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Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Reflection on the Separation of Church and State


My last blog was a discussion of the separation of church and state in the U.S. I focused on the prohibition of government intrusion into the free exercise of religion, including the right to take stands on political and ethical issues based on one’s faith, using the comparison of separation and divorce as a paradigm.  It seems only proper to balance that discussion with a few comments about the limits of church influence over government as well, a side of the issue not as well considered in many churches.

This separation of church and state in the U.S. constitution was created by a clause - a sentence inserted into the constitution by the framers - who were concerned about the possibility of a national religion.  There was a concern about protecting the future of this country becoming a repeat of the past.  Certainly part of that reaction was against governments that select church leaders and extract taxes from their citizens to provide support for the church, creating a state run church rather than a church overseen by the religious leaders.  (I refer only to church, not mosques or Buddhist temples for example, because it was primarily out of the European and early American experience of government’s role with the Christian and maybe the Jewish faith that shaped early American thinking.)  

What history and experience taught certain founding fathers was not only that government should not intrude into religious life, but that religious leadership also should not be able to control or dictate government practice as well.  While the following may feel like rather a dry litany of history (or if you are a history buff, an oversimplification of the issues discussed), I think it would be well worth any lover of religious liberty to know and take note of these lessons from the past.

Historically, there were plenty of examples of the marriage of religion and government with terrible consequences.  Certainly the Roman Empire’s emperor worship which resulted in the mortal persecution of Christians (and any others who would not declare Caesar to be a god) left an indelible impact on history.  Once the religious tide turned in Rome with Constantine, then the excesses went the other way.  With the pope’s crowning of Charlemagne, the government moved toward becoming the arm of the Catholic Church.  In that era and subsequent years, Jews and Christian dissenters were treated very harshly, readily seen with the notorious Inquisition.  

It was in a similar spirit that the Crusades were begun (for more reasons than simply reclaiming religious lands), and the Crusaders became the arm of both the church and the government, as they sought to undo the Muslim conquests of the Middle East and Holy Lands that established the Ottoman Empire.  On both the Muslim side and the Christian side, the joining of the sword of government with the practice of faith resulted in brutal and intolerant governments, (although, with the Inquisition, the Jewish people were treated much better in Muslim lands than in western Christendom).

One would think that by the time of the Reformation, the Christians would have seen the dangers of the combination, but it was not so.  The Geneva community under Calvin’s leadership was highly intolerant of any “heretics” who did not agree with Calvin’s theology.  English Separatists suffered political and legal consequences for not abiding by the doctrines of the Church of England, even to the point of death.  

So when these Separatists headed out of England as pilgrims to the American colonies, they had learned their lessons on this topic, right?  Wrong.  

Colonial American history includes the infamous Salem witch trials and conversion of Native Americans at the point of the sword.  American religious liberty first began in Rhode Island, where colony founder and Baptist leader Roger Williams established a colony in which diversity of religion would be tolerated.  Later, Thomas Jefferson’s observation of France, combined with petition by the Baptists in Virginia, resulted in the religious freedom of the First Amendment.

Are these still issues today?  

I believe they are in many ways.  In the U.S., some on the extreme Christian right believe that only Christians should be in power, or that the laws of the land should always conform to the teachings of Christianity.  They have a hard time with living in a secular and pluralistic society (as also do the extreme liberal left who want an end of Christianity, or for the Christian faith to be cloistered safely out of the way in church buildings.)  But in other parts of the world, we are seeing Christianity is not the only place religion and government need to be separated.  Countries under the domination of Sharia law these days are experiencing radical and mortal persecution of non-Muslims.  

Burma has been a dictatorial society hostile to religious leaders, especially Buddhist monks.  

Israel has worked hard in its struggle to keep a balance in secular society, as secular Jews clash with the rabbinate or when various religions reach out in what some in their government call, “proselytizing.”  

Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, animistic…almost any religion can lead a government into excess attitudes toward those of other faiths.  

On the other hand, governments not guided by the truths of moral religion become even more dangerous to their people.  The Nazi regime is a prime example, but not the only example.  In Communist countries, religious leaders have been imprisoned, tortured and believers persecuted, even to the point of being denied legal job opportunities, for not adhering to the communist religion of atheism.  The resulting lack of any true moral compass resulted in a government willing to treat individuals in whatever ways they wanted, often very brutally, particularly toward any whose views or actions did not fit with the whims of the party.  

So while I made clear that I believe the government needs to not start dictating what religious practice looks like, I also know that though most religions contain some lofty ideals, the lessons of history and the world around us are that if one religion becomes too controlling of the government, it can also lead to dangerous excess.  

A secular government informed by moral religions may be frustrating at times, but still seems the best compromise in the reality of a pluralistic world.  I’m sure there are some in other countries who feel that their governments have attained a healthy balance, and if so, good for you!  But at this point, it would appear that not only the United States, but many other countries need to establish and maintain a healthy dividing line of control between their governments and their religious institutions.  

Discussion, debate and guidance should come from the religious community, but I still believe decision and control needs to remain in the hands of the governing officials for the good of ALL its citizens, including the non-religious, without bias toward or against the religious citizens as well.  It seems to me that this delicate balance is an significant issue at the forefront of many debates in the United States in our time.  Hopefully, experience and history will inform our decisions as the constitutional rights guide our leadership.   And may our motto forever be, “In God we trust.”

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