Church/State Issues

I am T.A.-ing for a Social and Political Philosophy course which has exposed me to several issues in philosophy I have never thought much about. We are currently studying the modern philosophers Hobbes and Locke -- mostly on the relation of church and state.

Locke is clear in a division of church and state. The state promotes civil liberties (life, liberty, health, possessions, etc.) and the church promotes mutual edification and worship of God. He is also clear that force (taking away possessions, liberties, life) is an instrument only of the state. The instrument of the church is persuasion and reason. The church being a voluntary society, the worst it can do is to cast someone out of its membership.

In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke states, "If any man err from the right way, it is his own misfortune, no injury to thee; nor therefre art thou to punish him in the things of this Life, because thou supposest he will be miserable in that which is to come."

This made me think of the complaints people have of the 'religious right' attempting to 'legislate their morality'. Since this is a form of democracy things are a little bit complicated, but it seems that whatever law is legislated ought to be for the promotion of the civil liberties of the citizens. Religion cannot be compelled. We would not think that attending church should be legislated nor praying the sinners prayer nor taking communion. These are spritual activities that need to be undergone by choice, not force. If this is all right, then it seems that the only basis on can have for 'legislating one's morality' is that such standards promote the civil liberties of the citizens. I am not saying that this cannot be done, however, when you think of the arguments that are often advanced, the reasons put forward tend to have to do with such actions being immoral according to a certain (often spiritual) guidelines. If such things should be legislated against, it seems that they should be on the basis of civil liberties instead.


Ben M. said...

Hey Jon,

I find myself in agreement with your thoughts on the separation of church and state and how ones government legislates accordingly. It’s the age old struggle of democracy you’re delving into, that fine line we walk with a country that considers itself moral and religious and whose majority of the populace often voluntarily submit to the yoke of a higher entity but also is a country that prides itself in the freedom to break with that yoke and defines this freedom as not privilege but absolute right.

For those who try to follow the will of both God and dictates of government, it’s the ever dangerous tightrope.

America has always been the dangerous experiment, radical in all ways but especially so in regard to the freedom it offers its citizenry. We often hear that American was founded by the fathers on Christian principles, but I find that in some ways this cannot be further from the truth. The very core understanding of the Christian faith is submission to an authority greater then oneself. Yes, it’s true that the authority is God and it is indeed your best interests to do so because He is God and He has a ‘wonderful’ plan etc. But wasn’t America founded on outright rebellion to this very notion. Take our first founding document, the Declaration of Independence, and its indictment to the submission the Christian faith requires to survive and thrive. Simply replace King Georges III crimes and replace them with Martin Luther’s indictments of the Roman Catholic Church and while your wording is different the themes of breaking off a yoke deemed insufficient and striking out on your own to make decisions hence forth are breathtaking. Would some of our more rigid versions of Christian doctrine endorse such a document today I wonder? Would it not be seen, as it was then, as a form of heresy that citizens (believers) have the authority to decide their destiny and standards without consent and approval of the King and ruling classes? (Church, God, Whomever).

I confess I am wandering a bit from the point you seem to be trying to make; that those of religious bias cannot ‘legislate’ that which they think is immoral and unjust because its takes them from their natural state of healthy persuasion and into a more powerful but quite destructive state of essentially criminalizing said immorality. I agree with you completely in this matter and it is because of this “complicated” form of democracy that your solution of only offering legislation of moral issues when it benefits the citizens civil liberties is worth deeper discussion.

I wonder though and I ask a question to start this dialogue, do you consider this conflict between Christianity and Democracy to be unnatural or inevitable? Inevitable to mean that Christians must envision and long for a culture based on purely Theocratic dictates, that would consider God’s law to be the highest and therefore regulate all governmental statues to reflect this, while the most natural state of a divergent democracy is to act counter to this? Or do you consider this conflict the unnatural result of poor dialogue between two divergent methods of thought that should be able to work together because they both have similar goals to enact a just, robust and healthy society.

I do hope you respond to my ramblings.


jon said...

Hey Ben,
Thanks for the comments.
I don't know what to say about your question. I think that there is an inevitable tension since Christians act primarily with regard to the kingdom to come (this is not to say that they shouldn't be actively involved in the situation on Earth), whereas any government seems inextricably tied to the here and now.

I haven't read the book yet, but there is a new book by Gregory Boyd entitled 'The Myth of A Christian nation'. It seems to state what I have in mind. Here is the description from Amazon:

Arguing from Scripture and history, Dr. Boyd makes a compelling case that whenever the church gets too close to any political or national ideology, it is disastrous for the church and harmful to society. Dr. Boyd contends that the American Evangelical Church has allowed itself to be co-opted by the political right (and some by the political left) and exposes how this is harming the church’s unique calling to build the kingdom of God. In the course of his argument, Dr. Boyd challenges some of the most deeply held convictions of evangelical Christians in America – for example, that America is, or ever was, “a Christian nation” or that Christians ought to be trying to “take America back for God.”