Review: A Presbyterian Political Manifesto: Presbyterianism and Civil Government by Michael G. Wagner (Still Waters Revival Books, 21, xiv pp).
By Richard Bacon
Copyright 1996 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett.

Michael Wagner is a doctoral student at the University of Alberta. In the pages of this pamphlet Wagner espouses what has come to be the most fiercely-fought enemy of American Evangelical Christianity: the principle that there should be an established church within a nation and that church which most closely resembles the church that should be established is the Presbyterian Church.

It is probably fair to say that the attitude most Americans (and even most Evangelical Americans) take toward religion is similar to the attitude of the final edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy toward Earth: “mostly harmless.” However, Wagner maintains that such a view of religion is deficient. For Wagner religion is the underlying belief system that everyone has about the meaning of life. Thus from his point of view the question is not properly whether a society will establish a religion, but which religion a society will establish.

At this point the author takes a step in his thinking that he never clearly justifies - and in this reviewer's opinion cannot be justified from a strictly “natural law” point of view. We cannot properly say that the state is the whole of society. Society does indeed establish a religion in the broad sense in which Wagner claims. There is a necessity that a godly society will establish the true religion. There is not such a necessity that arises from natural law that the civil magistrate can or ought to establish a particular religion apart from that religion being the generally homogeneous religion of the entire society.

This lack of homogeneity has been a considerable difficulty in this country from the beginning. There has never been a national consensus that any particular understanding of Christianity is the true one. This reviewer disagrees with the implication of chapter two that establishment of religion can or ought to be found in natural law. Even Wagner himself admits in a subsequent chapter of his pamphlet, “philosophical considerations alone should not be considered sufficient to prove that an establishment of religion is a moral obligation.”

Eventually, however, Wagner examines the proper source material. After attempting (and in this reviewer's opinion failing) to derive the establishment principle from natural law, Wagner turns to Scripture and the Scottish understanding of the relationship of church and state. Thus the Free Church of Scotland scholar Dr. William Cunningham, writing against what he called “Voluntaryism,” stated, “...nations, as such, and civil rulers in their official capacity, are entitled and bound to aim at the promotion of the interests of true religion, and the welfare of the church of Christ; that there are things which they can lawfully do, which are fitted to promote these objects; and that thus a connection may be legitimately formed between Church and State.... I still believe it to be a portion of divine truth, fully sanctioned by the word of God, and, therefore, never to be abandoned or denied....” [1]

Wagner deals effectively with the subject of liberty of conscience. As Wagner points out, “Liberty of conscience does not override the obligation to obey authorities acting according to God's Word.” Another way of saying this is to recognize that personal conscience is not the final authority for our beliefs and actions. The Scriptures are the final authority for a godly society, and the state (civil magistrate) has a duty to enforce the dictates of Scripture regardless of various personal consciences. It must be remembered that liberty of conscience exists; but it must also be remembered that liberty of conscience is bounded by God's Word.

The prima facie case for the establishment of the Presbyterian Church does not come from either natural law or liberty of conscience. Rather it arises from the fact that Presbyterianism is biblical Christianity. A civil government that establishes the Presbyterian Church will therefore be nothing more or less than a civil government that rules a nation in accordance with Scripture.

Wagner concludes properly: “The Scriptures also give us a pattern of church-state cooperation that is not only still valid, but represents the only pattern for civil government that has ever been endorsed by God Himself. However, fears that this would involve the creation of a totalitarian state are unfounded. The state is obligated to enforce the Law of God and cannot go beyond that Law since it is limited by the very Law that spells out its responsibilities.”

Wagner admits that establishment is not a part of the modern political discourse. It may be many years before it ever is in this country (or in Wagner's country, Canada). Wagner concludes his thesis with a call for political activism and one hopes and supposes he is calling for an informed Christian political activism. How politically active can a Christian be in a system that is constitutionally opposed to Christianity? Well, Wagner did not deal with that issue. It is an important question, but not the one that immediately concerns Wagner's thesis. However, given the cover art -- the swearing and subscribing the National Covenant in Greyfriars' Churchyard 1638 -- it might have been an appropriate subject. Such a discussion would be a welcome addition to this or a future volume from Mr. Wagner's pen.


[1] William Cunningham, Historical Theology (Still Waters Revival Books reprint), vol. I, p. 391.