Published September 21, 2022
In 1 Peter 2:14, the Apostle summarizes the task of political authority in two clauses: “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” We tend to focus on the former and forget the latter, but in fact, every government in every era finds ways to “praise those who do good,” using the authority of its institutions and the charisma of its leaders to signal which behaviors should be celebrated and which shunned. Moreover, every nation understands the importance of honoring its heroes with statues, parades, and other public displays of gratitude.
The foremost occasion for such praise is often the funeral, and on Monday, several billion people around the globe tuned in to watch the United Kingdom publicly praise the goodness of the queen who had just served them faithfully for 70 years. Perhaps even more strikingly, they got to watch the leading representatives of the British state also publicly praise the goodness of the Heavenly King whom Queen Elizabeth II had faithfully served throughout her long life. For many Christians who had questioned the relevance of an “established church” in an increasingly secular and irreligious society, Monday’s astonishing pageant of worship marked a compelling answer.
In many ways, the Church of England’s privileged status has dwindled to insignificance. For centuries now, other churches and indeed other religions have enjoyed freedom of worship, and in due course, all the civil liberties and privileges once reserved for good Anglicans. At the same time that these liberties have expanded, church attendance has contracted, with many Church of England parishes now empty and some sold off for use as mosques.
The Church’s leaders have also become increasingly cowardly about proclaiming the truths of Scripture to a world indisposed to listen, and political leaders have increasingly sidelined the Church they are constitutionally bound to protect. For all that, the establishment is still able to serve one crucial function, a function it fulfilled powerfully on Monday morning: It enables the state to offer public acknowledgment of the faith that sustains it.
The state funeral of Queen Elizabeth was, for many viewers, jaw-dropping in its sheer pageantry, evoking biblical descriptions of the ordered ranks of angelic choirs in its fusion of martial and liturgical splendor. Even—especially—amid the flatness and banality of modern life, humanity naturally longs for some glimpse of the transcendent. On Monday, we were treated to more than a mere glimpse, and countless millions were transfixed by what they saw. As dazzling as the visual display was, however, perhaps even more striking was the spoken message for ears that for decades in the Western world have been subjected to “a famine not of bread or of water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).
From the beginning of the service to the end, the prayers, the hymns, the sermon of Archbishop Welby, and the Scripture readings—most resounding of all the reading of 1 Corinthians 15—proclaimed the good news of the gospel, the warning of judgment, and the hope of the resurrection with more clarity and confidence than one would have believed possible from such a moribund institution.
However, it could all have easily rung hollow as mere outward ceremony, the mouthing of pious words in the absence of any real faith, had not Queen Elizabeth’s life been characterized by personal devotion to her Savior and Lord, a devotion she was not afraid to publicly voice on important national occasions. As monarch, Elizabeth understood the crucial political responsibility to praise what is good, in both word and deed, pointing an increasingly unwilling nation toward their chief end: God.
For us in America, much of this can seem far away and far afield. We have no established church, no monarch, and have always eschewed elaborate ceremony such as that displayed on Monday. We might tune in as occasional spectators, but little more. However, our First Amendment was never intended to preclude our governing officials from similarly offering public acknowledgement of the faith that sustains our nation.
Indeed, George Washington was but one of many presidents to use his office to invite his people to praise God the author of all good, declaring in his 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation, “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”
Such acknowledgment, especially when accompanied by the visible witness of a devout personal faith, is no mere empty form, but a powerful political statement. May God use Monday’s royal funeral to rekindle personal faith in the hearts of many, and to inspire us here in America with a vision for Christian statesmanship.
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.