Apology: On Church and State

An old friend sent me this picture which offers a pretty solid comparison between the Jesus of reality and the Jeezus of popular Christian culture, particularly in the US:

Sorry if it’s a bit small to make out.  One of the things that caught my eye right away was the section on “separation of Church and State”.  Here in the Jeezus column it’s listed as “I am the state!”, which is both true and untrue; let’s break it down.

The state, in this case, is a democracy – the rule of the people.  Most of the people in the US self-identify as Christian, meaning that they believe that Jesus is alive, and is Lord of the universe whether the rest of the world realizes it or not; that he acts on earth through his people; and that by self-identifying as a Christian, they have taken on the task of acting in accordance with his will, as an ambassador of him.  That is, a Christian cannot in good conscience act in such a way as to go against what they believe to be the will of God – which is pretty much the definition of sin.  And so, if a person in a democratic country is a Christian, their voice in the democratic process will in a sense (and always imperfectly, of course) be the voice of Jesus – or at least, that’s the idea.  So, in a place like the US where most people self-identify as Christians, it’s impossible to say that there is a clear separation of church and state the way modernists would like there to be.  To do so would relegate either the church or the state (or both) to a powerless, figurehead role.  Currently, this is realized through the (completely false) notion that religion is “private” and cannot influence the “public” – which is the realm of the state.

The separation of Church and State first came about because, back then, the Church was just as strong (or stronger) than most states – that is, it was its own state.  The Roman Catholic Church once owned and/or controlled vast tracts of land, enforced laws and taxes, and maneuvered politically to exercise the powers of the state.  Charlemagne was called “the Holy Roman Emperor”, and was crowned by the Pope – because the Church had the power to crown kings.  Kingdoms were practically provinces of the Church, and conflicts of interest were the norm.  Naturally, when starting new countries in North America, people thought it would be a good idea to sort this sort of thing out, and they did.

What separation of Church and State does not mean is that I cannot allow my religious beliefs to enter the so-called “public sphere” by allowing them to influence my political choices.  The very notion is absurd: if God really is real, and if Jesus is who he says he is, what would make me think I can get away with mere lip service, serving him in “private” while completely ignoring him in “public”?  Such a view is only possible if we believe that morals are the entirety of religion, and all that God requires of us.  This particular notion came most strongly from the great philosopher Emmanuel Kant, whose theories came out of the Enlightenment era and spawned the Modern period, with all of its emphases on individuality and private belief vs. public life.  We still often use Kantian ethics today, but essentially what he did was reduce ethics (and Christianity!) to a few moral maxims, a way to provide an ethical structure that we could live by that corresponded (often rather strangely) to Biblical morality (and often only because we forced the two to correspond).  Being a Christian becomes synonymous to, and reduced to, being “a good person” or “moral”.

With this notion of Christianity, I don’t have to stand up against injustice in my society, because my religious obligation is simply to live a moral life in public, and worship God in private – as if worship and life choices were somehow separate.  I must keep my religion private, because I don’t want to offend anyone else.  In this situation, I must have two notions of what is right: what I do in public must be right according to the secular code, and what I do in private must be right according to my moral code, and rarely do the two ever correspond.  But if my religious notion of what is right is relegated to my “private” sphere, then it exists only in my mind – and is very obviously subjugated to the “public” notion of what is right.  Thus, my commitment to God exists only in my mind, and never does anything.  What kind of worship is that?

Now, this does not defend those who would try to use government to force Christianity on other people.  That was one of the reasons for the separation of church and state in the first place, and while there are a few folk around who still try it, I’m thankful to say that Ann Coulter does not represent Christianity as a whole.  I apologize to those who’ve heard things like when Coulter said that the answer to the problems in Iraq was to send in the army to convert them all to Christianity – she’s just looking for attention, and we just keep feeding it to her.

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