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The role of the church in the state

The following is my contribution to the Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm.

I grew up in a religiously plural society: Trinidad and Tobago. Our last three Prime Ministers were Methodist, Hindu and Anglican, while our last three Presidents were Muslim, Methodist and Anglican. The Inter-Religious Organisation tends to offer prayers at the opening of official functions – sometimes Roman Catholic, sometimes Bahá’í. And while they jostle for position, overall the IRO serves a useful role as a conscience for the politicians. So while it’s fairly easy to see that a state religion is a threat to religious liberty and free thought, what’s wrong with giving all religion some amount of special status in society?

Theocracy is a threat to civil society. Religious groups intent on political power are rarely inclined to tolerate either religious freedom or much dissent within their own ranks. People who believe that they are on a mission from God tend to be disinclined to listen to opposing points of view. The current dominionist movement in the US – be it the “hard” dominionists of the Christian Reconstructionist movement or the “softer” dominionists which dominate much of the Christian Right – poses a threat to pluralism which is at the heart of what makes the United States such a fascinating experiment in democracy and government.

Attempts by religious leaders to throw their lot in with political ideology tends to go horribly wrong. As I mentioned previously, I recently saw Theologians Under Hitler. Some of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century (including Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch, and Gerhard Kittel) were willing to support Hitler and the Nazi party. Kittel was an important architect of the idea of the “Jewish Problem”, and Deutsche Christen was a committed supporter of the Nazi party.

Melding religion with some aspect of the political establishment can do obvious damage to civil society. What is less apparent is the harm that this does to religious groups. The death of the church in Europe post-1945 can to some extent be tied to the failure of the church to condemn the atrocities of fascism (and sometimes, to actively support it). It’s also fairly apparent in South America, where the intimate ties between the church and the (corrupt) power structure makes them an easy target for people like Hugo Chavez.

In a recent blog post Greg Boyd reflects on a conversation with Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo. While I am probably much closer to Wallis or Campolo theologically (I am a supporter of socially active, liberal progressive Christianity), Boyd makes some very interesting points (as he does in his Myth of a Christian Nation). In response to the idea that the church has a responsibility to hold the government accountable, he replies:

I think it’s EVERY decent person’s job to “hold the government accountable.” The criteria for good politics isn’t Christian faith or self-sacrificial love, but common decency that promotes the common good. There’s nothing distinctly Christian about holding a government accountable.


[I]f we agree that our only authority to speak to governments or to anyone else is the moral authority we earn by sacrificially serving others, and if we agree (as we do) that the Church isn’t remotely close to having this moral authority in western culture, then, I said, doesn’t it make sense for us to BE QUIET about politics and put all our energies into motivating and mobilizing the church to be the Jesus-looking kingdom we’re called to be in order to perhaps someday gain this authority? And if the Church ever did win this broad respect such that people and government actually cared about our opinions, then we wouldn’t have to demand it. It would come naturally. (Moral authority, I believe, can NEVER be demanded. It must be earned).


3 Responses

  1. There is no correlation between separation of church & state and freedom & democracy. For example, among countries and regimes with state religions, the UK has a lot of freedom & democracy but the Talilban is a tyranny. Nonetheless, I think our separation of church and state is a good idea so long as we are sensible in how we apply it. For example, I am in favor of a ban on school prayer but I am opposed to a ban on criticisms of evolution theory in public schools.

  2. I agree with you a loss of freedom isn’t a necessary consequence of a state religion. But the experience in the UK has not always been good for freedom of expression. I’ve lived with school prayers – all you learn from them is to dismiss religion as being just as stupid as other aspects of school. When religion becomes an arm of government, it’s likely to hurt personal freedom. When religion becomes an arm of government it’s almost certainly going to harm that religion.

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