential that all individuals may fulfil their potential.  Ignorance was viewed as a great enemy and evil to Calvin [48] .  To Calvin, knowledge of God preceded all human activity and human life was to be constructed in lieu of God’s revealed will.  Thus, for Calvin, the concept of a state church was a valid one but because the Church must be financially free to educate the people both in the temporal and in the spiritual.  Calvin shared and developed Luther’s notion of Christian service which became part of the idiom of “public service” within the State.  However, state and church, religion and politics are distinct but are expressions of the divine creation mandate to subdue and rule the Earth.


Cope emphasises how carefully a theological template needs to be applied in reforming nations today and the author offers this appeal to rethink religion and state, politics and society in terms of a theological template with caution.  The excesses of Christian Reconstructionism are notorious [49] but no more than the “autophagic capitalism” and the bloody wreckage of the “rotting offal of modernity [50] of the 20th century humanist order.  There is a need to distinguish principle from application but accepting the premise there is a God which cares about humanity and the planet, is infinitely preferable to committing life and meaning to pure chance.

[1] Naomi R. Goldenberg, ‘The Category of Religion in the Technology of Governance:  An argument for understanding religions as vestigial states’ in Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty (Supplements to Method & Theory in the Study of Religion) , Trevor Stack, Naomi Goldenberg, Timothy Fitzgerald (eds)(BRILL, 2015), p280

[2] Tribune 2, v41.  This was in fact an answer to the charge of the incompatibility of the two, appealing to the Left to leave behind their 19th century materialism.  The Christian Socialist Movement and the Workers Education Association, a Christian left response to the Working Men’s Club movement, are alive and well today.  The WEA, in contrast to the WMC, could be said to be far more classically loyally socialist in their belief in education as the empowering of the worker. 

[3] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2312813/Richard-Dawkins-Forcing-religion-children-child-abuse-claims-atheist-professor.html, accessed 05/09/2015

[4] Please note I am not using the term “vestigial” as Goldenberg (2015) seeks to give it meaning though I find her use of it provocative.  Rather, I am deliberately positioning it with Dawkins to emphasise its technical, scientific usage as an evolutionary relic which is no longer required.

[5] David Omrod, “The Christian Left and the beginnings of Christian-Marxist dialogue” in Disciplines of Faith – Studies in Religion, Politics and Patriarchy, Jim Obelkevich, Lydal Roper (eds) (Routledge, Oxon: 1987). 

[6] http://www.tribunemagazine.org/2013/12/he-was-actually-the-first-communist/, accessed 07/09/2015

[7] Goldenberg (2015), p283

[8] McGrath, A. and Collicott J (2007), The Dawkins Delusion, London: SPCK, p18

[9] The epistemology of Christian belief was explored at length by myself in my BD Thesis ‘Are Science and Theology competing views of reality?’, May 2011, Bangor University, unpublished.

[10] Scriven, ‘The Presumption of Atheism’ in Philosophy of Religion, Pojman, L.P. ed. (2003), pp345-346.

[11] A.J. Ayer (1952), Language, Truth and Logic, 2nd edition (New York, Dover: 1952), p57

[12] Grayling (2001), p68

[13] McGuinness (2005), p315n

[14] Macneil M, 'Discuss the relationship between Wittgenstein's rejection of the anti-metaphysical stance of logical positivism and his account of religious language in his later philosophy.' , Bangor University, (unpublished: 2012)

[15] Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Preface’, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (trans C.K. Ogden) (New York, Cosimo: 2007), p27;  Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, proposition 6.53.

[16] Ayer (1952), pp56-57

[17] This was a concession made by Ayer in the second edition of Language, Truth and Logic as described in his updated introduction.  This was to permit certain types of scientific theory and hypotheses.

[18] Alfred Jules Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (New York, 1952[1946]), pp51-52

[19] Michael Martin, “The verificationist challenge” in A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion , Phillip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro (eds)(Blackwell, Oxford: 2007(1997)), pp204-212

[20] This is subject to book length critique in Alvin Plantinga, Where the conflict really lies – Science, Religion and Naturalism (New York, OUP: 2011)

[21] Coernelius Van Til, The Doctrine of Scripture (The den Dulk Foundation, 1967), 13.  This was reissued as the The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture, Vol 1 of ‘In defense of the faith/Biblical Christianity’ (Nutley, New Jersey: 1967) which is the edition available to Kindle.

[22] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (Routledge, London:  1991(1946)), p773, pp783ff.  Russell was famous for believing philosophical problems could be “solved” by correctly defining terms, he was one “set to work to purge their subject of fallacies and slipshod reasoning” (op.cit., p783).

[23] “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point” [1670, ed. L. Brunschvieg, 1909, sec.4, no.277]

[24] Russell (1991), p789.  This page perfectly captures the positivist spirit though Russell himself became more ambiguous in later essays as positivism lost its stranglehold on philosophy during the 1960s.

[25] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, Revised edition, G.H. von Wright (Ed.)(Oxford, Blackwell: 1998), p50e

[26] This is explored extensively in Macneil (2012)

[27] Goldenberg (2015), p281

[28] Goldenberg (2015), p281

[29] In a personal correspondence to myself.

[30] Rousas J Rushdoony, ‘Christian Reconstruction as a movement’, The Journal of Christian Reconstruction Vol XIV, No. 1 (1996), p11

[31] Gary North and Gary DeMar, Christian Reconstruction – What it is, what it isn’t (Tyler, ICE: 1991), p15

[32] Rushdooney (1996), p11

[33] Immanuel Kant, Religion within the boundary of pure reason,  J.W. Semple (trans)(Edinburgh, Thomas Clark: 1838), p208ff

[34] Kant (1838), p117

[35] Kant (1838), p118

[36] Kant (1838), p119ff

[37] Goldenberg uses this term simply to express its position as a legacy of something that once was.  I am using it more strongly to emphasise its evolutionary sense.  New atheism in particular considers religion in this way.

[38] To paraphrase Karl Popper “let us not consider the pillars of science to be deeper than they are.”  Popper introduced the concept of scientific statements as “falsifiable” in an attempt to mitigate the problem of a positive definition.

[39] K.B. McFarlane, Wycliffe and English Non-Conformity (1972), p41

[40] McFarlane (1972), pp48-49

[41] John Wycliffe, ‘Sermon CLXVI’ in Select English Works on John Wyclif, Thomas Arnold (ed)(Clarendon, Oxford: 1871), p88ff

[42] Leviticus describes in meticulous detail civil duties of the priests, regulations for “leprosy” (actually any contagious skin disease) and “leprous” buildings (mildew).  Where disputes were likely to turn violent, e.g. marital unfaithfulness, the priest was invoking God as judge rather than appropriating the authority the state.

[43] Rushdooney (1996), p8

[44] Landa Cope, The Old Testament Template, (New York, YWAM publishing: 2014), II (6)

[45] This would be represented by the narrative of 1Sam 15 of King Saul whose dynasty was said to have been lost when he offered sacrifices.  As a King, he had no authority to offer sacrifices.

[46] 1Kings 10; 2Chr 9

[47] Martin Luther, ‘Commentary on Galatians’ in The Martin Luther Collection, Kindle edition (Waxkeep Publishing: 2012), p356

[48] Calvin left a vast caucus.  ‘Commentaries on Ethics and the Common Life’ are examples of the practical application of what he sees as the Institutes of religion.

[49] Michael J McVicar, Christian reconstruction – R J Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill: 2015), pp217-219

[50] McVicar (2015), p230