Irreconcilable Differences: Why Religion Must Go From the Public Square

Religion Going Down
Religion Going Down

America has had a long tradition of separation between church and state, but I say, “It’s now time for a divorce!”

I do not propose this lightly and realize that there are many in this country who, although not fundamentalist Christians, would be appalled by such rank religious intolerance. However, if you continue reading I think I can explain why this would not only be more healthy for American politics but also better for religion in the long run.

To oversimplify things, there are two types of Christians: educated Christians and ignorant Christians. The problem with educated Christians is that they are too sentimentally attached to the notion of religious tolerance, usually the product of a secular liberal education. Their commitment to tolerance means the entertainment of any fool notion put forth by anyone who calls himself a “preacher” or “a man of God.” Like any large organization Christians rally around those members attacked by anyone who is “not one of them.” That is why Christian businessmen and politicians hide behind the skirt of religion every time they see their power threatened. They know they can depend on their more intellectually endowed and tolerant brethren to defend them, even when those brethren agree with the “secular” authorities. This is witnessed by the recent attack on the Affordable Care Act because it supposedly violates religious liberty. More on that in a moment.

The problem with ignorant Christians is that they use their religion to insulate themselves from social change, or from knowledge they don’t like. Their ignorance is only exceeded by their raw racism, their opposition to rights for anyone not exactly like them, and their almost pathological concern for regulating the sexual activity of their fellow human beings. The recent brouhaha over the CEO of Chik-Fil-A condemning gay marriage is a case in point, and this event raises yet another issue: why are evangelical Christians convinced that God only deals with individuals when it comes to personal salvation but when it comes to public morality he deals with nations? The latter clearly argues for the active enforcement of Christian morality in the public square, which is at least problematic in a pluralistic and secular society.

Now, you may be saying at this point, “Hey, these people have a right to their beliefs!” I would not disagree, up to a point. However, if we are to have a properly functioning pluralistic and secular society we must leave religion at the door when we enter the public square, and there are two good reasons for this.

The first reason is that not all morality is law and not all law necessarily exists to promote morality, although the two often seem the same. The second reason is that the more engaged Christians are in the world the less they can truly stand apart from it and maintain the moral worldview they cherish so much. Now, let’s dig a little deeper into these two reasons for leaving our religion at the door when we enter the public square.

In the first instance, there is the social, legal, and political question of compelling individuals to violate their conscience. The desire on the part of Christians to live in a more moral world, as they define it, is no argument for imposing their moral conception of things on others. “Yes,” you reply, “but it is Christians that are being compelled to comply with secular morality.” Although it may seem like this is the case, this view is not quite accurate. For example, a hospital owned and operated by the Catholic Church is in the eyes of the state a hospital first, and only secondarily a religious institution. That the Catholic Church chooses to abandon its primary mission of ministering to the soul for that of ministering to the body is a tacit acknowledgement that they will abide by the prevailing social, legal, and political rules established by the state for operating such a public institution.

For example, if a Catholic hospital told their doctors to have a priest pray over their hands before surgery instead of washing their hands and using surgical gloves, ignoring a hundred years of germ theory, how long do you think the state would stand by and let that practice go on? Should the hospital be able to claim a religious exemption against this well-established scientific knowledge? I think even ignorant Christians would see the absurdity in this view.

There is clearly a line between the Christian moral world and the public square. That line is established by secular rules of conduct based on reason, common sense, and scientific knowledge, not revelation. This conception of things gives concrete meaning to what Jesus said when the Pharisees tried to trick him into treason against the Roman state: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)

This brings us to the second reason why religion no longer belongs in the public square. There is a consistent view in the New Testament that believers are to be “in the world but not of it.” There are numerous verses in the New Testament that touch on this idea: John 17, Romans 12:2, 1 John 2:15-17, and many others. Paul distinctly sets the priority in Romans 12. Paul says here that Christians should obey the secular authorities or be ready to pay the consequences. Of course, the only exception to not obeying the state is when your conscience is violated, but even then Paul says you must be prepared to pay the consequences. How little does a few thousand dollars in “Obamacare” fines compare to being thrown to the lions?

This phrase about “being in the world but not of it” gets a lot of play in certain evangelical circles, but when it comes to daily life it never really gets put to use, except maybe among the Amish. So, how can a principle like this play out practically for a Christian in the modern era? Do they vote? Do they deal only with Christian merchants and clients? Do they spurn the company of unbelievers, even when it might cost them money to do so? Do they have an obligation to ferret out immorality, even among those not associated with their church or faith? Are they compelled by democracy to vote for candidates that will legally impose their religious beliefs on an unbelieving public?

Well, according to their own scriptures, Christians are supposed to simply take whatever persecution comes their way, even when it comes in the form of democratic action. As Paul says again in Romans 8: 35-39

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. 37 Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. 38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, 39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (emphasis mine)

 

What kind of impact would Christians have on the world if they restored their faith in a morality outside the power of the state? What might happen if Christians rejected the popular commoditization of Christianity into self-help regimes and returned to their primitive soteriology and eschatology? Might they find more moral power in not only being an example to the world but also being a refuge for those beaten up by it? If Christianity, Capitalism, and Democracy are all one and the same thing how can Christianity stand alone in its moral mission? How can Christians stand by and allow the injustices of capitalism and the corruption of government if they themselves are in the thick of economic and political intercourse? Ah, there’s the rub, for if Christians stood apart from the world, as their early leaders encouraged them to do, they could then simply minister to the soul and give some ad hoc physical help to those in need. However, being in the thick of things requires that they respond to every little slight made by the unbeliever. In the modern world they no longer suffer for Christ’s sake; they fight for Christ’s honor—as if he needed their help.

By mixing the world of religion with politics Christians are forced to deal with an amalgamation of conflicts. One of the chief problems of mixing religion and politics is that the utopian spirit of Christian eschatology becomes dangerous when it infiltrates politics. It is then that Christians, and non-Christians infected by the utopian spirit, begin to think they can achieve by political fiat what God has proposed to do himself. It makes one wonder how much more effective Christians would be if they simply took Jesus’ advice:

14 Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. 15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16) (emphasis mine)

Is it possible that Christians would be more effective in ministering to the soul if they were less concerned with this world? It would be an interesting experiment to try some day.

To those who might think I am singling out Christianity I would offer the following. It is inconceivably unworkable to think that we could allow the communitarian view of any of the major monotheistic religions to become the basis for our modern, secular society. The Islamic ummah would be completely impossible in a society like ours, as would the theocratic dominance of any Jewish synagogue or Christian ecclesia. That there are individuals who think this is still possible gives evidence to the danger we face in mixing religion and politics.

As I am fond of reminding people, tolerance implies that one does not accept a particular activity but has chosen to allow it because it has been deemed a low-level risk or annoyance. That the state chooses to tolerate religious belief and practice is not a tacit acknowledgement of the validity of those beliefs and practices, it is merely proof that we can allow a wide variety of behavior in an open secular society, as long as that openness is not taken advantage of by those who desire to impose their narrow views on everyone else. It is also not a license to endanger the young or simple in their charge, and because they think their religion demands it.

In short, we live in a very tolerant society, but even the most tolerant society will not allow its existential integrity to be endangered by the misguided, the superstitious, or the misanthropic. So, if you choose to practice a religion in the United States, then enjoy your hard-won tolerance, and remember if the state ever has the power to impose a particular religion on the populace that that religion might not always be Christianity. Therefore, beware what you wish for!

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