Tag Archives: church and state

Church As State

One of the electronic publications I receive regularly is Sightings, a newsletter founded by Martin Marty and issued by the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. (Since it is a newsletter, I don’t have a link.) The publication comments on the role of religion in contemporary society, usually in the form of an essay by one of the Divinity School’s scholars.

A recent commentary began with a reference to a 1940 memorandum by a Dutch Protestant ecumenist named Willem Visser‘t Hooft, titled “The Ecumenical Church and the International Situation.” Visser’t Hooft warned that  a “new ideological battle” was unfolding across the western world, “waged by proponents of the ‘new religions’ of ethno-nationalism and fascism.” He worried that when the war ended, “the real difficulty will be to find any basis for collaboration between peoples who no longer share any common standards, and who no longer speak the same spiritual language.”

Visser’t Hooft was on to something: the post-war world continues to grapple with that lack of a common “spiritual” or ideological language, and with the nationalistic “religions” he identified and aptly characterized as politicized distortions of Christianity.

Adherents of these movements claimed to be the true Christians who were defending “traditional” Christianity against the existential threats of liberalism, modernity and internationalism (usually embodied in their fevered imagination by “the Jews.”) One scholar of the era described Nazism as “an ethno-nationalist renewal movement on a Christian, moral foundation.”

It wasn’t only in Europe. As the Sightings essay reminded us, the Nazis and fascists had kindred spirits in the United States.

There was a revival of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s, and the number of Christian right-wing groups surged after 1933. During the 1930s the Nazi regime even sent its Christian supporters on speaking tours to American churches. While Christian nationalism was surging in interwar Europe, American Protestantism was in the throes of the fundamentalism wars, the Scopes trial, and the Temperance movement. And on both sides of the Atlantic, progressive religious movements arose to combat them, including liberal Protestant ecumenism and the emerging interfaith movement.

The author of the essay noted that the United States’ current culture wars are a continuation of that fight.

Religion wasn’t–and isn’t– the only cause of political division, but it was–and is– a significant contributor. The author of the essay says there are two important lessons to be learned from the relevant history: first, “the deadliest failures of Christianity (like the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the complicity of Christian churches with National Socialism and the Holocaust) derive from the fatal alliance of faith and political power.”

In addition to the crimes facilitated by such alliances, they inevitably destroy the integrity and witness of the church.. 

The second lesson is that the foundation for recovering “common standards” and speaking the “same spiritual language” must be a civic process, not a religious one.

As I read this very thought-provoking essay, I thought back to a conclusion I had come to back in the days of the Cold War, when “godless Communism” was a genuine threat both to the West and to human liberty. Belief in that system, I concluded, was a religion, if you define religion as an overarching belief system that delivers both “answers” to the ambiguities of life and prescriptions for human behavior.

Many years later, I read–and was persuaded by–Robert Bellah’s theory of civic religion, a secular allegiance to certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals, drawn in the United States from the Declaration of Independence, the  Constitution and Bill of Rights. That “civic religion” can serve as an umbrella set of beliefs, not displacing but bridging the myriad religions or other “isms” held by individual citizens in our polyglot society, and acting as a common language and set of behavioral/social/political norms.

Of course, allegiance to the ideals of those civic documents requires a common knowledge of their contents and a common understanding of the context within which they were developed. When civic literacy is rare, and especially when citizens are unaware of the compelling reasons for keeping church and state separate, we risk replaying the most horrific chapters of human history.

Religious Liberty And the Marketplace

Most of us have heard the military admonition against “fighting the last war.” The point is obvious: generals and political actors need to evaluate and respond to the reality in which they live; getting stuck in the past–fighting the last war– is a formula for failure.That admonition also suggests one way of analyzing America’s current political situation.

Much of our contemporary political and cultural polarization is between people I have previously described as Puritans and those I have dubbed Modernists.

America’s Puritans still see liberty as “freedom to do the right thing,” defined as behavior consistent with their particular theology. They still believe, with the earliest American settlers, that government should have the authority to weigh in on the side of “Godliness” as their theology conceives it.

Modernists–in and out of religious communities–accept the post-Enlightenment notion that liberty means personal autonomy, your right to do your own thing, so long as you aren’t harming anyone else and so long as you are willing to grant an equal right to your fellow citizens.

The shorthand for modernism is “live and let live.”

Conflicts over recognition of same-sex marriage and bathroom use by transgender individuals, and efforts to allow “religious” merchants to refuse service to LGBTQ customers are really conflicts between America’s Puritans and its Modernists. Puritans  believe that government should throw its weight behind their theological beliefs; Modernists understand the importance of separating church and state, of preventing  particularized religious doctrines from marginalizing or disadvantaging otherwise law-abiding citizens.

Even in the churches, the Modernists are winning. As the Religion News Service reports,

In no U.S. religious group does a majority think it’s acceptable for businesspeople to invoke their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays.

This finding from a 2016 Public Religion Research Institute survey is a first, said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the nonprofit research group.

The change in opinion among even conservative religious adherents has been relatively rapid:  In 2015, more than half of white evangelical Protestants and Mormons surveyed approved of merchants who cited religious belief to deny service to LGBT customers; in the 2016 survey, the percentage of white evangelical Protestants who expressed approval had dropped to 50% from  56% the year before.

The percentage of white mainline Protestants who approved of businesspeople who withhold services to gay people dropped to 30 percent in the recent poll, down from 37 percent in 2015.

Overall in 2016, twice as many Americans disapproved than approved of those who refuse service to a gay person based on religious beliefs (61 percent to 30 percent).

PRRI’s findings corroborate a more dramatic overall shift in attitudes about same-sex marriage and LBGT Americans in the past decade.

Most religious groups today support same-sex marriage, Jones noted. “The religious groups in which majorities oppose same-sex marriage make up less than 20 percent of the public.”

Despite the diminishing number of Puritans, state and federal legislators continue to support discriminatory measures aimed at the LGBTQ community, just as they continue to support a variety of measures disadvantaging women–all piously justified as “protecting religious liberty.”

They are fighting the last war. And thankfully, they’re losing.

 

And the Black Helicopters Circle Above….

Just shoot me now.

Indiana has all kinds of real problems. Our education system is pretty much a wasteland. Our per-capita income levels are among the nation’s lowest. College graduates continue to leave the state in droves. Job creation is robust only in the imagination of the Indiana Economic Development agency’s PR flacks.

So what weighty issues occupy our genius legislators? How do they propose to solve these problems?

Well, the measure that would mandate the teaching of cursive has been moving through the process. The House Resolution that would place a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions in the state constitution is once again a hot topic.  Yesterday, the Indiana Senate unanimously passed a bill to make switchblades legal in Indiana. (And no, I am not making that up. The vote was 47-0.)

And also yesterday, a colleague helpfully sent me a link to this example of our legislature’s priorities:

A bill to prohibit implementation of Agenda 21. Provides that an Indiana governmental entity may not adopt or implement: (1) any policy recommendations relating to the United Nations’ 1992 “Agenda 21” conference on the environment and development that deliberately or inadvertently infringe on or restrict private property rights without due process; or (2) any other international law or ancillary plan of action that contravenes the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State of Indiana. Provides that an Indiana governmental entity may not enter into any agreement with, expend any sum of money received from, or pay any money to, an “Agenda 21 organization”. Provides that any such actions are void.

For those who have somehow failed to encounter the threat that is “Agenda 21,” the reference is to a toothless measure passed back in 1992 by the United Nations, encouraging members of that body to care for the environment and urging members to consider various approaches to sustainable development. It included references to energy-saving strategies like mass transit. (The “21” stands for “21st Century.) To the crazy fringe, this modest set of non-binding proposals was and is an obvious communist/socialist/fascist plot–and an attack on American sovereignty. (Don’t ask me to explain the logic of this. There is no logic–just paranoia.)

These proposals join previously discussed efforts to make public school children recite the Lord’s Prayer, and to teach creationism in science classrooms. These are the pressing issues with which our elected officials occupy their time, at least when they aren’t searching the skies for those black UN helicopters…..

It’s embarrassing to be a Hoosier during the legislative session.

Candidates and Their Beliefs

A friend asked me yesterday whether I thought a candidate’s religion was politically relevant–whether that religion should be included in the mix of qualifying or disqualifying characteristics we all consider when casting our votes.

My answer: it depends.

I think a candidate’s beliefs are always relevant. That is not the same thing as saying his/her religion is necessarily relevant. The issue is what a person wishing to hold a secular office really believes, what worldview really motivates him. The religion of a candidate only becomes relevant when the individual believes so firmly in the doctrines and culture of his religion that he can be expected to take public action based upon those doctrines.

This, of course, presents us with a bit of a paradox–not to mention an incentive to hypocrisy.

It’s a truism of political life that candidates must be seen to be religious, and religious in conventional ways. So candidates for political office–at least, Christian ones–routinely highlight their churchgoing ways.  It’s a bit dicier for members of minority religions, and admitted atheists are just out of luck. Unlike Europeans, Americans are demonstrably leery of candidates who do not claim a religious affiliation.

But we are also leery of those who seem too invested in their theologies, especially–but not exclusively–minority theologies.

When John F. Kennedy made his famous speech reaffirming the American doctrine of separation of church and state, he was really reassuring voters that his Catholicism was tempered and attenuated, and that any conflict between the Constitution and his religion would be resolved in favor of the Constitution.

Religious affiliation is only fair game in politics when we have reason to suspect that a candidate’s religious beliefs will be a primary motivator should that candidate win office–that, unlike JFK, he will resolve conflicts between the constitution and his theology in favor of the latter, or that his policy decisions will be dictated by that theology rather than by appropriate secular considerations.

In other words, if a candidate is likely to make public decisions on the basis of his religious beliefs, the content of those beliefs becomes relevant.

Which brings us, I suppose, to Mike Pence and Mitt Romney, both of whom appear to be deeply invested in their respective religions, and both of whom can be expected to govern in accordance with the tenets of those religions as they understand them. Indeed, Romney’s own “JFK speech” actually rejected Kennedy’s strong endorsement of separation of church and state, leaving little doubt that his Mormonism would influence his conduct in office. Pence, of course, is a “Christian Nation” religious extremist who has shown virtually no interest in the nitty-gritty of secular government. For both of these candidates, religious belief appears integral to their identities and highly likely to influence their behaviors in office. If that’s true, then voters are justified in examining those beliefs.

Bottom line: If a political candidate’s theology is likely to trump other motivations–or the Constitution–the contents of that theology are relevant.