There are no more New Worlds.
Consider the original “Brexit,” if you will, conceived and executed back in the mid-to-late 18th century. The United States of America, in a revolution born from the chaos of desperation and reaction, effectively severed ties with her mother country, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, if you ask ten historians about the reasons behind America’s move toward independence, you’ll get ten different answers with a few commonalities between them. One of the largest threads that connects them all would be the reason of religious freedom.
Granted, I’m not of the opinion that the American Revolution was solely because of religious reasons — those pesky inevitabilities called “taxes” and “corruption” played a massive part — but it’s clear that this was a significant motivating factor for many of those who would vie (or at least pray) for the independence of the New World. To let Chuck Wills say it, “Following the desire for a better material life for themselves and their children, the desire for religious freedom probably motivated more immigrants to come to America than any other concern—and the two desires have often been inextricably linked.”1
In short, here in what would later be called “America,” most Christians felt that they had a better chance than ever to practice their religion without fear of persecution or pressure to conform to the religious establishment of the State.
Did this have negative consequences? Well, yes— look around. There’s hundreds of denominations born from the same expressive individualism that’s now evolved into postmodernism today. But the heart of the desire was, I think, generally noble: Americans wanted religious freedom. The New World was the answer right under their feet.
Before I get to my point, it’s important that you know that this isn’t the first time in Christian history that this sort of thing has happened — even as early as the first century Anno Domini, when the going got rough in Jerusalem, much of the early church scattered. They found the (relative) freedom to practice elsewhere. This continued to happen throughout much of Christian history; in fact, the first three hundred years of Christianity could be rightly characterized as a seemingly impossible amalgamation of secrecy and public witness, fear and boldness, staying and scattering. It wasn’t until the early 4th century that Christians finally had a little bit more room to breathe in terms of having freedom to practice their religion, but this came at a cost.
I’ll spare you the details, but Constantine’s Edict of Milan was not without its demerits. The very freedom that it purported to give to Christians wasn’t too much of a freedom at all. Roman citizens were essentially coerced to become Christians — that is, whatever Constantine and his posse declared to be Christianity, anyhow — or face death. So, in essence, true freedom to practice one’s religion wasn’t possible here. This continued throughout the Medieval period, but let’s fast forward to the Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation was itself an attempt to course-correct where the Roman Catholic State-Church had gone sorely awry. From the sale of indulgences to corruption within the State-Church hierarchy, folks like Martin Luther had had enough. However, the Daughter that estranged herself from the Mother wasn’t too different in some fairly important ways, and Christians ended up with much of the same thing from which they originally intended to distance themselves — where the Reformation may have set some theological errors at rights, it only further propagated the problem of a State-Church religion and compulsory conformation to a particular religion. Blood was still shed by professing Christians, even to the point of torture and extreme barbarism in the name of both of the the State-Churches.
So now instead of just one State-Church, you had two: the Holy Roman Empire (anglicized though it was, being in England and all) and the Church of England, born from the womb of lecherous lust of Henry the 8th just decades after the Protestant Reformation began. Both religious empires were insistent that religion should be practiced on their terms, and neither had leaders that were anything but people of ill repute.
This is one of the reasons, then, why the idea of a commitment to not passing laws with respect to any particular religion combined with what would later be presented by Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association as the “separation of church and state” sounded quite good to Christians who were unable to practice religion according to their consciences.
And here we arrive at the crux of this brief article: There remain no New Worlds to which to flee. While there is no torture at the hands of brutal dictators bearing religious titles, there are other tyrants at play, causing Christians to want to escape America and all her Western iedological pressures and (relative) persecutions.
But there are no more places to go. No more bunkers to which we can run, no more burrows into which we can dive, no more new shores on which we can land. We’re out of options. We must seek to do what, I think, was always the goal that Christ had in mind for his followers — allow the Gospel to transform our culture and country, one home at a time, one community at a time.
We’ll get into the “how” in a later article, but for now I’ll leave you with that sentiment: There are no more New Worlds. We’ve got what we’ve got. We can either change it or continue to curse the darkness until it enfolds us one by one. Grim reality, I know. But it’s also an inevitability unless we become vehicles for the Gospel to do what it always was supposed to do: change the world from the inside out with the Good News that Jesus is King, and Caesar is not.
By Michael Britt
1 Wills, Charles. Destination America, DK Publishers, 2005