Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Separation of Church and State

Merry Christmas, everyone! I know this note doesn't exactly fit the Christmas theme or season, but it's something that's been on my mind for awhile now, which I've only recently had the time to write. I'll apologize up front for it's length, but I hope you'll all read this and respond. And again, have a very merry Christmas.

I've long believed that to attempt to separate church and state to it's fullest extent possible would be nothing short of a complete catastrophe. Just as having the church and state united to its fullest form has proven foolhardy whenever attempted in the past, so would having the two completely separated, as was the case, in part, with the communist Soviet Union. As many would guess, I am not in favor of the complete separation of church and state. However, I do agree with a great many liberals that there should and must be some degree of separation between the two.

When Rome fell, it was the church for which people turned to for authority and leadership. For a time, this was perhaps a very good thing. The church, being the embodiment of Christ, can do a lot of good when given such a good degree of power. However, the church being comprised of flawed and sinful human beings, despite its strong connections with Christ, can still do a great deal of evil when given unlimited powers. It does not take much to corrupt a man's actions when their actions are left unchecked and unquestioned. There has been a great deal of evil done throughout the course of mankind's existence in the name of God and Christ and goodness. I'll bring your attention to the Inquisition, which took place due to the authority given to the church. Many innocent people were not only tortured but murdered because of their rightly or wrongly believed beliefs against the church. To control its masses, the church provided fear to the people in order to retain their power over them. And their desire was to enforce Christian beliefs upon all peoples.

This is foolhardy. And this is why it is not good for the church to have total authority over the state. You see, the state itself is a secular institution. Whenever the two are united to become one, one may be improved, the other degraded, but both corrupted by their unity. Whatever people may hope to believe, the answer to an improved state is not for it to be governed or put in the hands of the church to control. That has been proven well not to work.

Having said this, I do not believe the two, church and state, can, nor ever should be, completely separated. For when that happens, the two can very easily become enemies. The state wanting to condemn the church for what it wants and the church wanting to condemn the state for its wants, neither working with the other for the good of their people. That is why the two should never be entirely divided. To eliminate all connections would be just as incomprehensible and as destructive as the other extreme.

In our modern times, as we foolishly call them so, we have been presented with this particular dilemma again. How far should the church and state be divided, and to what extreme measures should we take to achieve this? Some would argue that Christians have no place at all within the political sphere. Some would attest that any public acts of worship be completely forbidden. And still, some would insist we have only secularism, without any church or religion at all. Within our society, the extreme toward secularism is already proven its way forward. Just as the total control of the church has proven foolhardy, so has the total control of the state. I do not doubt we are heading in a very grim direction. For just as the church has tried to enforce its ways through acts of violence, so has and will a completely secular state try to enforce its ways upon those of faith (persecution). I personally believe it can be a very good thing when men and women of faith enter the world of politics. If they remain governed by their Christian values and morals then they should prove to be decent politicians who truly do good things for the people they represent. I will always vote in any election for the man whom I believe holds to these values and morals above anything else. That is the man or woman I will most likely trust to be honest, good, kind, and moral when in office. Now, though that is the person I would want in office, I would not expect that person to create or enforce laws, which would impose certain Christian beliefs upon others. It is not the business of the church to attempt forcing others to believe as it does. Being tyrannical never wins anyone over for the Lord. All that does is promote fear and hatred of the church, and in consequence, towards Christ.

This, I believe, is a moderate view. It is the view that people of faith should be allowed a part or place in the workings of the state, so long as they do not attempt, once allowed into that place, to force Christian beliefs onto other people. Influence should certainly be allowed, but enforcement, no.

One other reason for why I believe this way is because of what I already mentioned about enemies. When the two become completely divided, or separated, they naturally become inclined to distrust and dislike each other. If all people of faith are excluded from politics, then that naturally means all people of the secular state are excluded from the church, religion, or faith. Or, we will have no politicians and be governed by who knows whom. As Christians, we should not want this. As secular beings, we should not want the church excluded from the state either. Men of high morals will do far better than those with very little. Now this is not to suggest men of faith always act morally. Far too often they do not act morally at all. But this is just to suggest they are perhaps more likely to act moral. So, it is good for the two to be united to some extent. Not completely united, but not completed separated either.

What's more, if a Christian does enter into politics, to ask them, or to demand of them, not to consider their faith in making decisions is quite impossible and impractical. If a Christian man is elected to the office of the president, of course he should govern as the Christian man he is. He should not attempt to be something he is not just to prove separation of church and state. To separate a man in such a way is to make him two-faced, and able of doing very little good to satisfy anyone in such a state. I tend to believe to some extent our current president, George W. Bush, has at times faced this dilemma. He has had to decide whether he should be a Christian president or a secular one. Depending on the situation and the company around him, he has made his decisions, but in doing so, I believe he has obviously separated himself into two people. There is the Christian president who upholds most Christian values and morals, helping with AID's causes in Africa and implementing additional tax breaks for churches that provide a public service, and there is the secular president who seems to favor war to diplomacy and fights for measures which allow the rich to get richer and the poor poorer. Granted, speaking of President Bush, he has made his decisions of his own accord. No one has forced him to be the sort of president he has been. Influenced, perhaps, but not forced, I do not believe. But clearly, he is a president who at times has acted very Christlike, while at other times, very non-Christlike. His presidency proves many things though. One is that even a Christian man can do a bad job in office and do a lot of potentially immoral things while in that position. Two, he is a Christian who I believe has genuinely tried to follow his faith while in office. At times this has proven both wise and unwise. As a Christian, he has attempted at times to push his faith down others' throats. For instance, he has said on many occasions that he would support an amendment to the constitution banning gay marriage. Now, as a Christian, I am not in support of gay marriage. However, I strongly disagree that it is the governments place to tell two people how they should or should not live their lives in such a way. If two gay men, or two gay women, wish to be united in a secular marriage, it's their business to do so. And so, I believe this is one regard where the Christian President Bush has overstepped some. Three, President Bush, as a Christian, has given in to many secular demands. The call to war, for instance, could be an example of this. Likewise, his less than always truthful, or moral, means by which he got elected and then reelected as president are certainly in question here.

But let's say a man unwilling to compromise his Christian beliefs becomes president of the United States. Should he be asked to compromise? If he does not compromise, should he be forced out of office? Here is the conflict. How can a truly Christian man become the leader of a secular institution? For if he becomes its leader, will he have to compromise, ask others to compromise, or will he completely rule by tyranny to promote his ideals or beliefs onto others? Or, another possibility, will he do nothing?

A solution to this problem can be summed up by one phrase spoken by Jesus, which is, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's”. In the realm of politics, I should think this would mean that a Christian man should do what he can through that office for the Lord, but likewise handle those secular issues as best he can without infringing on those of secular beliefs and without disregarding his own conscience. This was a solution brought forward by the famous World War I hero, Alvin C. York. When drafted to fight in war, he knew he'd be called to kill other human beings. Being a man of faith, a Christian, he believed killing people was a sin against the Lord. After several attempts for exemption as a conscientious objector, and being denied that request, he had no choice but to become a soldier. Before going to Europe, however, his superiors, knowing he'd objected to fighting in that war, confronted him about his decision. He explained his side of things and then they explained theirs. From their standpoint, fighting for the freedom, defense, and security of their nation and others made the killing okay (perhaps not okay, but justifiable). It was killing only in defense. York thought upon this and still struggled with his thoughts. His superiors sent him back home to think about his beliefs. If after a short time he still couldn't agree to fight, they would allow him to leave the army.

York went home and thought about what he should do. He believed in the defense of others and in securing freedom and his nations right to exist, but he also believed the Lord was against violence and against people killing others. He became very torn between serving his country and serving his God. In the end, he came upon the passage I referred to in the Bible, where Jesus is asked about paying taxes. The response from Jesus was for people to give unto their country, unto the secular institutions by which they were bound, those things that belonged to them, and to likewise give unto God the things that are God's. The answer was to do both. And so York went back to the army, fought as a Christian man in defense of others, and became perhaps the hero of World War I, capturing a great number of German soldiers and doing so almost completely by himself. Now, did he act as a Christian, or did he act secularly? The answer is, in a way, he did both. He had to act secularly to defend his and other's Christian way of life, which if not defended, may not have lasted. He defended and protected others against a grave threat, while simultaneously fighting for the country, the secular institution to which he belonged, and fighting to preserve the ways of God.

Concerning President Bush, had he followed this way of thinking, he'd have done the good for the Christians and those of faith which he has done, but would have ignored the gay marriage issue and other similar issues that serve more to restrict people who do not believe as he does or that divides us as Americans. He would have therefore done good for both Christian and secular, tearing neither one down above the other. There are things for which a Christian can do for both his God and his country without being immoral about either. Those are the things that should be fought for by the Christian politician.

I will agree that it is probably best for the Christian to remain out of politics altogether though. At least it might be best for him. Politics is a world of compromising. One may be able to do so to a certain extent and still be okay, but if tempted to overrule all previous Christian convictions while in office, they may very well be doing themselves a great deal of harm concerning their spiritual lives, and perhaps physical as well. If a Christian wishes to enter politics, it may very well be best that their political aspirations remain small and they fight only for a few good causes that work against no one, but only to the benefit of everyone.

But still, I do not see justified the claims of those who believe in a total separation of church and state. When they are separated completely, or united completed, no one is benefited. But when you have the two working together, side by side, keeping the other in check, that is when the greatest good comes about.


Neo said...

I think you have some good ideas about the separation of church and state. A lot what you have to say is commonsense to me, even though some people just don't get it.

However, I think there is a bit more to the gay marriage debate than most people realize. The fact is that there are secular arguments in opposition to gay marriage. I will try to summarize the one that seems most common in my experience. If marriage primarily has value as a way to promote a healthy family structure for the continuation of society, then gay marriage may fall outside of that purpose. Thus, the presence of gay marriage may help devalue the marriage union that is important to society. Hopefully I have reasonably represented this argument, although you might be better off having it explained by someone who is more convinced by it.

I think that the argument has several potential rebuttals and weaknesses (for instance, it assumes that the primary value in marriage is promoting families, which is not necessarily an assumption shared by those who favor gay marriage. One can also question how much family-based marriage would be harmed by gay marriage.) But the fact of the matter is that this is still a secular argument, so one can have reasons for opposing gay marriage outside of religious faith. Thus, separation of church and state is not a sufficient reason to legalize gay marriage.

It does remain true that most people who oppose gay marriage do seem to do so for primarily religious reasons. But there are cases where an opposition that may primarily stem from religion is appropriate. I would argue that abortion is one of these cases, since the reason I believe abortion should be illegal is that protecting innocent life is one of the essential duties of government. Were the government to impose a ban on homosexual behavior itself, I would be opposed at a civil level unless someone could provide me with a convincing argument that such an action is within the government's rightful jurisdiction.

The one sticking point for me with gay marriage is that I feel the government's role has been misunderstood. The point of marriage (at a civil level) is to get certain rights from the government that you would not have otherwise. Thus, the "no-action" on marriage would be for no one to get marriage benefits. This is not parallel to a hypothetical ban on homosexual behavior, because there the "no-action" is letting people do what they want. So the question is whether it is appropriate for the government to give special positive recognition to gay marriages. When the question is framed this way, it seems less obvious to me that "banning" gay marriage is simply church imposition any more than marriage already is. Perhaps the government should only provide civil union benefits and leave the title of "marriage" to the various religious institutions, to avoid the appearance of legislating morality.

Just don't interpret my post as a simple attack on gay marriage, which is not my intent. I am simply trying to bring understanding about some of the complex issues involved. I'm not sure at a civil level what we should do about gay marriage.

David C Brown said...

Our Lord and Master has been rejected by the religious and secular governments of His day. He is not yet active in the governance of the world, although God is, of course, in control. The more Christians confine their interests to those of their rejected Lord the better for them - and for Him! But we should be ready to help anyone so far as we can without compromising our principles.

Brandon said...


I tend to believe civil unions would be the best route for gay persons to achieve a marriage like legal status. So many relate marriage as a religious sacrament that to allow gay persons to "marry" is nothing short of a blasphemous thing. I'd like to comment more on this, but I plan on my next post to be about gay marriage entirely, so we can pick up the conversation from there.

My main point here concerning this issue is that if a secular person wishes to enter into a secular relationship and call it marriage (or whatever else they choose), who are we in the church to force them not to do so? If they don't share our Christian beliefs, we cannot impose them on them. Our attempt to do this already, I believe, is one big example for why so many secular homosexuals so dislike and distrust Christians. I think the respone from the homosexual community concerning Proposition 8 is a strong example of this.

And as C.S. Lewis observed in his book Mere Christianity, we already have secular (government identified marriages) apart from Christian marriages (those identified by the church). My argument is that if there are already two kinds of marriage, why not allow homosexuals to marry at least in the secular form of it? It just doesn't make sense to me that the government will recognize marriages of convenience or open marriages, but refuse to recognize a marriage between two homosexuals. It just seems a little discriminatory to me. Of course, the ideal would be for the government to leave the issue of marriage up to the church altogether. That's not the case though, and probably never could be with so many nonChristians wanting to marry.


I agree.

Anonymous said...

Overall, this is a pretty good article and you raise some interesting points. However, you do seem to fall into the false dichotomy of Christianity vs. secularism. There are many more options out there. Indeed, I sometimes find myself wondering how people would handle a discussion about the separation of mosque and state, the separation of synagogue and state, the separation of Hindu temple and state, and so on.

In reality, I think that often, certain Christians are the biggest roadblock to religion in the public square. You can see an example of this when Christians in Minnesota push for a Nativity display in city hall only to object when a Wiccan requests that a pentacle wreath also be put on display for Yule. You can see an example of this when some Christians stage a protest because a Hindu is invited to offer the opening invocation in the Senate.

Personally, I'm all for welcoming religious views and observances to the public sphere within reason. I'm just opposed to granting anyone the privilege of dictating a list of which religions should be welcomed.

-- Jarred.

Brandon said...

I'm not so sure I see things as us vs them. My point was to express that that's how it is for a lot of Christians when it shouldn't be.

I actually agree with on those last points. I may not have expressed this well enough, or maybe even at all, in this post, but I do agree with you. I have no problem at all with anyone practicing their faith so long as it doesn't include ritualistic killings or things like that. It wouldn't bother me at all to see people of other faiths practicing their faith in public, just so long as I'm not forced to do as they do. See, that's the point I hoped to make. Christians and people of other faiths should never be trying to force or impose their beliefs and ways on others. I believe prayer and the ten commandments should be allowed in schools, and the nativities and such, but I also believe people of other faiths should be allowed to worship as they see fit as well.

Like you mention, here's where we get the extremes. One group wants it's ways imposed on everyone else, so the solution becomes to not allow any religion at all. I disagree with this solution. I think we should be able to be civil enough to respect and tolerate other peoples beliefs.

When it comes to the politician, I think he/she needs to keep things like this in mind. A Christian politician must respect the beliefs of other people and not act tyrannical to force them into their ways, which may conflict with their own religious beliefs.