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A Brief Historical Overview of Church and State
Historical interpretation is critical to an informed view of the role of religion in public life.
By Ed Knudson
Any political philosophy will be based on some sort of historical interpretation. Ideas do not float out of the sky ready made to be placed in our heads. We are not born with any built-in neurological patterns which determine how we think about politics. Our political ideas are based on what we have learned and experienced through relationships in family, community, school and nation.
In this brief essay we are going to present a simple overview of the relation of church and state in western societies. We are not going to discuss all the implications of this overview. But we think some such simple view is necessary as a framework for understanding more specific matters. Since political ideas come from historical interpretation it is better to attempt to articulate one's simple view of history hoping that it is as close as possible to the actual realities.
Between the end of the Roman Empire and the development of modern constitutional democracies in western history the Christian church was the primary institutional power. The many European territorial rulers and princes competed with the church for influence over their people. The church was a dominating public church.
With the Reformation in the 16th century all that changed. Different versions of Christian faith were associated with different territorial powers. This resulted in horrendous religious wars, with convulsive political movements within such countries as England, which in turn influenced the cultural context as populations emigrated to the United States. The constitution of this country was developed explicitly to exclude the idea of a dominating public church, the idea that religion should be officially established. Religion in western constitutional democracies was relegated to the private sphere.
During the Cold War and especially during the past thirty years we have witnessed the re-emergence of religion as an important factor in political life. This was caused by three developments. First, internal to society in the United States, liberal Enlightenment principles have not been able to provide people with an adequate over-all understanding of reality such as to build a coherent and meaningful identity through the life stages. Very large numbers of people in this otherwise secular society affirm that some sort of religious or spiritual experience is important to them. Second, technological innovations in transportation and communication systems have crossed national boundaries and created the conditions for globalization, including confrontation of cultures with fundamentally different belief structures. The religion of Islam is today a major factor in international relations.
And third, neither politics nor economics contain within themselves the resources to deliver satisfying human meaning and purpose. But in the absence of an explicit public faith, we are seeing today efforts to raise political and economic beliefs to the level of religious faith. Ideas of the free market, for example, are now articulated with the fervor of religious doctrine. The "nation" takes on romantic meanings as the ultimate source of identity and purpose, even to the point of glorifying those who are willing to give their lives for the country. In fact, the so-called religious right has adopted both nativism and free market philosophy as central religious doctrine, leading it to be perversion of historic Christian faith. During the middle ages, of course, merchants enjoyed nothing but low status. Today the merchant function has been raised to such a high level that nearly anything the merchant does is justified by appeal to the free market.
The religious right claims societal moral breakdown due to abortions and gay rights while ignoring the prevalence of the immorality of business greed, the latter the real source of such great economic inequality that many families cannot provide basic provisions for themselves. The religious right opposes governmental regulation of business but promotes strict regulation of personal sexual behavior.
These ideas had their incubation period during the Cold War. The evangelist Billy Graham for several decades played the role of national chaplain encouraging the United States as a Christian nation to fight against the atheistic Communism of the former USSR. It was in these years that "under God" was added to the pledge of allegiance. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union the religious right has needed to identify new enemies and they have fixated on liberalism, the very political philosophy that provides the intellectual grounding for the structures of government in this country.
So it is quite amazing that a political party has adopted such views for itself. The Republican Party is run by people today who do not believe in principles of liberal constitutional democracy. They promote a form of Christianity that wants to return to the dominating public church of the middle ages, except that they want government to do what the church says; and this from a party that claims to want to lessen the power of government.
Liberalism cannot, and was never meant to, provide for a complete, meaningful, religious-type personal identity. It is a limited form of government, providing for some checks and balances, trying to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority, having in mind a society composed of many competing groups and factions where no one group, such as wealthy property owners are able to dominate other groups. Liberalism is not a religious view, but a political view. It should not be asked to do more than it can do.
Conservatism in its current religious form should not be allowed to continue to dominate the public culture of this country. We do not want to return to the middle ages. We should build upon the secular, public institutions which provide the material basis for life together in the country. A public church can be involved in this process without trying to dominate these institutions with its own doctrine. We need a public theology that supports liberal public institutions. That, at least, is one conclusion from this brief interpretation of history.
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