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.


Anonymous said...

"Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor." Romans 13:1-7

I feel like this has been touched upon in the bible already. Yes, Jesus is Lord. Yes, God is the only true power for apart from God "Everything is meaningless", but denying the validity of what God has established? I see little honor in that. Especially when some of these politicians profess "Jesus is Lord" as well.

I fear much of today's political discourse in the U.S. stems from a lack of faith in people. A lack of faith even in those who claim to share religious values. Somewhere along the way, Americans have thought it better to put their trust in laws. Our "judges" judge very little these days.

And that is where separation of church and state becomes impossible. The written law can separate church and state, but only if it is written in a way that leaves much up to the politicians and judicial system to determine. These people however cannot separate church and state within themselves with anything short of schizophrenia. Thus we vote for and God establishes people, not laws.

"and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." Romans 13:9b-10

Love...not laws. Love best comes from God through people, not paper.

God bless. I am glad you are thinking about such things instead of just conforming.

John Zacharias Crist said...

Hah! Very nice third stance. You basically described the Caliphate in Islam - it's nothing new actually, however, it is completely misunderstood and undiscussed in the West for many political reasons. I always wondered after "becoming muslim" why my elementary and middle school history books (pre 9-11) never mentioned ANYTHING about muslims at all.

Anyway, it was always the belief in islam that adherance to the "shariah" (islamic law) can only be expected by muslims and that non-muslims are not only not bound by it but are able to follow their own religious laws without interference by muslims. This is a step further than what is practiced in the US because it guarantees not only the freedom to publicly express and practice one's own religion but also to be held to a separate set of laws. Furthermore, since becoming muslim is entirely voluntary, no one can be forced to follow islamic law.

Brian Bither said...

Dear friend,

Thanks for both your reply, which you worded carefully and with much grace. I am glad that you brought up Romans 13, as this is the main passage used to defend the governmental policies. Indeed, this text has been cited for centuries to defend selfish wars and bizarre policies, such as the divine right of kings (which - if you believed it, would imply that the American colonists had no right to rebel against England, for it was an "authority established by God.") But I think this passage is terribly misunderstood. Let me offer a four-part analysis/critique. I would be interested in your feedback.

[Part 1] We must remember that the chapter divisions were not original to the text. We tend to read Romans 13 as a distinct unit, but it really can only be properly understood in conjunction with Romans 12. In the verses leading up to Romans 13, Paul tells the Romans to "Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse." (12:14) He was most likely referring to the Roman government, for the greatest persecution against Christians in the world occurred in the city of Rome (starting the in reign of Claudius and culminating with Nero). For those Christians, they automatically thought of Rome as their enemy, and so there was no need for Paul to demonize Rome. On the contrary, he encouraged the Christians "not to repay evil with evil" (12:17) and to "overcome evil with good." (12:21) After this, he takes his argument one step further, which is how chapter 13 begins.

[Part 2] In chapter 13 (not really a distinct unit)Paul argues that despite all of its flaws, the Roman government is still under God's sovereignty and can be used by him. This recalls the Old Testament passages in which God used Assyria and Babylon - two evil empires - to bring about his purposes, without by any means suggesting that these were good or even legitimate nations. (SUPPORT) This parallel is particularly striking in Revelation, which consistently refers to the Roman Empire as "Babylon," to depict it as an entire empire in rebellion to God. (SUPPORT)

[Part 3] Your argument hinges on the idea that God "established" the governing authorities, but I think this is a bad translation of the Greek word "tetagmenai." That word usually means "to place in a certain order, to arrange, to assign a place, to appoint," not to set something up in the first place. The point here is not that God CREATED the Roman Empire (or any subsequent one), with the implication that we better respect it, but that God "puts it in its place." There is no need to take up arms against this empire because God is sovereign over it, God keeps it in check, and, in fact, it unwittingly serves God's purposes for good.

[Part 4] While this may strike you as a suspicious interpretation (because it is unfamiliar to most Evangelicals), let me at least point to another text in the Pauline writings where it is clear that Christianity is an opposing force to the "worldly" governments. Ephesians 6:12 says, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against THE RULERS, against THE AUTHORITIES (the exact same Greek word as used for "governing authorities" in Romans 13:1), against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."

Finally, I wanted to say that I was intrigued by your comment, "Love best comes from God through people, not paper." I think I can agree with that, but I'm not quite sure what you mean. Would you mind expanding? You may find that we agree more than you think.

Brian Bither said...

Whoops! Forgot to go back and cite my Biblical references. On God using Assyria and Babylon as evil authorities that God has nevertheless "ordered," see examples in Isaiah 10:5-19 and Ezekiel 21:18-23. Revelation refers to Rome as Babylon in Rev. 14:8, 16:19, 17:5, 18:2, 18:10 & 18:22.

Brian Bither said...

Interesting. How then would those nations which try to incorporate some aspects of Sharia law into their governmental policies understand themselves? Do they seem themselves as being under the jurisdiction of the Caliphate, or are they necessarily committed to some kind of "separation of church and state" too?

Brian Bither said...

Also, didn't Muhammad himself support military conquests, including the struggle against the pagan rulers of Mecca? Doesn't this counter the principle of only ruling over people who voluntarily accept one's rule, or am I misunderstanding something?

Zack Crist said...

Hey Brian, I think if you were to ask most muslims today, very few would even try to argue that there is an islamic government existant on earth. The whole idea of nation-state, borders, race, etc on which countries are based on are competely foreign concepts actually - even the idea of having a "last name" is a foreign concept in islam. This goes especially for the two most "islamic" countries of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Essentially, there is no Caliphate, the English destroyed it - as was their goal to do in the first place. Furthermore, since there is no Caliphate, islamic law is not really something that can be applied on the government level. Since the state's entire foundations are anti-islamic (I'm using this term because I can't think of a better one), to say that you are following the rules of islam is kind of silly. This is my understanding at least.

Essentially, religion and the state were separate entities, the people were religious and wanted to follow religious rules which they learned from the inheretors of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) and then forced the government to implement such laws in their daily lives. This was a choice by themselves. Now were there abuses by the government, yes - but did (and do) the people try to change them for the better, yes.

The pagan rulers of Mecca were the aggressors, there was a 10 year peace agreement made by Muhammed (pbuh) which the pagans subsequently broke. The battles that Muhammed (pbuh) fought were in self-defense. While in Mecca, before going to Medina, he was always looking for people who would willingly adopt his message. He was invited to Medina by the people there to manage the city after they had accepted islam. The government he set up was not what he sought, it was given to him. He wanted people to believe in God and the people believed and wanted to practice their belief in their every day life.

Anonymous said...

"Love best comes from God through people, not paper."

The Old Testament ought to serve as a good example of this. Under the "law" of Moses, which would seem to have been understood as a book of rules, people could not be saved by deeds or the lack of certain evil works. Sure it is easy to say "stop sinning." It is easier to quantify and measure actions than love. So we make a list of rules, "don't do this... don't do that."

So we tell them "Don't do that...don't murder." What have we accomplished? A murderous heart that has been told not to murder. A murderous heart that has been told it is wrong. A murderous heart that might not murder because of the repercussions but a murderous heart nonetheless.

In the last scenario, some might like to think they have accomplished something. Certainly, a political system must operate under what is quantifiable or able to be measured. Action and consequence ought to be perfectly acceptable when addressing the action. I touch a hot stove, I get burned. Action and reaction.

But in matters of the heart, nothing has changed. Matters that are of eternal significance.

I do see our common ground as I think we agree that the law ought to exist apart from the church as worldly and simple as the cause and effect law of nature, but I do, however, believe in electing national leaders (as opposed to only lawmakers as some would reasonably desire) that inspire people to do the right thing rather than the government just forcing them to do so for fear of the consequences. Do not misunderstand me as I believe the law ought to have consequences for actions, but I don’t mind supplementing the government with leaders as well.

Perhaps I worded the sentence poorly. I suppose what I mean by “Love best comes from God through people, not paper" is that “God is love” and love is His image, “God created man in his own image”, man was created in the image of love, and even non-Christians are capable of such wonderful love. It is who they are and what they are made of, and to try to say or give the appearance that love only comes through the Church is inaccurate and quickly proven erroneous. I don’t mind the inspiration for love to come from something that is supposed to have separated church and state because if it does inspire love, then that love inevitably points to Christ and God and the Holy Spirit, and if people want to love and be loved enough, they are going to become a part of His Church.

My sentence seems to me to be “Love best comes from Love through love, not paper."