Sunday, June 17, 2012

Prophets behaving badly - the role of religion in the public square (J. Barry Vaughn, June 17, 2012)

He was tall and handsome. In the hour of crisis he had unified his people. When anarchy nearly brought down the country his calm and cool leadership saved the day, and as a result, he was brought to power on an overwhelming wave of popular support. However, people still had questions. For one thing, he was associated with a controversial religious leader. Some questioned his religious affiliation. He had been seen in the company of an extremist religious group and some said that he had participated in their rituals.

Now he was being challenged by a newcomer. Many of those who had supported him were going over to the new candidate. The religious leadership of the country turned against him and gave their blessing to the good-looking newcomer. They said that the former leader had failed

This is not the story of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney; it is the story of Saul and David. But in a way it is the story of any change in leadership, any election.

The difference between the story of Saul and David and the story of Barack and Mitt has to do with the role of the prophet Samuel.

Samuel first anoints Saul as king over Israel, and then when Saul disobeys God and keeps for himself some of the loot he has acquired in the battle against the Amalekites, God tells Samuel to reject Saul as king and anoint David instead.

Now, put aside for a moment the fact that we know that Samuel is acting on instructions from God. The fact is that we only know that Samuel is acting on instructions from God because he tells us.

The important thing for us to note is that the prophet Samuel is the one who either betstows or removes legitimacy from Israel’s king. In other words, in ancient Israel there was no separation between religion and the state.

This was the norm in ancient Israel, and to a surprising degree it is still the norm.

Even in Great Britain, America’s closest ally, there is a state religion. The queen is head of both the state and the Church of England. But although there is no separation between church and state in principle, there IS separation between church and state in practice. What many people fear about the United States is that although IN PRINCIPLE there is separation between church and state in principle; in PRACTICE there is far too much coordination between church and state. But I’ll come back to that.

Look around the world. Many countries, especially Muslim countries, do not separate religion and the state.

In the ancient and even not so ancient world, this was the norm.

So when the U.S. Constitution enshrined separation of church and state in the first amendment, it was doing something radically new.

Now, many people will point out that the words “separation of church and state” are not found in the constitution, and that is absolutely correct. What the first amendment guarantees is that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But what that means in practice is separation of church and state.

If the government can “make no law” establishing a religion or “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, then there is a separation of church and state. The constitution guarantees that the state will not play favorites. The state cannot endorse Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, nor Christianity. The state cannot choose between Catholics and Protestants, much less any of the denominations that have sprung from Protestantism. Furthermore, the state cannoteven give a privileged status to belief in God above non-belief in God. Before the state, the atheist and the believer are absolutely equal. The state has its sphere, and religion or the church has its sphere.

But that is where the problem lies: What is the relationship between those two spheres? Do they ever overlap or are they completely separate? And with great fear and trembling, that is what I want to talk about: the relationship between church and state or religion and politics.

There are three possibly models for the relationship between religion and politics.

The first is a more or less complete identity. In other words, the two circles overlap completely or nearly completely. This is the model of some but not all Muslim countries. It was the model followed in Afghanistan when it was dominated by the Taliban. It is more or less the model followed in Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, some Muslim countries, such as Turkey, have discovered that they become more successful when they make a sharp distinction between religion and the state and do not allow one to interfere in the other.

What is surprising to many Americans is that it was also, to a great degree, the Pilgrims and Puritans of New England also believed that the circles of church and state should overlap more or less perfectly. Many believe that the Puritans came to America to establish freedom of religion. And that is true: they DID come to establish freedom of religion… for themselves, but not for anyone else.

The Puritan ideal was this: a godly church in a godly commonwealth. It was the ideal that the 16th c. Reformer John Calvin favored. That’s why he insisted that the church council and city council of 16th c. Geneva should be one and the same.

Very few people in 21st century America believe that the circles of church and state or religion and politics should perfectly overlap (although there are a few extremists who believe this).

The danger of having the circles of religion and the state overlap perfectly is the danger of the theocracy. It is the danger of Muslim or sharia law. It is the danger of imposing rules and rulers against which there is no appeal.

It is the danger (to borrow from today’s OT reading) of believing that Samuel or some other prophet is always right when they tell us that they are speaking on behalf of God.

But where the circles of religion and the state overlap perfectly, there is little freedom. “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” is the rule.

More dangerously, it gives too much power to those who claim to speak for God, to prophet, priests, and other religious leaders. It also forgets that religious leaders are human, that we are finite, that we are no less sinful than other people. That is why I believe this model is wrong.

The second model is of perfect separation between the circle of religion and politics.

There are many today who believe that the two circles can be completely separated; that there should be no overlap.

There are many who believe that this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s” but I don’t think that’s what he meant.

They tell us that religion has no place in the public square, that the voices of faithful women and men have no place in public discourse.

I have to give them their due. They point out a real problem, namely, how do we evaluate religious truth claims? In other words, when Samuel or some other prophet anoints Saul or some other leader and says, “thus says the Lord” or “God told me that this man or woman should lead us”, how do we evaluate that statement? How do we know that Samuel is accurate reporting a message from God?

The answer is that we cannot a claim such as that. By definition, a message from God is beyond and above human reason. Its truth cannot be evaluated in the usual way by testing it and measuring it and comparing it to the things we already know to be true.

But I do NOT believe that that means that religious statements and values have no place in the public square or in public discourse.

I am impatient with people who say that we cannot legislate morality.

If they mean that we cannot legislate the intimate behavior of couples in committed relationships or who are legally married, then I agree with them. But our laws are not purely utilitarian. What I mean is this: We have laws against murder, theft, and so on, not just because we think these are good ideas and not even because they are necessary for the smooth functioning of society (although they are). We have these laws because we believe that they are founded on moral principles that are part of the very fabric of the universe.

Imagine this: Let’s suppose that scientists and scholars were able to prove to their satisfaction that the cold-blooded murders of SOME would actually make the world a better place. In a sense, this is what happened in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia and during the “cultural revolution” in China.

Even if it could be proved that some murder was justified, it would still be wrong.

Now, I don’t believe that such a thing could ever be proved. I am certain that good science and good scholarship would never arrive at such a conclusion. The Nazis used science to serve their ideology. They did not adapt their ideology to reality. Instead, they tried to bend reality to their ideology, and that’s a big part of the reason that they failed.

So, to summarize what I’m saying: A community’s laws have to be founded in universal moral principles. The reason that we are constantly changing our laws is that humans are flaws, finite, and sinful. We will never perfectly administer our laws, but that does not mean that we should stop trying.

And that brings me to the third model of the relationship between religion and politics: the two circles sometimes overlap and sometimes do not overlap.

I believe that religion has a place in the public square, that religious people should speak up and speak out. I believe that public discourse is better and richer and fuller when it is informed by the opinions of religious people even when I do not agree with their opinions.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

The first is the abolitionist movement. There were many reasons to believe that slavery was necessary for the smooth functioning of society. Many, it not most, people in the south even believed that slavery was endorsed and blessed by the Bible.

But the abolitionists said, “Not so.” They argued and fought for the point of view that human beings are made in the image of God, that God did not distinguish between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, African and European. They fought and thank God they won that argument. But if their arguments had been ruled inadmissible because they were making religious arguments, then they would never have won.

Or consider the civil rights movement. Again, strong arguments were made that there should be legal separations between people of different races. But Dr. King and other civil rights leaders made some of the same arguments made by the abolitionists a century earlier. Dr. King said that we should judge people by the “content of their character, not the color of their skin.” And again, thank God, public discourse was swayed by religious opinions.

The first amendment of the U.S. constitution tells us neither that religious opinion should be given a privileged status nor that it should be excluded from the public square. What it tells us is that all opionions, like alll people, have a place in the public square, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, atheist or believer.

And if some Samuel today should tell you that God has withdrawn his blessing from one leader and given that blessing to another, do not believe him!