Hoisted On Our Own Petard

Michael Metzger

In 1999, evangelicals were enraged when Joshua Davey was deemed ineligible for state aid. The irony is the courts cited statutory prohibitions Protestant evangelicals had put in place over a century before. They were hoisted on their own petard.

Joshua Davey was a student studying Pastoral Ministries at Northwest College when he applied for a Promise Scholarship in 1999. He qualified under grade and income requirements. But Davey was not eligible for the aid because of the state constitutional and statutory prohibitions on use of state money to fund religious education. Protestants had pushed for that provision long ago.

In 1875, President Grant proposed a constitutional amendment that prohibited “government funds from going to religious schools.” Called the “Blaine Amendment” after its chief sponsor, it targeted Catholic schools and exploited fear over Catholics immigrating into the United States. While the federal amendment didn’t pass, Blaine invoked the specter of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Protestant evangelicals jumped at it, passing similar provisions at the state level, including Washington. It was that state statute that was invoked to deny Joshua Davey’s application for vouchers. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which issued a 7-2 decision in 2004 in favor of the state. Protestant evangelicals were hoisted on their own petard.

The evangelical petard is a privatized faith. Russ Douthat calls it the primary heresy of American Christianity. In his new book Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics, Douthat argues that most American expressions of faith are actually distortions of traditional Christianity. The central heresy is privatization, a debased version of Christian faith that breeds hubris, greed, and self-absorption. It can be seen in the simple misunderstanding that the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights guarantees “freedom of belief” and “freedom of worship.” No such language exists.

The words “freedom of belief” do not appear in the First Amendment. Nor does “freedom of worship.” Douthat notes the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans something that its authors called “the free exercise” of religion.1 That’s not a coincidence, as the founders’ understanding of faith predates modern evangelicalism. “It’s a significant choice of words, because it suggests a recognition that religious faith cannot be reduced to a purely private or individual affair.” Ancient Christian traditions understood exercising the faith (from the Greek, gymnaso, or exercise) as a public duty. Not so much anymore.

Two recent developments highlight the heresy of privatized faith. The Department of Health and Human Services created a religious exemption to its mandate requiring employers to pay for contraception, sterilization and the days-after pill that covers only churches. It treats religious hospitals, schools and charities – mostly Catholic – as purely secular operations. “The defenders of the H.H.S. mandate note that it protects freedom of worship,” writes Douthat, “which indeed it does.” But it curtails a free exercise of religion. How many Protestant preachers have you heard address this problem?

The second development occurred last month, when a judge in Cologne, Germany banned circumcision as a violation of a newborn’s human rights. “Here again, defenders of the decision insisted that it didn’t trample on any Jew’s or Muslim’s freedom of belief.” True, but to be Jews in good standing they must circumcise their son at eight days old as an exercise of their faith. “This ruling would effectively outlaw Judaism itself,” Douthat notes. It’s an outrage largely ignored by the evangelical community – until recently.

Mayors in several American cities are threatening to prevent Chick-fil-A from opening new outlets because its president told an interviewer that he supports “the biblical definition of the family unit.” Douthat notes that it seems a businessman may have the right to his private beliefs, but the local zoning committee has veto power over how those beliefs are exercised. Now some in the Protestant evangelical community are outraged, but how many recognize they’re being hoisted on their own petard?

In medieval times, a petard was a small engine of war used to blow breaches in gates or walls. They were full of gunpowder – a danger for the naïve. Inexperienced engineers could literally blow themselves up. To be hoisted on your own petard is to be injured by the device that you intended to use on others. For the past 175 years, naïve evangelicals have tried to penetrate the world – evangelize it – while practicing a privatized faith. The result is insularity and that is proving injurious – as evidenced in the 2004 Joshua Davey ruling. That same year – 2004 – the Court also ruled on the “One Nation Under God” motto. Justice David Souter noted: “Religion in this country is so diluted… it goes beneath the constitutional radar. Insofar as the way we live and think and work in schools and civic society… whatever religious direction there is, is simply lost.”

There are at least two ways to prevent being hoisted on your own petard. One, destroy the petard. Privatization of faith is a heresy. Heresies are to be publicly repudiated. Since the sermon is the centerpiece of most evangelical services, it’s the best place to publicly repent. Preachers could explain how ignoring the recent HHS ruling, the circumcision ban, and the Chick-fil-A imbroglio are hoisting evangelicals on their own petard.

Second, the evangelical church could come closer to the ancient faith by replacing the sermon with the sacraments as the centerpiece of the corporate service. This would “thicken” liturgical practices, something the Western church did in the ninth century when it had become “something of a large ghetto, dominated and largely surrounded by the superior culture and military power of Islam.”2 Liturgy means public duty. As Christians under Islamic rule were prevented from the free exercise of their public duties, they “thickened” their liturgical practices to stay in rigorous shape and avoid privatizing the faith. Both solutions would destroy the petard of privatization, and that would be a good thing for believers like Joshua Davey as well as the Western faith.

1 Russ Douthat, “Defining Religious Liberty Down, the New York Times, July 29, 2012
2 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 4.


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  1. Mike,

    Thank you for the important challenge to bring our faith out of the private sector and into all areas of life. There is no reason for us to think that our faith should be a private affair – reminds me of a quote from a pastor named Tommy Nelson: “faith is surely personal, but most certainly is not private.”

    I am concerned though about the approach to the solution. First of all, let me begin by affirming that, often sometimes, tough call to repentance. I know for me, it’s so easy to recognize a “problem”, which has really been a departure from God and His ways, and jump right to “solving it” without any sense of shame, seeking of forgiveness, and repentance. Thank you.

    With that said, I’m concerned about the recommended elevation of sacrament over preaching. It lacks biblical basis, and in fact the reverse is true. The narrative description in Acts is predominately concerned with the content and the action of preaching, teaching, and sharing the message of Christ. The epistles are doctrinally saturated. In fact, the corrections of abuses of sacrament in Corinth are corrected with teaching. The the recurrent emphasis in each of the 3 pastoral epistles is to the role of preaching, teaching, and exhortation.

    And if we find ourselves saying, “yes, but…”, possibly Justin Martyr’s Apology (#67), from 150 A.D will be a helpful guide to the ancient church practice. Yes, the Lord’s supper was observed each week (you’ll get full agreement from this guy on that!), but this quote is clear “The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then when the reader ceases, the president [pastor] in a discourse admonishes and urges the imitation of these good things.”

    “As long as time permits.”

    Maybe one step in the right direction is challenging the evangelical notion of how long a gathering of the church ought to be. Sapphira, in Acts 5, showed up 3 hours after her husband dropped dead in church, and they were still in the meeting! They must have been close to that 1pm kickoff!

  2. Hi Jeff:

    While I appreciate your comments and take them seriously, I would urge you to consider whether your reading of the Book of Acts is largely due to wearing evangelical eyeglasses. A good many church historians – most of them, in fact – would say the elevation of the sermon over the sacraments is largely due to Enlightenment assumptions about human nature (rationalism, for example) that much of modern evangelicalism came to idolize in the early 1800s.

  3. Mike,

    I would be interested in your thoughts about what came before the privatization of faith.

    Why was there a shift to a privatized faith?

  4. A publicly exercised faith. The shift was largely due to the Enlightenment with its distrust of institutional authority. Institutions however are disproportionately influential in shaping societies, so modern evangelicalism – largely shaped by the Enlightenment – was relegated to private matters, such as your soul and freedom of religion.

  5. Mike,

    Maybe a clarification would indicate whether I’m wearing those glasses. By “predominately concerned”, I mean in the amount of content, use of repetition, and details of descriptions used by the author. I don’t think those are particular to an evangelical lens, but rather to anyone seeking the authorial intent of a historical document. For example, someone would believe, in reading your writing, that the Enlightenment is a predominant concern of yours, because it’s repeated and given much space, much detail. None the less, I found some of John Chrysostom’s sermons on Acts, so I’ll be reading them to route out any evangelical myopia I have.

    Your note regarding the historians after the 1800’s seems to be a red-herring regarding the ancient practices noted by Martyr. When do we see the sacraments elevated above preaching? And how is it elevated? In the amount of time in the gathering? It’s location in the space? The reverence associated? Or in some other way? Maybe, defining ancient with a time frame would help also – are the sacraments elevated above preaching in Acts? The other churches in the NT? 150 A.D? Medieval times?

    It’s a significant suggestion to move preaching from a primary position, and I don’t want to swing to pendulum too far the other way, from it’s error brought on by the Enlightenment. Thanks!

  6. Jeff:

    There is no need to swung any pendulum. I’d recommend Newbigin’s “The Open Secret” as well as “Proper Confidence.” He highlights to pernicious and pervasive influence of the Enlightenment on modern evangelicalism, as does Hunter in “To Change the World.” Have you reward these? As for sermons and sacraments, I find your opening paragraphs a bot convoluted, so I’d urge you to simply run a Google search to locate all the pre-Enlightenment faith traditions operating in your city, including Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Early Reformed traditions, and the like. They represent two-thirrds of the worldwide Christian community, and all see the sacraments as more central and formative than the sermon (though both are important). Participate in one of their services. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

  7. man – typos galore! I meant to say Newbigin highlights THE pernicious and pervasive…

    and I meant to ask whether you had READ these books!

    I find your opening paragraphs a BIT convoluted…

    I hate AUTOCORRECT!!!

  8. Thanks, Mike, for another good essay. I would like to ask for a clarification. It is difficult for me to understand how liturgy and sacraments practiced within the four walls of a church are somehow less “insular” than preaching within four walls of a church. Both, to me, seem quite private and isolated from the public sphere. Thanks!

  9. Glenn:

    Basketball teams practice in private facilities, out of the general public’s view, for the purpose of winning games that are played in public arenas. Ancient renditions of the faith don’t think “inside” and “outside.”

  10. Your comment “its distrust of institutional authority” is what I was looking to know.

    Is part of restoring shalom a restoration of trust in institutions?

    Also, do I undestand correctly that the Enlightenment was mostly within Prodestant circles?

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