July 11 – Relationship of Church and State

July 11 – Relationship of Church and State

John 18:36

“My kingdom is not of this world…” (John 18:36)

Throughout the history of the church, people have debated the question of whether it is legitimate to work toward Christianizing society. In the Reagan era the debate heated up again. Some decried “politicizing religion” or “religionizing politics.” Others wedded church and state with enthusiasm.

Contrary to what some protagonists say, no one position is the exclusive domain of a given theological persuasion. Liberals and conservatives alike range through all positions, and most disconcerting, an individual may demand separation of “religion and politics” on some issues while demanding they mix in others. In other words, it is the agenda that seems to divide.

If the issue is race, equitable distribution of wealth, a guaranteed livelihood, feminism, or armament control, you can usually count on liberal involvement and fundamentalist uninvolvement; but if the issues are abortion, law and order, pornography, the traditional family, a large defense budget, or human rights, the roles are reversed. It is not exactly that one is for big government and the other wants government to shrink to minimal roles; each wants lots of government involvement to achieve what it thinks important to the public welfare and no government presence at all in what it considers its own private business. Just a different agenda. But in seeking to win, the cry is raised, “Politics and religion must not be mixed!” What we fail to add is, “by our opponents.” This (unconscious, we hope) hypocrisy adds a great deal of confusion to the already complex controversy. But the church never has agreed on these issues.

Nevertheless, the dominant Reformation-Protestant teaching was not for separation of influence, but for separation of the powers of each so that neither controlled the other. Church and state were viewed as partners in separate but overlapping spheres of responsibility for achieving God’s purposes in the world. This view prevailed in northern, Protestant Europe, while the legacy of Roman Catholic church-state intermingling dominated southern Europe. The New World fell heir to the Protestant approach in the northern hemisphere and the Roman Catholic approach in the southern, where these approaches continue to this day.

The professed fears of liberals that some conservative Christians intend to impose a rightist totalitarian regime with coercive moral requirements is not even a remote possibility. No person or group of people in a modern pluralistic democracy can impose its will on an unwilling majority—or even on an unwilling minority, for that matter. Every interest group executes whatever pressure it can to have laws made and interpreted in the way that best furthers its own interests, but this can hardly be called “imposing.”

It is just that many long-silent conservative people have discovered their voices, and the liberal establishment finds it hard to accept. At first the roar to the right was dismissed as an illusion created by media hype; next, curiously, it was decried as unfair and then frantically opposed as an attempt at a takeover by mindless, un-American, rightist moralists who will soon impose all the worst kinds of Puritan and Victorian private moralities on freedom-loving, benevolent, intelligent, and morally relativistic true Americans. What can be said of the emotional reaction of the erstwhile sober New York Times to charge that “there are certain similarities in the theses advanced by the Red Guards who rampaged through China, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s wild-eyed Islamic principles . . . and the Americans who call themselves the Moral Majority”?[47]

The government is made up of human beings whose values (or sense of “ought” and “ought not”) determine the laws of that people. This sense of “what ought to be” comes from the entire cultural milieu, but most of all from the religious convictions of the people. Therefore, on the face of it, though the church and the state can be completely separated organizationally so that the church is prohibited from doing anything officially in the public domain, the so-called private religious or irreligious convictions of the people will still determine the final outcome of the rules people live by.

In the end, our experiment seems to be proving that public policy and private moral convictions cannot be split. They can’t be split because each inevitably affects the other — whether the composite religious convictions of the people influencing lawmaking, or the structure of government in turn influencing the private behavior of citizens. Since an integral relationship exists between public and private, what arrangements best make that relationship productive of common good?

Church and state have distinct spheres of responsibility but will best discharge those responsibilities with mutual respect and negotiated authority and influence. Therefore, we conclude that the best arrangement is a benevolent cooperation between church and state in which the state is frankly open to religiously inspired moral influences and the church does not seek special privileges, confining its moral pronouncements to moral issues.[48]

[47] New York Times, 5 September, 1977.

[48] IBE (2014), 517.

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