Posted by: dacalu | 20 May 2010

Mine, Yours, and Ours

I think we can all agree on the need for a state of some sort. After all, we want to do things as a group that we cannot do alone. We want roads and post offices, telephone and internet regulations, laws, utilities, etc. We also want the reliability of knowing how our neighbors will react if we step on their toes. Laws do that for us. They don’t just give us lists of don’ts (don’t walk on the grass, don’t speed), they give us penalties if we do. That way we can make informed decisions about when, if ever, we should want to break them. The state provides common action, common goods, and consistency.

The more challenging question has to do with the separation of church and state. If religion is such a good thing, why not have religious leaders? After all, they’d be motivated by faith to work on behalf of the community, wouldn’t they? Perhaps they would, but that’s not really the point. Neither is, surprisingly, a question of whether they are good at their religion or whether we agree with their religion. The separation of church and state has to do with individual conscience.

It’s easy to imagine a religious state; many of them exist in the world. The challenge comes from the ability – even the obligation – of the religious state to motivate us religiously. Religious institutions have religious agendas and the beliefs of the faithful fall pretty squarely into that category. So let us do a thought experiment. One of two things could occur.

First, I might live in a state where my faith was not the religion of the nation. This has some pretty serious drawbacks, because the state is not only empowered, but expected to favor this other religion. It has an interest in converting me. I don’t want to live in such a state.

So far so good. I think most people recognize this argument and are happy they don’t live as a minority in a religious state.

Second, I might live in a state where my faith was the religion of the nation. In this case, the state has an interest in maintaining belief in a particular way – one that favors the existence of the state and the homogeneity of believers. History seems quite clear on this: religious states push for consistent belief. From the Roman Empire to the English Commonwealth, we see examples of affairs of state becoming affairs of religion. The definition of marriage comes to mind; there is an extensive legal literature running from Late Antiquity to the Enlightenment about who may marry whom and under what circumstances. And, while some of this has to do with very real theological concerns, by and large the theological arguments were settled early. (All you need is a couple, not sibs or cousins, wishing to marry and exchanging vows. That’s it.) The challenge comes with the transfer of property and consent of the parents – entirely unnecessary theologically, but economically important.

It’s not religious influence on the state that bothers me.
It’s civil influence on the church.
It’s the corruption that comes from temporal power.

Even if I were appointed President and High Priest, I know that I lack the virtue to be both a good civil leader and a good religious leader. Separation of church and state protects the church from undue influence – even if we all share the same faith. It protects my conscience from having to choose because the state gives me clear guidelines. I know that I can break the law for the sake of my conscience because I know what the law is and I know the penalties for breaking it. What greater freedom could I have?

It’s tempting to think that I could construct the perfect religious state, but I can avoid the temptation. I know that my faith calls me into being a member of the church and a citizen of the Kingdom and no matter how hard we try, human states will never equal those divine institutions. I believe in a limited (a constitutional) democracy because it allows me and my co-religionists to vote for our priorities without dictating them. A constitutional state can have the humility to avoid being an idol (though we may wish to make it one anyway).

So, as a good Christian, I never want to live in a Christian state. It would require far to many compromises to my faith. As a Christian I believe in a constitutional government that keeps strict bounds between itself and the church, avoiding legal, political, and financial entanglements. For at the end of times I know that the state, along with the world, will fall away, and only those things that can let go will remain.

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