Secular and Sectarian

Church and State
The intersection of Church Street and State Street in Champaign, Illinois. Kristopher Kettner/Shutterstock

28 November 2018 – There’s a reason all modern civilized countries, at least all democracies, institutionalize separation of church and state. It’s the most critical part of the “separation of powers” mantra that the U.S. Founding Fathers repeated ad nauseam. It’s also a rant I’ve repeated time and again for at least a decade.

In my 2011 novel Vengeance is Mine! I wrote the following dialog between two people discussing what to do about a Middle-Eastern dictator from whom they’d just rescued a kidnapped woman:

Even in Medieval Europe,” Doc grew professorial, “you had military dictatorships with secular power competing with the Catholic Church, which had enormous sectarian power.

Modern regimes all have similar checks and balances – with separation of church and state the most important one. It’s why I get antsy when I see scientific organizations getting too cozy with governments, and why everyone gets nervous about weakness in religious organizations.

No matter what your creed, we have to have organized religion of some kind to balance the secular power of governments.

Islam was founded as a theocracy – both sectarian and secular power concentrated together in one or a few individuals. At the time, nobody understood the need to separate them. Most thinkers have since grown up to embrace the separation concept, realizing that the dynamic tension is needed to keep the whole culture centered, and able to respond to changing conditions.

Fundamentalist Islam, however, has steadfastly refused to modernize. That’s why psychopaths like your Emir are able to achieve high office, with its accompanying state protection, in some Islamic countries. The only way to touch him is to topple his government, and the Manchek family isn’t going to do that.

Unfortunately, radical Islam now seems to be gaining adherents, like Communism a hundred years ago. Eventually, Communist governments became so radicalized that they became inefficient, and collapsed under their own weight.”

You’re comparing Islam to Communism?” Red questioned.

Well,” Doc replied, “they may be at opposite ends of the spectrum doctrinaire-wise, but they share the same flaw.

Communism was (and still is) an atheistic doctrine. Its answer to the question of religion is to deny the validity of religion. That kicks the pins out from under the competition.

Since people need some sort of ethical, moral guide, they appealed to the Communist dogma. That blows the separation of church and state, again.

There’s nobody to say, ‘naughty, naughty.’ Abuses go unchecked. Psychopaths find happy homes, and so forth. Witness Stalin.

The problem isn’t what philosophy you have, it’s the inability to correct abuses because there aren’t separate, competing authorities.

The strength of the American system is that there’s no absolute authority. The checks and balances are built in. Abuses happen, and can persist for a while, but eventually they get slapped down because there’s somebody around to slap them down.

The weakness is that it’s difficult to get anything done.

The strength is that it’s difficult to get anything done.”

In the novel, their final solution was to publicly humiliate the “Emir” in front of the “Saudi Sheik,” who then approved the Emir’s assassination.

Does that sound familiar?

The final edit of that novel was completed in 2011. Fast forward seven years and we’re now watching the aftermath of similar behavior by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman ordering the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It’s interesting that authoritarian behavior is so predictable that real events so closely mimic the fiction of years before.

In a parallel development, the Republican Party today is suffering a moral implosion. Over the past two years, long-time Republicans, from senior Senators to loyal voters, have been jumping the Republican ship in droves on moral grounds.

I submit that this decline can be traced, at least in part, to the early 1980s when conservative elements of the Party forgot the meaning of “political conservatism,” and started courting the support of certain elements among Evangelical Christians. That led to adding religiously based planks (such as anti-abortion) to the Republican platform.

The elements among Evangelical Christians who responded were, of course, those who had no truck with the secular/sectarian-separation ideal. Unable to convince any but their most subservient followers of their moral rectitude (frankly because they didn’t have any, but that’s a rant for another day), those elements jumped at the chance to have the Federal Government codify their religious dogma into law.

By the way, it was an identical dynamic that led a delegation of Rabbinical Jews to talk Pontius Pilate into ordering the crucifixion of Jesus. In the end, Pilate was so disgusted by the whole proceeding that he suffered a bout of manic hand washing.

That points out the relative sophistication of the Roman culture of 2,000 years ago. Yes, the Roman emperors insisted that every Roman citizen acknowledge them to be a “god.” Unlike the Hebrew god, however, the Roman emperor was not a “jealous god.” He was perfectly willing to let his subjects worship any other god or gods they wanted to. All he required was lip-service fealty to him. And taxes. We can’t forget the taxes!

By the First Century CE, Greco-Roman civilization had been playing around with democratically based government off and on for five hundred years. They’d come to embrace religious tolerance as a good working principle that they honored in action, if not in word.

Pilate went slightly nuts over breaking the taboo against government-enforced religion because he knew it would not play well at home (in Rome). He was right. Lucius Vitellius Veteris, then Governor of Syria, deposed Pilate soon afterward, and sent him home in disgrace.

Pilate was not specifically disgraced over his handling of Jesus’ crucifixion, but more generally over his handling of the internecine conflicts between competing Jewish sects of the time. One surmises that he meddled too much, taking sides when he should have remained neutral in squabbles between two-bit religious sects in a far off desert outpost.

The take-home lesson of this blog posting is that it makes no difference what religious creed you espouse, what’s important from a governance point of view is that every citizen have some moral guide separate from secular law by which to judge the actions of their political leaders.

There are, of course, some elements required of that moral guide. For example, society cannot put up with a religion that condones murder. The Thugee Cult of British-Colonial India is such an example. Nor can society allow cults that encourage behaviors that threaten general order or rule of law, such as organized crime or corruption.

Especially helpful to governments are religions whose teachings promote obedience to rule of law, such as Catholicism. Democracies especially like various Protestant sects that promote individual responsibility.

Zen Buddhism, which combines Buddhist introspection with the Taoist inclusive world view, is another good foil for a democratic government. Its fundamental goal of minimizing suffering plays well with democratic ideals as well.

There are plenty of organized (as well as disorganized) religious guides out there. It’s important to keep in mind that the Founding Fathers were not trying to create an atheistic state. Separation of church and state implies the existence of both church and state, not one without the other.

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