Friday, February 8, 2013

Re-Thinking Politics #1: The Relationship Between Church and State

Many of my closest friends and family members consider my political views to be "extreme". I am not offended by this label, but I do get frustrated when people dismiss my perspective without really considering it, just because it falls outside of the normal scope of accepted positions. In response, I hope to offer a series of blog posts that clarifies my political understanding. And I would like to start with the tricky issue of the relationship between religion and government, for this has been the central issue that has caused me to bounce all over the political spectrum until I sorted this out. 

Before I can start making an argument, I have to acknowledge that this is emotionally sensitive for a lot of people. Unfortunately, there seems to be a "culture war" between Republicans and Democrats on this very topic, and both groups feel religiously oppressed by the other. [E1] As the two sides have clashed over the role religion should play in the political sphere, they have increasingly utilized rhetoric that belittles the other party as stubborn, unintelligent, or immoral. Of course, once you start to believe these things about your opponents, civil conversation becomes impossible. If we want to make any progress at all, we must begin with the assumption that there must be some legitimate concerns behind the opposing view and try to understand what they are thinking before we critique them.

Let's start with the view that there should be a strict separation between church and state. For many people, this principle is the very one that makes our country great. Such persons will point out that for most of history and (still in many places in the world), people were discriminated against, exiled, and even executed simply for opposing the state-sponsored religion. This oppression has resulted in the suppression of science, divinely-sanctioned tyranny, and some of the bloodiest wars in world history. In response to this, the United States was designed to be a different kind of nation, one which would allow religious freedom. Thus, it is not insignificant that the very first line of the very first amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

These same people point out that our government nevertheless supports an established religion in a number of ways. For example, our coins say, "In God We Trust," we pledge allegiance to a nation "under God," and we have a number of laws that only make sense in the context of Christianity. [E2] Thus, they see the vision of religious freedom one that has yet to be fulfilled, and they are committed to the ongoing task of making the government more true to its original principle.

On the other hand, there are people who argue that the complete separation of church is not only inadvisable; it is actually impossible. After all, governments are not morally neutral entities. We believe that governments, laws, and even constitutions can be just or unjust, moral or immoral. But this implies that there is a higher standard of justice or morality by which we can judge our laws. So, lurking in the background of our "political" discourse is a set of ethical convictions that are derived from religions. For example, when the colonists declared independence from England, they did so on the grounds that every individual is "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Thus our entire political system is grounded in the religious claim that people have rights. [E3] And this is just one example. 

Some people argue that these religious and ethical instincts are the glue that hold us together. According to them, it is better to acknowledge that our moral compass was shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition and to try to work within it than to pretend that we are amoral people, for in the process of so pretending, we may actually lose our moral compass. They too see our culture moving in a certain political direction, but they don't see this motion as progress. On the contrary, they think it leads to ethical, and ultimately political, anarchy.

I think there is something to be said about both of these arguments. [E4] Christians can find biblical support for either position. Some Christians believe that Scripture calls them to reform the government. [E5] They point to texts like 2 Chronicles 7:12-18, which underscores the need for nation-wide obedience to God. Other Christians believe that our religious life and political life should not be intermixed. They often cite Jesus' comment, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." (Luke 20:25) But there is a third option for Christians which largely goes unrecognized. This option both recognizes the importance both of aligning our political life with our religious convictions and of respecting religious freedom. How can both of these be possible? By seeing the Church as a distinct political entity, whose membership is completely voluntary.

According to this view, the Church does not work within the government or alongside of the government, but in contrast to the government. When its advocates say, "Jesus is Lord," they mean it not only cosmically (as in "Jesus ultimately holds power over everything that happens in the universe), not only personally (as in "Jesus is the Lord of my life,") but also and especially politically (as in "When Jesus came to earth, he established himself as humanity's true king and set up a kingdom of voluntary subjects whom we call Christians.") Notice, this view necessarily denies that the other "kingdoms" of the world are valid, which essentially puts it "at war" with them. [E6] This is, after all, why the Roman government had to kill Jesus. They were not wrong in identifying him as an insurrectionist. Although Jesus was a nonviolent person, he nevertheless denied the authority of the Roman government and started a counter-revolution who looked forward to an alternative "kingdom of God." This kingdom reigns with perfect justice because Jesus himself is its head, but it also respects religious freedom because it alone expands by voluntary membership. Or at least, that's the only way it should expand.

For many of you, this view will strike you as bizarre if not downright offensive. Still, I ask you to bare with me as I flesh it out in the next several posts, considering subjects like the social contract, property laws, and geographical boundary lines to defend this perspective.

End Notes

[E1] This actually does not split evenly into a Republican/Democrat debate anymore, or even as Evangelicals versus nonreligious people. On the contrary, many Evangelical Republicans are appealing to the separation of church and state to defend their practices (e.g. their "right" to discriminate against homosexuality) while Democrats are using more religious language to support their views and causes (e.g. helping the poor). Additionally, there are a number of Christians, even Evangelicals, who believe that their views should have no business in politics, as well as a number of non-Christians who agree that the principle of religious freedom can go too far and produce an unethical society. Nevertheless, this nuanced debate is perceived as a culture war between two sides, and as we shall see in later posts, perception plays a significant role  in shaping political realities.

[E2] For example, in Indiana, you cannot purchase alcohol on Sundays. This clearly derives from the Jewish and Christian concern to respect the Sabbath, and specifically the Christian interpretation that the Sabbath is Sunday. Nonbelievers are understandably frustrated that they are forced to honor this Christian holiday, which has no meaning for them.

[E3] Of course, it's debatable how "Christian" this view really is. Here, I am not making a theological claim that human rights are a theologically defensible concept but the genealogical claim that they can be traced back to a Christian heritage.

[E4] Of course, I represented these two options in their pure form, while in reality there are a number of people who stand somewhere in the middle.

[E5] This is coming from both Republicans and Democrats, just on separate issues.

[E6] The most helpful modern political concept that I can use to explain this is "recognition." In some places in the world, countries reject other countries' claims of authority by refusing to "recognize" them as legitimate. Unfortunately, this is not just a political insult. When one nation doesn't "recognize" another, it has profound "practical" effects. It gives the former nation the implicit right to commit whatever acts are necessary to bring those outlaws back in order, and it refuses to meet with the leadership of the opposing nation from compromise because such a meeting would seem to legitimize their authority. In a similar way, the claim "Jesus is Lord" refused to recognize the Caesars as Lord, and this is what got both Jesus and the early Christians in trouble.