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A Baptist Third Way for Political Theology

January 31st, 2022 | 19 min read

By Jonathan Leeman

Author’s note: The following article is the first half of a chapter I have contributed to a book tentatively titled Explorations in Baptist Political Theology, edited by Thomas Kidd, Paul Miller, and Andrew Walker, to be published by B&H Academic in the summer of 2023. Thanks to the publisher and editors for permission to publish the excerpt here so far ahead of time.

The basic thesis of my chapter is, a Baptist political theology offers a third way in between integralism, theonomy, or establishmentarianism[1] on one side and classical liberalism on the other. And though I don’t make the case in what follows, I believe it offers a political theological framework for Christians generally, even though I refer to it as a Baptist political theology. A paedobaptist might disagree with any number of points here, but I’m unaware of anything within a paedobaptist theology (of any variety) that necessarily prevents him or her from taking the path I recommend.

Speaking of, I’m not offering a full argument; I’m only pointing to a path. Right now, the political theology conversation among Christians feels stuck inside a binary between classical liberalism and some form of anti-liberalism. My goal here is merely to say, “Hey, friends, I think there’s another road we can take—do you see that opening in the woods over there?— that sees the good in both the liberal and anti-liberal arguments.” So count this as a sketch, or even half a sketch since it cuts off half way.

I have made similar arguments here, here, and here. It’s developed most fully in Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule.


Over the last two decades, many U.S. Christians have arrived at the conclusion: this country doesn’t feel very Christian anymore. I don’t mean to say America was ever a Christian nation, however we define that. I do mean to suggest that American Christians increasingly feel their defeat in the culture wars and their alien identity.

As the sense of displacement and anxiety has grown, so have the conversations about political and public theology, whether in seminaries, Sunday School classrooms, and social media platforms.

When people feel threatened, they often reassert control, like Peter picking up the sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. Christians on the right have begun exploring various forms of Protestant theonomy, Protestant establishmentarianism, or Roman Catholic integralism while folks on the left have been flirting with the comparatively invasive programs of regulatory oversight involved with progressive social policy as well as with socialist schemes for wealth redistribution and environmental control. But whether left or right, the common impulse is a belief in the power of government to bring change.

Furthermore, any conversation about public or political theology in America will inevitably be a conversation about liberalism and its discontents since liberalism has provided the major strands of America’s DNA from the beginning. What the aforementioned theologies share is a growing rejection of this DNA. All argue that the nation should govern itself according to a more substantive or “thick” version of the good and the right and repudiates liberalism’s long-standing attempt to build a nation on a “thin” version of justice.

A “thin” theory of justice is called “thin” because it claims to require agreement only on that set of procedures, like shipwreck survivors on a deserted island agreeing that several rounds of rock-paper-scissors will decide who gets to rule the island without any larger philosophical conversations about truth and justice. Liberalism drafts this social contract among these new islanders using consensus-building words like “consent,” “rights,” “freedom,” and “equality,” words that promise to leave each shipwreck survivor free to pursue the good life however he or she or they define it.

The challenge of liberalism, however, has always been, who gets to define which rights, which freedoms, and which versions of equality remain protected? What about the right to an abortion? The freedom to define one’s gender? Or marriage equality? The answer involves smuggling a thicker view of the good and the right through the back door. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Protestant establishment and a Judeo-Christian worldview defined which rights were right and which freedoms were protected. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the culture wars have awarded that job to the religions of expressive individualism and identity politics.

Defenders of classical liberalism, faced with an increasingly skeptical Christian audience, rush to point out how the Founders affirmed God’s justice, human dignity, and the fallenness requiring constraint. Natural law, too, “surely” provides a backstop to unconstrained views of freedom and rights.

Yet that’s the smuggling project we’re talking about, say the critics. To claim that every individual possesses “God-given dignity” or even just “dignity” represents a thick moral and theological viewpoint, which contradicts the claim of neutrality or thin proceduralism. Nearly every critic of liberalism, whether Christian or secular, has called attention to this basic self-contradiction: like all Enlightenment philosophy, liberalism places into the magic hat of philosophical discovery what it hopes to pull out of it (like individual dignity), while claiming to have put nothing into it.

Without a fixed and absolute basis for justice, human dignity becomes a malleable and pragmatic concept. Does it include African Americans or does it allow for slavery or Jim Crow? A man’s right to marry a man? A woman’s right to choose an abortion? Death with dignity for the elderly? An anti-racist federal agency? It depends on who is on the court or the party has the most votes. Liberalism’s Christian defenders argue that the nineteenth-century dehumanization of African Americans or the twentieth-century dehumanization of the unborn represent failures to apply the tenets of liberalism. Yet the assertion is question-begging. It presumes such populations should be humanized. Without an absolute or thick standard of justice and right, why that presumption?

To describe the smuggling project another way, liberalism is more like a mirror than the person standing in front of it, or more like the pipes than the water it carries. Such is a thin theory of justice. In a Judeo-Christian culture, the pipes of liberalism may in fact deliver Judeo-Christian water. In a Confucian or Buddhist or Hindu culture, the water will taste Confucian, Buddhist, or Hindu. And in an alternatively secular and pagan culture, like our own, so tastes liberalism’s water. Liberalism, in the final analysis, becomes a fancy philosophical mechanism for transforming is into ought, or telling the majority that its desires are just. Minorities will be protected so long as they can prove they’re not too great of a threat to the majority’s desires and worldview or that they’re fully human.

Yet if liberalism’s critics get the leg up by pointing to liberalism’s conceptual contradictions, liberalism gets the better end of the argument when the conversation turns to institutional specificity, at least for twenty-first century sensibilities. Liberalism’s critics typically grow vague when it comes to those institutional specifics. They don’t quite say the nation should abandon free speech, or religious freedom, or the separation of church and state, or the bill of rights, or the division between the three branches of government, or democratic elections. A few theonomist and magisterial Protestant friends of mine might admit they’re not opposed to an established church. A fringe Roman Catholic document might say that only Roman Catholics should hold office. And there have always been a few people who would be happy to write Jesus’s name into the U. S. constitution. Yet what is lacking, so far as I’m aware, is any major developed proposal from established voices for what a non-liberal constitution might look like in the twenty-first century.

The argument that John Locke employed in his First Treatise of Government continues to beleaguer all of liberalism’s critics: even if we determine that there’s a divine right of kings, how do we decide who is king? Or more germane to our day, who gets to play the divine? Suppose the theonomists, establishmentarians, integralists manage to facilitate a new constitutional convention for the United States, one that promises to establish a thick view of justice and the common good. What hopes would they have of securing a Christian sovereign and not a pagan one?

The primary institutional advantage of liberalism and its “thin” version of justice, ironically, is impermanence and low expectations. You might lose today’s round of rock-paper-scissors. But if there’s the promise of another round in two years, you can live with it. Such liberalism, furthermore, is rightly anti-utopian. It won’t give you all your dreams of justice in this world, but it will minimize the bad. Meanwhile, it encourages Christians and citizens generally to attend to their families, churches, and all the associations that comprise a civil society’s “third sector”—its non-governmental and non-business associations—the very things that shape a society’s reigning worldview over time.

To summarize our present moment: we’re experiencing a public theology dilemma that appears, to Americans at least, as a binary choice between liberalism and something anti-liberal, between a thin and a thick view of justice. Either we argue that the nation’s laws and principles of governance should aspire to stay neutral between its citizens’ moralities and religions or we don’t.

A Baptist Third Way?

It’s at this moment, on the horns of the public theology dilemma, that a Baptist political theology walks up and offers something of a third way. It agrees with the theonomists, establishmentarians, integralists, and advocates of a thick justice generally that justice requires both a substantive moral basis and substantive moral clarity—the ability to say, “These rights are rights and those rights are wrong.” Yet it also agrees with philosophical liberalism’s anti-utopianism and its call for institutional constraints. It is comparatively modest in the expectations it places on law and therefore the power of government. Instead, it focuses first on regenerate local churches as the beginning of a righteous and just political life, which is precisely what makes it a Baptist political theology. Correspondingly, it possesses a limited view of government’s jurisdiction. It says that governments possess authority only over some rights and wrongs, not all.

From almost the beginning, Baptist political theology has been intertwined with the language and categories of philosophical liberalism. Not that liberalism came first. Before John Locke (1632-1704) was born, the first Baptists argued for religious liberty, the inviolability of the conscience, the noncoercive character of faith, and the virtue of republican institutions. John Smyth (1554-1612) argued the magistrate was not permitted “to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force and compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine.” To bind the conscience is to bind the soul, and “The king…hath no power over the immortal soules of his subjects,” said Thomas Helwys (1575-1616). Universal religious freedom is the natural conclusion: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them.” Yet moving into seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Baptists discovered a natural alliance with America’s Founders, in large part because of the influence of Luther’s two kingdom’s theology on everyone from Locke to the Founders.[2] Baptist pastor Isaac Backus publicly supported James Madison’s First Amendment. The Danbury Baptist Association likewise supported Thomas Jefferson. It’s not surprising, therefore, that historians have characterized the American experiment as a “consilience…between dissenting Protestant thought and Enlightenment thought.”[3] Fast forwarding two hundred years, even the twentieth century stalwarts of an avowedly secular philosophical liberalism like John Rawls “thought that their move to neutrality was a generalization from the idea of freedom of religion.”[4]

If liberalism’s “thin” theory of justice is like a pipe through which water flows, or like a mirror that holds up a society’s values up to itself, the “consilience” hammered out by Baptists and Enlightenment liberals through the first century or two of America’s history is hardly surprising. Through those decades, most Americans, including non-Christians, arguably inhabited a Judeo-Christian worldview, especially the Founders. And insofar as that was the case, Baptists and Christians generally could rely on the mechanisms of liberalism to deliver results that broadly corresponded with their (inconsistently) Christian worldview.[5] Even more to the point, they could count themselves as philosophical liberals, identifying it as their political philosophy.

Yet as the nation’s worldviews have shifted and different water began flowing through liberal pipes, or as a different image began to appear in the liberal mirror, Christians have begun to wonder if they believe in liberalism after all. The experience has been similar to watching two people both talk about “John,” thinking they were discussing the same John, but then gradually realizing they were talking about different Johns. Baptists have long affirmed phrases like “religious liberty,” “separation of church and state,” and “natural rights.” Yet the culture wars of the last century have demonstrated how contested those phrases are. It would appear we mean different things by those phrases. We’re talking about different Johns.

Furthermore, as long as philosophically liberal American society embraced a Judeo-Christian worldview, Baptists apparently didn’t feel the need to offer highly developed theories of government. Our works of theology and ethics have emphasized religious liberty: “We talked about it first!” But little more. Understandably, then, Roman Catholics and Magisterial Protestants have sometimes criticized Baptists for our underdeveloped political theology. Yet now that cultural mores have shifted, Baptists are realizing that we need to say more about political theology than just to affirm religious freedom.

Yet here is where we can offer a middle path in between theonomy, establishmentarianism, or integralism and neutrality. Like liberalism, a Baptist political theology will affirm the crucial role of rights, equality, and freedom, especially religious freedom. It separates church and state, and it limits the state’s jurisdiction. It also acknowledges that, while certain democratic institutions may not be required by Scripture, they’re typically the wisest. And in all this a Baptist political theology, like liberalism, warns against utopianism and a giving a misplaced trust to government. Our real hope is in the new covenant and churches. At the same time, a Baptist political theology builds upon a much stronger foundation—not a pragmatic, malleable contract that sanctifies is as ought, but on the justice of God. It openly admits that it intends to bring justice as the God of the Bible defines it into the public square, and it tells everyone else to stop bluffing and admit they’re bringing their gods, too. It’s impossible not to. The public square is a battleground of gods, and it’s high time to stop pretending otherwise.

In short, a Baptist political theology is liberalism’s much better looking and more honest fraternal twin. Or better, it’s the real thing, not the generic knock-off.

Let me briefly sketch the outlines of a Baptist political theology.

A Baptist Political Theology Briefly Sketched

Baptists happily point to their Lutheran and Presbyterian and Reformed friends generally and thank them for the larger Protestant recovery of the gospel and the five solas of the Reformation. These things form the heart of our faith.

Yet the Baptist contribution to the Reformation and to Protestantism, at least from our perspective, was to complete what these other Protestants began by drawing out all the social and ecclesial implications of this gospel recovery. The Magisterial Reformers may have believed the magistrate’s jurisdiction “extends to both tables of the law” and to protecting true worship because “no polity can be successfully established unless piety be its first care.” So John Calvin argued by appealing to the Davidic kings.[6] Yet not so fast, the Baptists replied. Consider the New Covenant. The new and better covenant was necessary, among other reasons, because the law and sword could not produce true worship. For that purpose, we must look to the church. Meanwhile, following Jesus’s command to give even to a pagan king like Caesar what is Caesar’s, civil governments were in for big job demotion, at least relative to the king’s work inside of the Mosaic and Davidic covenants. Governments could keep the peace and adjudicate the rights and wrongs requisite for a basic, protectionist, life-preserving form of justice, one in keeping with what the Noahic Covenant assigned to the governments of all nations (Gen. 9:5-6). But, please, no more Mosaic and Davidic talk about the government’s work in upholding the first table of the law. The sword cannot do it. If the sword is to enforce the first commandment, it will kill literally everyone because everyone has broken it, even as God had to exile Israel. Such is the lesson of the old covenant (see Rom. 3:23; 6:23). The most governments should do with regard to the first table of the law is to enforce the second and create a space for people to worship God as he commands—that is, to respect religious freedom.

In other words, Baptists will tend to invest more political hopes in the church and less in the state. Our expectations of the state will be comparatively tempered and less likely to succumb to some version of utopianism. It will feel, in that regard, more like liberalism.[7] The following six planks of the Baptist’s political platform follow this new covenant emphasis.

A Baptist political theology:

Begins with the church and baptism.

Like all Christians, Baptists believe that the source of true justice and righteousness is the new covenant gospel. We affirm a faith that leads to obedience (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). Inside the membership of a regenerate local church gospel obedience takes a social form as citizens of Christ’s heavenly kingdom together declare their shared allegiance to their covenant Lord, teach one another his law, and work to keep each other accountable to it. Together we work to exemplify, little by little, from one degree of glory to the next, a just body politic. God’s new covenant people do not presently possess a permanent piece of geography since our Lord commands us to transgress the boundaries of every nation (Matt. 28:18). Yet our assemblies represent “a reall, not a metaphoricall Kingdome,” in the words of Thomas Hobbes.[8] We are a holy nation, not just metaphorically, but really (1 Peter 2:9). Gathered local churches, in that regard, are embassies of Christ’s kingdom. Consecrated by the Lord Jesus himself, the gathering represents the temporary and proleptic geography of Christ’s kingdom: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20).[9]

The church is where humanity will finally learn to love its enemies, and to beat its swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. It’s where we learn to turn the other cheek. Kingdom citizens receive training to care about welfare policy as we give to the needy in our midst, to study tax policy as we consider a church budget and own giving, to understand family policy by helping one another’s marriages and education policy by caring for one another’s children, to consider race politics as we struggle to repent of our own partialities, and so it goes. Furthermore, a church’s kingdom politics should not remain in the gathering. It should spill outward and characterize a Christian’s entire week. Yet if the pursuit of justice and righteousness as a way of life, individually and socially, doesn’t begin inside the church, it possesses no integrity outside of the church.

For a Baptist politics to begin with the new covenant, in other words, it must begin with the priesthood of all believers, regenerate church membership, and believer’s baptism.

Insists on separating religious and political authorities as well as national and church identity.

A second implication of the new covenant is that religious and political authorities must remain separate. As Jesus said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Casually considered, people often assume the principle of separation pertains to the content of laws or the source of a law, as if to say, any laws I learned from my Bible should not be imposed on people who don’t believe in the Bible. It’s precisely this casual consideration which gets up the theonomist’s dander. And they’re right. What this casual consideration fails to reckon with is the question, can we “bracket out the religious content” of even our most basic laws, like the laws against murder or stealing? One political theorist says we can if the law can “be conceived of as issued by any number of commanders” and as possessing content with no necessary connection to those commanders.[10] The Bible might oppose murder because people are created in God’s image; but Islam and Buddhism and Confusionism and utilitarianism and moralistic therapeutic deism and secular humanism also oppose murder without that moral basis. Hence, the basic content (“don’t murder”) is not religious, but religiously neutral. So this theorist argues.

The trouble is, his argument turns the law against murder into something independent of all ethical systems and consciousnesses and moral bases—something issued from no one and for no reason but freely floating beyond all reckoning. In fact, murder is wrong only by virtue of someone’s moral (and ultimately religious) basis. Therefore, it’s better to say that a law against murder represents a point of overlap between so many religions and gods. The law against murder is not religiously neutral. It’s religiously popular. In the same way, no law is religiously neutral. Every law, even a law to drive on one side of the road rather than the other, possesses a moral basis and relies on a moral judgment, which in turn relies on a whole set of anthropological and theological (or anti-theological) judgments. All of that to say, the separation of church and state does not depend on whether a law is religious (all are) or establishes religion (all do). Humans are religious creatures, which means our laws and governments are invariably religious. Our governments serve our gods. Invariably. It’s an unbiblical and incoherent phenomenology which tries to divide politics and religion like this.

To return then to Jesus’s remark about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, it’s worth noticing the context. He also asked his audience whose image was on the coin. “Caesar’s,” they replied. Yet his question would have called to mind for this Jewish audience an even deeper lesson: that God’s image was on Caesar, even as Caesar’s image was on the coin. Caesar might own the coin, but God owns Caesar. Likewise, Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). In other words, Jesus doesn’t create two separate circles, one labelled Caesar’s things and one labelled God’s things. He creates one big circle labeled God’s things and inside of that a smaller circle labelled Caesar’s things.

Yet he does give Caesar a circle. Which is to say, all our politics may be religious, but Jesus still separates the political and religious authorities, or what we call church and state. Now we can sympathize with the philosophical liberals, at least as they should argue. From a biblical perspective, the separation of church and state instead pertains to (i) institutional authority and (ii) identity or membership. Respectively, then, the separation is breached (i) when the state wields the authority God gave to the church or the church wields the authority given to the state; or (ii) when the members of a nation are held to the standards of the members of a church in matters beyond the state’s jurisdiction. As an example of the first, one might think of Constantine’s participation in a matter of doctrine at the Council of Nicea or Calvin’s participation in a matter of the sword with the execution of Michael Servetus. As an example of the second, one might think of Charlemagne forcing conversion by the sword or the Massachusetts state legislature taxing Baptists to support Congregationalist churches.

Both Paedobaptist and Baptist theology can, in principle, maintain the separation in both senses here. Yet Baptist theology must maintain that line in order to be consistent with itself, while Paedobaptist theology, whether of the Roman Catholic or Protestant variety, can blur it. After all, it has a mechanism for inducting every natural born citizen of a nation into the church—infant baptism—making membership in the nation and the church nearly coterminous. The result is “Anglican England,” “Lutheran Germany,” “Catholic Spain,” “Christian Europe,” or “Congregationalist Massachusetts”—cuius regio, eius religio, as they put it in the sixteenth century. Within the Constantinian settlement, church and state formally remained separate authorities, adhering to the sixth-century Pope Gelasius’s two swords doctrine. The pope was not the emperor and the king was not the bishop. Yet the two authorities ruled jointly over one Christian nation or empire, which inevitably resulted in each involving itself within the jurisdiction of the other, again, as with Calvin’s call for the magistrate to enforce the first table of the law.

Insofar as the new covenant identifies true religion only with Holy Spirit indwelt believers, new covenant religion—aka, Christianity—cannot by definition belong to an entire nation or what a government is capable of imposing upon a nation. There is no such thing as a “Christian nation” in a baptistic understanding since the membership borders of the nation and the church will not overlap. Christian Europe was never Christian, Baptists say, but a continent of people who got wet as babies and a handful of whom might have become sincere Christians along the way. Baptists will reserve the name “Christian” for members of churches who have repented and believed. It must never belong to nations or political parties. Were a Baptist pastor somehow to become king, his baptistic understanding of the New Covenant, church membership, and baptism should prevent him treating all his citizens like church members, as with enforcing the first table of the Ten Commandments.

In short, the liberals are right: church and state must remain divided. Yet the theonomists, integralists, and establishmentarians are right: it all belongs to God. A Baptist political theology insists on both.


Thus ends the excerpt. In the second half of the chapter, I offer four more planks of a Baptist political theology. A Baptist political theology, I continue,

3. Defines the state as a platform-builder and the church as a sign-maker.

4. Assigns the state a narrow, protectionist, non-utopian jurisdiction.

5. Affirms religious freedom.

6. Encourages Christians to enter the public square as principled pragmatists with limited expectations.

If you’re still curious and can’t wait till the summer of 2023, I briefly touch on the substance of points 3 and 4 in “The Relationship of Church and State” at TGC; and points 5 and 6 can be found in the articles linked above or in How the Nations Rage. Or see Political Church.


  1. Since I’m attempting to cover so much territory so quickly, I’m not going to attempt to map out the differences between a full-blown “Christian reconstructionism” theonomy and the far-less developed “general-equity” theonomy, a phrase that has grown in popularity among some groups of pastors in recent years, or anything in between. It’s possible that some so-called general equity theonomists only mean to assert what I assert below. For my purposes here, I’m using the phrase “theonomy” here to refer to any perspective that would view the civil law under Moses as directly applicable to governments today. By establishmentarian, I’m referring to my self-identifying magisterial Protestant friends who would welcome some type of established church.
  2. James Madison drew the connection between Luther and liberalism when he referred in a personal letter to “the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations. The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.” In Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1865), 242-43. See also Jean Bethke Elshtain, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 81; and Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: The Age of the Reformation, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), see 3-19.
  3. Nicholas P. Miller, The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 131.
  4. Andrew Koppelman, Defending American Religious Neutrality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 16.
  5. I say “inconsistently” Christian due to the complicity of many Christians with racism in its various institutional forms.
  6. Institutes, book 4, ch. 2, sec. 9.
  7. In time, strains of Paedobaptist thinking (perhaps influenced by Baptists?) would move outside the Constantinian settlement and begin to more closely approximate both Baptist political theology and liberalism.
  8. Leviathan, edited by Richard Tuck in Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), ch. 35, para. 219.
  9. I develop these ideas in a number of places, most recently in chapter 1 of One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Church Models (Crossway, 2020).
  10. Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations of Locke’s Political Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 45-46.