Church, State, secularism, and religion

Originally published January 9, 2012

While working in the seminary office today I was recycling and came across a recent copy of the magazine from Trinity School for Ministry, which is an Episcopal-(ish) seminary in Pennsylvania. In it there was an article that talked that described the movement of secularism from a kind of ecumenism towards a kind of modern day paganism. I’ve tried to find a link, but the school seems to be a bit delayed in putting their materials online. I thought it was an interesting observation and thesis. With the Presidential election coming up and many in the Republican nomination contest explicitly forming their policies in religious terms, it seems that the perennial question of American church-state relations is in no danger of going away. Personally, I wish that Congress would’ve just established the Episcopal Church as the official expression of Christianity in America (hey, we built a national cathedral already!), but I digressJ. The General Ordination Exams I just completed had two questions relating to church-state relations on it as well, so it seems to be in the air around me a lot. So, since I’ve already written it, here are my thoughts on the issue as prompted by GOE question 5.

In any society, the exercise of power is predicated upon the assumption of authority. That is, society legitimates the inherently oppressive exercise of power over some members of society on behalf of the civitas only if that power is exercised by an entity with properly ordained authority. For example, a police officer may only use force against another member of society when acting in his/her officially sanctioned role, otherwise their acts are considered criminal. The issue of authority then, in our culture, is the backdrop to understanding issues of Church-state relations. At one time, most people assumed that all legitimate authority in our nation was derived from God. Such a notion is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence which speaks of rights as being inalienable because they are given by God.

In a society which understood all civic authority as being endowed by God, it made sense to provide a privileged perch to God’s representatives, the Church. The Church was understood to have a legitimate claim on the life of the civitas, so that things like establishment and, later, tax exemptions could be justified as the sacrificial offering of the community to the God from whom the civic authority derived.

However, that understanding of the source of authority for civic life has been under sustained challenge for quite some time. There isn’t a clear consensus on the underlying reasons for this. I would suggest though, that divisiveness of the Church itself, with the ever multiplying diversity of denominations and independent Churches is a significant factor. If one looks to God’s proxy, the Church, to offer an authoritative foundation for civic life then what one is likely to find is a confusing series of contradictory pronouncements. An unclear and confused claim to authority is unequal to the task of legitimating the use of power in our complex society.

For much of the history of Christianity in the West, its place as an established part of the social structure has meant that western culture(s) are deeply Christianized. The notions of human dignity and human rights as currently understood are the direct inheritors of the Christian tradition. That peace should be the natural state of things, that government should act both justly and mercifully, that the least amongst us should not be oppressed but assisted – all of these are ideas formed and developed in the Christian imagination and ideas that would not be so prevalent had the Church not long enjoyed a privileged place in society.

However, the flip side of that is that the Church, having in some sense fulfilled its mission to make a society more aligned with the Gospels, retreated into a place where it has seen its mission as protecting the status quo. The long held place of privilege has lulled the Church into a false sense of its place in society. Like a child whose parents hover and over-protects, our privileged position has insulated us from the consequences of our own self-destructive tendencies. We have not needed to seek out the unity of all people to God and to each other, because there has been little institutional upside in doing so.

To really begin to live out our mission and calling as Christians in the world will force us to stop looking at the ways in which we are different and instead focus on what it is that brings us together. If we are ever to once again be an effective voice for God’s vision in society, we should be rushing to discard all of the trappings of privilege that have held us back and eagerly embrace the ways in which we can come together with a singular voice. I am under no illusion that this would be busy, but until we can find unity within the body, we will not be able to reclaim our rightful place of authority.

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