Hearts of Darkness 7 - Church and State

Combining church and state hurts both, and kills personal freedom.

The concept of any separation between church and state was invented by the men who wrote the US Constitution and their immediate intellectual forebears.  Until that time, known to historians as the Enlightenment era, the idea of government not being deeply involved the organizational, staffing, facilities management, and other day-to-day aspects of operating the majority religion would have been laughable.  Every ruler in the world, throughout all of history, regarded the national religion, or religions, as a tool to keep the population under control and to keep taxes rolling in.

Even today, most national governments are associated officially with one religion or another.  The Institute on Religion and Public Policy reports that the Maldives constitution states that Muslim is the official state religion; this is interpreted to mean that non-Muslims cannot be citizens.  The King of England is head of the Church of England, although this doesn't appear to be taken very seriously anymore.  The state of Israel has declared itself to be a Jewish state.  Many European kings held religious titles ("Defender of the Faith"); this is still found today in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, whose king bears the title "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" (Mecca and Medina).

Religious beliefs have a profound effect on how the nation is governed.  The Hindu caste system, for example, stated vehemently that the lower classes were born into their castes as punishment for sins committed in earlier lives as upper castes were being rewarded for past virtue.

If the lower orders kept their noses clean by obeying their masters, they might be re-born at a higher level.  If they goofed off or rebelled, on the other hand, they'd be reincarnated as something worse.  The Indian government has had a long, hard slog to implement even the most basic development and welfare policies because a good many citizens at all economic levels fervently believe that God made the poor that way on purpose and that it's anti-God for them to be allowed to advance themselves; it's far worse to actually help them to advance.

This belief structure not only provided a major religious support for the established pecking order, it also offered ample opportunities to game the system.  For example, cows were declared sacred by long-ago invaders who happened to be cattle herders and didn't want starving peasants eating up their livelihood.  The nation of India has suffered ever since from the consequences of these beliefs, as filthy cows pollute the environment and snarl the traffic of Indian metropolises to this day.

One Religion or Many

Religious monopolies appear to be as deleterious as economic monopolies.  Europe suffered from its own religious monopoly for centuries.  Up until the Protestant Reformation which officially began in 1517, the Roman Catholic Church was the only church permitted in Europe.  As head of the church, the Pope claimed the authority to declare that any person was no longer a proper Catholic and excommunicate him or her.

Excommunication meant that the person could not attend church, which might not be too hard on someone who no longer believed what the Church taught, but being thrown out of the church also meant that any oaths or promises between that person and anyone else were no longer binding.  This meant that a husband no longer had to take care of his wife, for example, because his marriage vows were rendered null and void, and any business agreements or sales transactions were non-enforceable.  Opportunities for chicanery in such a system abounded, of course, and over time, strategic religious fraud and profiteering gave the whole operation such a bad name that the Reformation came about.

Release from oaths had the strongest effect on senior nobility.  Their power over their vassals was enforced partly through the vassal's promises of obedience and loyalty; his oaths were backed up by the threat of excommunication.  If a king got in trouble with the Pope and the Pope declared that vassals no longer had to follow their oaths of allegiance, things could get sticky.  The Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, when excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII, found it necessary to make an exhausting and humiliating trek through mountain snow to a meeting at Canossa, barefoot and wearing a hairshirt, to beg forgiveness and get the excommunication lifted.

When King Henry VIII took over the Church of England because the Pope would not let him divorce Catherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boelyn, some of his Catholic subjects rebelled and he had to quash the rebellion by military means.  Henry VIII at least had a sufficiently cohesive nation-state that he was able to being about this change while retaining control; perhaps he had learned from the earlier example of Henry IV.

In order to consolidate their power, European monarchs invented the concept of the "Divine Right of Kings."  The Bible says that governments and other powers that be are "ordained of God."  Kings argued that, because they were ordained of God, any disobedience of their commands was not only treason, it was rebellion against God.

Lest there be any doubt, King Louis XIV of France had the motto "Dieu et mon Droit," which means "God and my right," as part of his royal logo. This fed directly into his more famous statement "L'√Čtat, c'est moi" ("I am the State").  According to the king's religious beliefs and according to French law at the time, this wasn't just arrogant puffery; he literally was the State, the embodiment of national authority as established by God Himself:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.  For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

 - Romans 13:1-2

The idea of God-appointed kings was accepted widely enough that some of the participants in the American Revolution were concerned that rebelling against the King of England would violate the will of God and they'd end up being damned.  The argument that carried the day was the observation that although people were subject to government, government was subject to God.  That being the case, rulers had to obey the laws of God in the same way that ordinary people had to obey God.

The revolutionaries recognized that Christians were required to obey legitimate government, but, having enumerated a number of ways in which the King of England had violated God's law, they felt free to rebel.  This was similar to the Confucian notion that government would fail and society would revert to barbarism when government didn't follow the will of God.

The difficulty with either view of government is, who defines the will of God?  Catholic theology makes it clear that the Church, and particularly the Pope, has the power to make religious judgments which are binding on all church members, but Protestantism by definition acknowledges no such ultimate earthly religious authority.  I Peter 2:9 speaks of every Christian being a part of a "royal priesthood".  If every individual believer is his or her own priest, who's to say precisely what the will of God is?

The American revolutionaries believed that although it was possible to force people to do certain things, it was not possible to force people to believe anything.  Based on their unhappy experience with government-sponsored Puritanism in Massachusetts and the rather better results of religious tolerance in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, a majority of the Founders felt it was best to keep government out of the religious business entirely.

The "establishment" clause of the American Constitution forbids the US government to establish a church.  It's often overlooked that the Bill of Rights does not apply to the legislatures of the states; this meant that individual states were perfectly free to continue with their established churches if they so wished.  Indeed, until 1813, the State of Connecticut funded a state church out of general revenue very much as most modern Muslim countries fund mosques and theological schools from taxes.

Massachusetts did not disestablish its state church until 1833.  The controversy, and a similar debate going on in England at the same time, was heated enough to create the longest word in the English language: "antidisestablishmentarianism" which means "opposition to the belief that there should no longer be an official church."

One of the unanticipated consequences of separating all American churches from government was a clear demonstration that the church suffers when church and state are combined, and thrives when left to its own devices.  As far back as Revolutionary days, some of the Massachusetts Puritan preachers argued against maintaining the established church because it led inevitably to corruption of both church and government.

On the one hand, if you must be a member of the official church in order to enjoy civil rights such as voting and holding office, it won't take long before your church is stuffed full of pragmatic political types who don't actually believe a word the preacher is saying, making it hard for the church to function as a church.  On the other hand, when people get used to lying all the time in church, that habit carries straight through to lying in the government; far better just to let the two have their own separate spheres of influence and let people make up their own minds what to believe or not to believe.

One of the reasons religion has declined so precipitously in Europe is that churches are seen as just another government agency.  After all, the King of England is head of the Church of England to this day by decree of Henry VIII; the idea that the somewhat less than saintly Prince Charles is not merely a religious leader, but actually the pending Head of his Church, makes the idea of religious devotion laughable.  It's difficult to remain loyal to the church if the king himself, its head, doesn't seem to be particularly worshipful.

In America, by contrast, churches can't count on government help or support and have to raise their own funds.  This has resulted in a phenomenal number of splinter religions, each vigorously espousing a slightly different variation of some basic theme.  As a result of their marketing efforts, Americans remain much more religious than Europeans, although a surprising number of American adults end up in a different church from the one in which they were raised.

The net effect is that being deprived of government support has forced American churches to compete more vigorously for individual support.  This extensive and expensive marketing effort has helped keep America more religious than Europe.

Sharia Law

Islam stands in complete contrast to Western historical and legal tradition.  Even when European politics and religion were closely combined and intermingled, there was still a recognition that they weren't necessarily one and the same.  The Bishop might have political power, but he held a religious position and technically reported to the Pope; the Duke was expected to follow the religious tenets of the prevailing religion, but he held a secular office and ordinarily would not hold ecclesiastical authority directly, nor would he generally think he should.

In Islamic teaching according to the Koran, however, the government and the church are one and the same; there is no distinction between the two.  The criminal law of a nation which holds to Islam is not open to democratic debate, or even to the whims of the autocrat; it's specified in every particular in the text of the Koran.  This body of God-commanded law is what's known as Sharia.

Occasionally you hear somebody say that Arabs, or Middle Easterners, are not "ready" for democracy and need strongmen to keep them in line.  This is usually regarded as a racist argument, somewhat like the old Southerners who held that their slaves were in their subordinate positions due to their lower intelligence.

But saying that Muslim nations are not ready for democracy is not necessarily racism.  The problem isn't some inherent weakness in the people of Islam; the problem is their culture, and specifically the teachings of the religion they have chosen to espouse.

As long as Islamic nations hold to the full, unchallengeable authority of the Koran, they are not merely unready for a Western democracy.  In an Islamist country, a pluralistic democracy of the type envisioned by our founders is in fact impossible.  Because, thanks to Muhammad's teachings on all manner of laws civil, ecclesiastical, and criminal, and his inviolate position as the Prophet of God, there's little room for policy disagreements or political discourse: the Koran gives the answer to everything, and you either do it, or you don't.

Although the Bible does teach principles which are relevant to governance, the specific policy prescriptions found there are few and far between and often change markedly between the Old and New Testaments.  Most of Christendom has come to the conclusion that almost all of the "legal" sections of the Bible were specifically applicable to the ancient Nation of Israel and are only relevant today in the most general sense if at all, generally when reiterated by Christ in the New Testament.

In any case, because the God of the Bible cares about each individual person, each individual is answerable directly to God for how well he obeys His commands; he's not answerable to the civil authorities for his religious decisions, and the civil authorities answer to God only in the most general way.

The Koran prescribes, and thus requires, punishments which are in direct conflict with civilization and Western law.  Passages in the Koran command such atrocities as torture of criminal suspects, dismemberment for theft, execution for leaving the religion of Islam, and other examples of what would be termed "cruel and unusual punishment."  For example, Hadith Book 016, Number 4131:

They [a group of murderers] killed the shepherd and drove away the camels. This (news) reached Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) [Muhammad, that is] and he sent them on their track and they were caught and brought to him (the Holy Prophet) [Muhammad again]. He commanded about them, and (thus) their hands and feet were cut off and their eyes were gouged and then they were thrown in the sun, until they died.

Here we see the Prophet Muhammad condemning two murderers not merely to execution, but to death by being put out in the desert sun without water - after being dismembered and blinded.  Perhaps you don't agree that this is appropriate?  Too bad; Surah 33:36 tells us:

It is not fitting for a Believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger [that would be Muhammad] to have any option about their decision.

The problem is not so much that the Koran claims to be God's Word; all holy books do that.  The problem is that what's in the Koran is authoritative over all Muslims.  By definition, to be a good Muslim, you must follow the teachings of the Koran - and what the Koran teaches through sharia law is barbarism.

Modern Westerners might wonder how such an inhuman religion has proved so popular. That's one of the interesting aspects about law: almost any law, no matter how harsh, is an improvement over anarchy.  The Arabian deserts prior to Muhammad had all too little law and all too much anarchy; in a way, sharia law was an improvement.

The same phenomenon can be seen today in Somalia, which has had no effective law for many years.  A group known as the Union of Islamic Courts worked its way to local power precisely by offering something resembling stable jurisprudence - originally operating as something akin to arbitration with cases brought by consenting and paying parties, eventually evolving their own enforcement mechanism of armed militants, and now dedicated to transforming Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamic state under Sharia law.

A great many Somalis wanted no part of Sharia law, but when it was the only law on offer, it was better than nothing.

So we see that even the barbarities of Sharia law can be an effective religious marketing tool when the alternative is anarchy.  This worked quite well during the Dark Ages and still works today in failed states.

When modern Western culture is available, though, Sharia has a much more limited appeal.  Sharia on its own merits will never hold sway over the West, and ought to repulse Westerners who are used to the Judeo-Christian humanitarian concept of human rights.  In the free marketplace of ideas, Islam will occupy a small niche, if even that.

This is precisely why Islam does not teach a free marketplace of ideas, or that converts should be obtained by the gentle art of persuasion.  The difficulty with Islam is that the fundamentalists not only believe that they are right and that everyone else is wrong, they also believe that wrong-thinking people have to be converted forciblyPersuasion isn't good enough.

Islamists are unwilling to tolerate an open society; they insist on closing out all ideas other than their own.  As a practical matter, if they don't close out other ideas, their ideas won't last.

George Soros, who made a vast fortune in currency trading, recently pointed out that intolerant systems can be installed only by force.  He wrote:

One of the books I read was Karl Popper's "The Open Society and its Enemies."  ... Popper argued that the Nazi and Communist ideologies have something in common - they both claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth.  Since the ultimate truth is beyond human reach, both ideologies had to be based on a biased and distorted interpretation of reality; consequently, they could be imposed on society only by the repressive methods. 

- George Soros, The New Paradigm for Financial Markets, (New York, Public Affairs, 2008) p. 15

The problem wasn't that Nazism and Communism claimed to be ultimate truth.  The problem was that both Nazism and Communism worked less well than other systems which their people could see. Given that the ruling classes in both countries realized that their people would cease to follow them if given a choice, they did the sensible thing, didn't give their people a choice, and enforced their rule with an iron fist.

Islamic fundamentalists claim to possess ultimate truth, but they also claim that all other truths must be suppressed.  Islamic law is not something anyone would choose given a choice of some other more enlightened law; hence, Islamic law can be imposed only by force.  Islamic fundamentalists do not trust persuasion; their marketing efforts are far more aggressive than that.

We'll take it up the subject of how religions market in the next article.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
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