In August 2001, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore erected a 2.5-ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the state Supreme Court building—raising a storm of legal controversy that ended in the forced removal of the monument and the removal of Moore from office. In an interview with Christianity Today, Moore insisted, "The acknowledgment of God is basic to our society, to our law, and to our morality." But for others, the mixing of religion and public justice went too far.

The questions raised by this controversy—very familiar ones for Americans grappling with the separation of church and state—are some of the same questions that have faced Christians in many different historical situations. What is the proper role of the government in relation to the church? Should Christians be trying to bring about a "Christian society"? To what extent can we place our hope in politicians and political processes to accomplish this?

These questions came to the forefront in the 16th century when Europe was caught in a struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the emerging Protestants. We tend to think of the Protestant reformers as primarily interested in theological issues: justification by faith, the supreme authority of Scripture, and the priesthood of all believers. But in a culture where religious life and civic life were so closely linked—where the pope fought battles and secular rulers appointed clergy, and where the ordinary lives of citizens were built around the beliefs and rituals of the church—it was impossible to escape the political ramifications of breaking ties with the Catholic mainstream.

The reformers developed their views within a political ...

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