Sola Scriptura and the Secularization of America

During her confirmation hearing last September, Notre Dame law professor, Amy Coney Barrett, was openly interrogated about her faith. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) brazenly uttered the now infamous words, “the dogma lives loudly within you,” and went on to explain why that is “of concern” to her. This is but one manifestation of a new trend—one that many Christians correctly regard as ominous. How did we get to this point?

I am going to argue that the current state of affairs is the partial result of developments that transpired 500 years ago. My contention is that those who sought to reform Christianity in the West ironically set in motion a process that has increasingly diminished its influence on society.

This essay will focus on one of the foundational principles of the Protestant Reformation: sola scriptura. It is the doctrine that the Bible, alone, holds religious authority for the Christian. I use the analogy of attendance at a rock concert to make sense of the Protestant view. Thousands of people can descend on the same spot, independently of one another, and experience the same thing. Just as the concertgoer needs nothing other than his map to guide him to his destination (let us use the term sola tabula to express this understanding), the Christian needs nothing other than the Bible to guide him to his.

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This view is to be contrasted with what I call the “ecclesial perspective”—a view based on the conception of a visible, organic Church that is embraced by both Catholics and Orthodox Christians. As they would put it, the “pillar and foundation of the truth,” to use St. Paul’s description (1 Tim. 3:15), is not identified with the individual believer, but with the Church. This is because the Church is the visible body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), who is himself the Truth (John 14:6). Therefore, since the Church cannot err—being, as it is, the body of the inerrant Christ—the individual is expected to conform his mind to the mind of the Church. This, of course, is not to deny that some of the Church’s individual members remain deeply flawed. As Augustine exclaimed in a homily on St. John’s Gospel, “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!”

Following the Reformation, the Western Christian world splintered into seemingly innumerable sects, all claiming to be guided by the Holy Spirit in their interpretation of the same Bible. This should come as no surprise to proponents of the ecclesial perspective. For suppose you adhere to sola scriptura, and you come to read the Bible in a radically novel way, and articulate a new set of doctrines that you are anxious to promote. Should you really care if your church decides to excommunicate you on account of these new doctrines? After all, it is you who is the pillar and foundation of the truth; it is against you whom the gates of hades shall not prevail. You are simply being kicked out of some earthly, replaceable organization, whereas, in the ecclesial view, excommunication from the Church means that you are being severed from a body—the body of Christ. Further, since you believe that there is no higher authority than your personal interpretation of the Scriptures, what would prevent you from starting your own church, being, as you are, your own pope?

This logic arguably goes a long way towards explaining why there are hundreds, some say thousands, of Protestant denominations in existence today. To be fair, many of these otherwise independent denominations hold similar beliefs and worship in similar ways. But it is transparently obvious that not all do. The Protestant world is divided over fundamental questions concerning the nature of Jesus, the Sacraments, and the proper way to interpret the Bible, among so many others.

In the midst of this religious fragmentation, it was clear to the Framers of our Constitution that, even if they had wanted to officially sanction a religion, they could not, at least without seriously undermining political order. This is, in part, why they included the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment. As the late American historian, Leonard Levy, argued:

Given the extraordinary religious diversity of our nation, the Establishment Clause functions to depoliticize religion; it thereby helps to defuse a potentially explosive situation. The Establishment Clause separates government and religions so that we can maintain civility between believers and unbelievers as well as among the several hundred denominations, sects, and cults that thrive in our nation…

In other words, the “separation of church and state”—the metaphor Thomas Jefferson used to express his understanding of the Clause in a private letter—was intended in part to prevent the sorts of religious conflicts that had racked Europe in previous centuries. The intention was never to prevent people from participating in political life in ways that were motivated by their religious beliefs; otherwise, the oft-ignored Free Exercise Clause would have not been added (in the same exact sentence as the Establishment Clause, I might add) to the Constitution.

Nor, evidently, was the intention to prevent forms of direct government assistance for religious endeavors. Let us not forget that Jefferson, himself, was not averse to using federal funds to build churches and support missionary work among the American Indians. (What a contrast this is from the present context. Last summer, for instance, two Supreme Court justices appealed to the separation metaphor in objecting to the use of federal funds for resurfacing the playgrounds of religious schools so that children will get fewer bruised elbows). American University law professor, Daniel Dreisbach, attributes Jefferson’s commentary on the Establishment Clause to his anti-federalist views, not to the secularism that is so often ascribed to him today:

Jefferson’s wall, as a matter of federalism, was erected between the national and state governments on matters pertaining to religion and not, more generally, between the church and all civil government. In other words, Jefferson placed the federal government on one side of his wall and state governments and churches on the other.

Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before the ambiguity of this figure of speech—this “Separation of Church and State”—would be exploited. In the 1800s, a time of intense anti-Catholic sentiment, separation rhetoric was used by the Ku Klux Klan and the Know Nothing movement to prevent the growing Catholic population from wielding political influence. Today, some of the more radical proponents of secularism use separation rhetoric in their selective battle against religious people who want to exercise their faith in the public arena. I write “selective” because some secularists will condone religious arguments if they are used in support of policies that they happen to prefer. If secularists could travel back in time, I doubt that many would tell Martin Luther King, “You know, Dr. King, we’re totally down with the whole civil rights thing. But can you, like, keep the God stuff out of your speeches?”

A New York Times op-ed published after Professor Barrett’s confirmation hearing serves to illustrate the process of secularization inaugurated by the Reformation. It sought to defend Feinstein’s remarks on the grounds that ours is a “nation dedicated to the separation of church and state.” This figure of speech, this elastic metaphor, continues to be used, and will likely continue to be used, in ways that our Founding Fathers simply did not intend. As I explained, this metaphor was based on a clause necessitated by the religious fragmentation made possible by the Reformation, and the specific doctrine of sola scriptura played no small part in this ongoing process.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the Town Hall with its Luther monument on the Market Square in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.


  • Amir Azarvan

    Amir Azarvan is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is the editor of Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience (Wipf & Stock).

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