Church and State Revisited

I am, and many Americans are almost reflexively opposed to any conjunction of church and state. But if you think about how the modern state and modern religion got started (in 1500 BC), you will find there were lots of mutually reinforcing and important connecting points. Things such as adjudicating common civil disputes such as land boundaries, commerce, weights and measures, contracts, etc. In ancient Israel, from Moses to the second century AD, religious authorities also served as civil magistrates. To the north, in Greece, temple priests served similar roles. The system worked for centuries.

In Europe, the church often served as the local recorder’s office maintaining records of births (baptisms), marriages and deaths. Of course, when the various monarchs of Europe took the “divine right of kings” too far, the people revolted. To correct a very common misconception, the United States was NOT founded by people fleeing religious oppression (that issue was secondary for most of them). Most of those who came to the colonies were seeking economic opportunity. But our founding fathers and mothers had seen far too much of the abuse of power by monarchs claiming divine sanction.

Equally important and often overlooked is the fact that in the Enlightenment era of the 18th century when our nation was founded, the founders were keenly aware of other global religions. Judaism and Christianity were not the only religions anymore. Thomas Jefferson hired a faculty member from William and Mary College to teach him classical Arabic so he could read the Koran. Even in the 18th century, the colonies were a melting pot of religions including African tribal religions, Hindus, Muslems, Buddhists and of course Christianity and Judaism. Because of sailing technology and global commerce, people became aware for the first time in history of the presence of other religions.

I do not advocate a return to joining church and state at the hip, but I can draw some important conclusions from these observations. First, church-state connection seems to work best at the local level (counties and maybe states). This is because the interests of a small assembly are likely to be more in common to everyone and more important. For example, how important to people in Oklahoma would be laws regulating the salmon fishery in Puget Sound?

Secondly, when a king or prime minister or president claims divine sanction and the support of the church (or any religion), it harms BOTH the political government AND the church. This is because the much needed give and take of civil discourse about political matters important to ALL the people is co-opted by one group or another claiming that they have God on their side. This is a cautionary note for today’s politics.

The church is damaged by this process as well. When the church becomes exclusively associated with one ruling party’s ideology and agenda, then the church loses its diversity and its appeal for ALL the people. Jesus never said, “Come to me all you who belong to XYZ party, and I will give you life.” He said and he meant ALL the people.

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