Saturday, April 7, 2007

In defense of a secular state

When I learned about this weekend's Blog Against Theocracy, I started brainstorming some ideas for posts. This is an issue that has been important to me for some time for a number of reasons. On the most basic level, it goes against *my* understanding of what my faith (actually all major faith traditions) requires of me, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." *I* wouldn't want to be treated like a second class citizen because of my beliefs or lack thereof, so how can I, as someone who tries to follow the teachings of Jesus, condone or accept it when others are treated that way? Also, as a parent, I have learned a little bit about persuasion--or, more specifically, the types of persuasion that are most likely to backfire. I know that if you try to force something on someone, it could end up being the *last* thing they will choose.

My son is almost 14, and there was never a time in his life that he believed in God in any traditional sense. But he has fluctuated to some degree between agnostic and staunchly, almost evangelically atheistic. What makes the difference? When he has been around people who seem to have an agenda and want to push religion, he pushes back, digging in his heels and becoming more anti-religion. But when he's been in an environment, such as the local Unitarian Universalist church where his "I don't believe in God" was met with, "A lot of us don't either", then he has been more open to the "maybe" of God. So if my ultimate goal is for him to embrace Christianity, I've learned that the approach with the best chance of success would be a *really* soft sell. As in, acting like I don't really care that much. And I wonder how many people out there in the world might be more open to religion if there weren't people trying to force it on them.

Last September, Rob Boston from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State came to speak here in Columbus. You can read his whole talk here, but I've excerpted the section that addresses theocracy, and why a secular state is good for both the church and the state.

As I mentioned a moment ago, I see secularism as a sort of a platform upon which our religious liberty and our freedoms rest. Secularism as a legal principle means simply this, that the government is neutral toward religion. Neutral, not hostile. As applied in our First Amendment, the principle of secularism means that the state neither advances religion, nor inhibits religion. Now there are alternatives to secularism as a legal principle. And I would challenge those who are attacking the secular state to tell me which alternative they would like to see us adopt in the United States.

One alternative would be the legal establishment of a single church. We've had that in our history. If you go back, and you look at the colonial experience, you'll find examples of that. The Masssachusetts Bay Colony, for example, was a Puritan theocracy--a single established church. Some of the southern colonies had Anglicanism as their established faith, an example of this would be Virginia. And obviously, we know of examples today where you have a single established church. The Church of England, for example.

The question becomes, how satisfying is this arrangement for both the church and the state, and I would answer, not very. Think for a minute about the modern examples of an established church, in the western world. What you find there is really kind of a house-kept, neutered state church. It doesn't really do much. You know, they drag out the bishops in their nice robes and their fancy accoutrements whenever there's a royal wedding or a state funeral, but by and large, their subservience to the state is obvious, and their political voice is nonexistent. Their imact on the larger society is nil. And certainly their churches are not growing. In fact, they often sit empty on weekends--or maybe they'll be 1/4 full.

Now, the state may find this arrangement satisfying, after all, it manages to sort of quiet a voice that has historically challeneged government officials--religious leaders. But when they pay them off with subsidies or symbolic support, they don't have to worry about that any more. Now this single established model is something that grows out of the Middle Ages, before that, the Byzantine Empire, before that, the late Roman Empire. But you find that--my opinion is--it's outlived its usefulness. And smarter church leaders know this.

On January 1, 2000, at the stroke of midnight, the state established church in the country of Sweden, which was the Lutheran church, was disestablished, after hundreds of years of being the official church of Sweden. And it was the clergy of the Lutheran church who led the drive for disestablishment. Why did they do it? Probably because church attendance rates had dropped into the single digits. A free church, they argued, might be just the shot in the arm that religious groups need to get them back into the game.

Now that's one model. There's another way to go. You can have a multiple establishment. We could have a couple of different religions, or maybe ten or twenty or fifteen, Christian denominations or what have you, get some kind of preferential treatment from the government. There are countries that do this in the west right now--Germany is a good example. In that country, workers pay a tax that goes to a Protestant denomination or the Catholic church as they allocate. Now, this makes the churches quite well off--imagine that, if you're getting a cut of every worker's paycheck, even if it's a small amount, it's a pretty good deal.

But again, we must ask ourselves, how does this help the vitality and the life of the church? Well, again, if we look at the statistics in Germany and other nations that have this multiple establishment model, the church attendance is very low, and the churches don't have much of a public voice.

The other option would be, the theocracy--the theocratic state. This is more common today in the hard line Muslim nations. It's not so much a western phenomenon. A complete merger of religion and government. Now under this model, the established faith doesn't play a symbolic role. It instead takes an active role in influencing, or actually running, the government. Now, its faults are numerous, and they're very prominent. Probably most prominent among its faults is the idea that holy books are notoriously difficult to interpret, and they are open to many different interpretations. Therefore, in a theocratic state, it becomes the job of some supreme religious leader to decide which interpretation of the holy book will hold sway over the entire population. In hard line Muslim nations, narrow interpretations of sacred writings have led to the subjugation of women, absolute control of the media and the arts, public beheadings and state-sponsored mutilations in sports stadiums, crackdown on all forms of political dissent, and the absence of free elections. Pardon me for not being enthusiastic about this model.

Now, our founding fathers were familiar with all these models. So that brings us back to the secular state--why do we have a secular state? Because the founding fathers were familiar with all these models. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was a theocracy. Mutiple establishment was in some colonies, single establishment was in other colonies. They didn't even have to look beyond the shores of the new nation to see these models in action. The only real kind of secular state model at that time would have been Rhode Island, founded by the iconoclastic preacher Roger Williams, who allowed all religious groups to worship in his colony, even those that he disagreed with. But that was not the most common experience. That was an unusual thing to do. It was taken as a given throughout much of the founding period that of course religion and government needed to be related, of course there needed to be some kind of relationship. I'm not really aware of any country that dared to separate religion and government before we did, and establish a truly secular state.

You can read the rest here, including Boston's musings about why our third president might be considered "unelectable" given the slide toward theocracy that has taken place in this country over the years.