Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Separation of Church from State

Note: This feature was initially developed at Notes from the Abattoir, but is now being provided here as a free service of the author of that blog for your pleasure and entertainment.

Procrastinator's Link of the Day™: Dr. James Dobson's monthly rant for October, Family in Crisis. Dobson's column is published through his "ministry," Focus on the Family, on a monthly basis as a means of persuading his subscribers that he is waging an important battle on their behalf, and therefore needs large sums of money, since all the good religious battles these days cost money. Somewhere in the Bible, God said that Christianity wasn't worth doing if it couldn't be done profitably.

Back when the Abattoir blog was up and running, I posted a link to Focus on the Family as a link of the day once before. However, I've decided to do so again since this time Dobson's newsletter has entered new territory, and I thought readers should be aware of this. As a heartless cynic, I suspect that Dobson's new ventures are a result of the fact that it is election season in the U.S., and he's casting about for reasons to get his flock excited. I don't know whether or not Dobson wrote this letter before it turned out that Mark Foley was not only a Republican but also a pedophile, but that certainly helps explain the transition made by other conservative writers.

In his "Family in Crisis" article, Dobson presents a variety of ludicrous claims linking Christianity with American national security, and national security with the traditional family. Yes, it's the Grand Chain of connections, Dobson style, which promise that if we let slip in one area, the others will fall as a matter of course. I can only hope that us Canadians will be spared the tragic results of America's downfall, but I don't hold out much hope, since the junior siblings of empires rarely fare well when their big brothers go down.

Dobson correctly notes that this letter is the first time in the 29-year history of Focus on the Family that "I must address the burgeoning threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism... [to] family values." Using some made-up statistics to prove that there are 12 million Muslims who want to "bomb our homeland or blow up themselves or their children on suicide missions," he points out that Muslims "pulled four American civilians out of a Humvee, then murderd these unarmed prisoners in cold blood"; they also tried to bomb some planes, and beheaded a journalist, and so on. Which is easily worse than invading countries, killing tens and possibly hundreds of thousands, in the name of our vaguely defined new international religion of democracy and freedom, spread by B-2 bombers, M-16s, and friendly dictators everywhere. But the threats don't end there! He also makes sure to include Venezuela, since he believes that a nuclear-armed Iran will give away nukes free to Hugo Chavez. Why the Islamist revolutionary government in Iran would want to support a socialist state in South America is beyond me, since the Islamists were trying to kill the socialists in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and did so in large numbers thanks to cheap weapons supplied by the Americans. But there you have it: the forces of darkness are arrayed against us. Further mixing his political ideologies, Dobson goes on to say that Iran and Venezuela are new Nazi Germanies in the making, that attempting to make friends abroad is "limp-wristed" and unmasculine, and is going to "bring about the destruction of Western civilization."

Well, that's politics these days. You might ask what these have to do with religion and the family. It turns out they have nothing to do with the family, since Dobson never makes the connection again; he moves on to his usual issues, like the importance of making sure gay people don't get the right to marry, because it's very important for an organization like Focus on the Family to put obstacles in the way of people who love each other enough to spend the rest of their lives together. Apparently there's also a vote to continue banning abortion in South Dakota, and Dobson thinks it's extremely important that Christians go out and vote so that they can outlaw behavior that is "morally wrong." He also heaps praise on the incredibly brave, gracious George Bush, America's saviour in these dark days of trial.

We do find one mention of the importance of the Islamists again, though. Dobson writes that "I thank God for the United States military, which is protecting us by its sweat, blood and tears. It is the only force standing between us and those who would do us harm." Coming from someone who is supposedly a Christian leader, this statement is so twisted I'm not even sure where to begin. Apparently God wants us to buy guns so we can fend off the hordes of barbarians. It's so delightfully War-of-Civilizations, just like the Romans fighting the Germanic tribes. We used to kill barbarians for Jesus, then we killed Muslims for Jesus, then we killed Catholics for Jesus (or Protestants for Jesus, depending on whose side you were on), then commies for Jesus, and now we're back to killing Muslims for Jesus again. Good times.

Partly because of the religious battles being fought over issues like the right to teach creationism in schools (or its cunningly disguised heir apparent, "intelligent design"), the term "separation between church and state" has lost a lot of its meaning lately. Evangelicals view it as a complicated challenge that needs to be overcome, and the non-religious think it's their last defence against the foaming zealots. This battle is stronger in the U.S., where the constitution actually says that Congress will make no laws concerning religious establishments. In Canada, we have a slightly weaker battle in the form of "freedom of religion" and "freedom of expression" guarantees in the Constitution. (That Constitution also recognizes the "supremacy of God," which would no doubt come as a surprise to the rabid critics in the U.S. who were so disgusted to see us legalize gay marriage.) In theory, most evangelical churches recognize the separation of church and state even if it's not stated explicitly in the national law - the Evangelical Baptist church I'm still technically a member of, for example, says so in its constitution and statement of belief. However, what this "separation" actually means is evidently open to considerable interpretation, and, in an unusual twist for people who are usually so literalist about written words, it turns out that "separation" doesn't actually mean "separation." If it did, our denominational organizations wouldn't spend useful money hiring lobbyists in Ottawa to persuade the government to discriminate against gay people and ban abortions. Personally, I think this should give the government the right to install "representatives" in individual church congregations, but apparently the privilege of access only goes one way, which sounds like a useful working definition of "hypocrisy" to me.

I think that one important part of the separation between church and state - which people have forgotten in the current mania of preventing the one from interfering with the other - is that their agendas cannot be combined without leading to decidedly un-Christian abuses of power. Chaining the health and well-being of the Christian gospel to the power of the state gives a really easy, blunt instrument with which to bludgeon the immoral in society (like homosexuals, to name the issue du jour), but it also forces unacceptable compromises. There is, for example, absolutely no reason that a religious leader like Dobson should be providing foreign policy advice on how best to deal with Muslim fundamentalists, whether or not there really are twelve million of them waiting to blow up the White House, as he seems to believe there are. The Bible which these people claim to take so literally is absolutely clear that God gave his special blessing to the well-being only of exactly one ethnic nation, the ancient Hebrews. Since the ancient Hebrews are no longer a nation as such (the modern State of Israel not being an exclusively Jewish theocracy, just a Jewish-majority democracy), it follows that God has very little invested in the apparatus of any modern state, be that the United States, Canada, Britain, or North Korea. The values we cherish here - like freedom of expression, religion, and assembly - may be nice, but the Bible does not prescribe them, so we cannot say that they are what makes us a "Christian civilization," if indeed anything at all makes us a Christian civilization, past or present.

I don't know, ultimately, what a Christian agenda for politics would be. In democracies, where in theory at least all citizens possess some degree of political power, I believe it would be irresponsible for us to withdraw entirely and have no opinion on the political process of our country. On the other hand, I am skeptical of using that process to in some way spread Christian values or the Christian gospel. Historically, both Christians and Marxists have thought of using the state in this fashion, and both have ultimately chosen to guarantee the well-being of the state. It's not an irrational decision: once you decide that you need the power of the state to disseminate what you believe is truth, it logically follows that you must ensure that the state is in a position to carry out those wishes. However, there is something fundamentally flawed about Christians believing that they must possess and use such political power, even for such supposedly benevolent purposes as outlawing abortions, given that our Lord came to earth as the impoverished son of a lower-class labourer in an oppressed colony of one of the largest empires the Mediterranean world had yet seen.

On the other hand, contemporary Christian anarchists - like the folks at Jesus Radicals - argue that because the state is fundamentally an instrument of human secular coercion, Christians should have nothing to do with it, and I'm skeptical of this as well. It is true that the establishment of a secular government - in the form of a monarchy - in ancient Israel was condemned by the prophets in that society as an unnecessary usurpation of God's will. However, the Christian message is a transformative one: that is, Christianity does not simply cast aside what is currently present in humanity, but transforms it into a better representation of the love, mercy, grace, and justice of the Lord we claim to model ourselves after. Historically, Christians have used state systems and laws for arguably good causes - the abolition of slavery in Britain between the 1760s and 1830s comes to mind, as but one example - as well as for undeniably evil causes, such as the continuation of slavery in the U.S. and in the British colonies during that same time period.

Personally, my politics tend to alternate between some form of libertarianism and some form of socialism coupled with pacifism, all of which sounds like a great contradiction except that I have yet to come to the conclusion whether the state can actually serve a strong role in society yet remain benevolent (in which case I don't mind social democracy bordering on socialism), or whether it cannot do so. In either event, the modern political state as it exists is not a Christian institution, and neither its goals nor its methods are Christian in any way; therefore, what I can say with absolute certainty is that religious groups should stop lavishing millions of dollars upon preachers who tell us to vote for a strong moral party so that they can fight terrorism and gay people in the name of God. Christian organizations take in $250 billion a year, and I'm pretty sure there are other worthy causes we could direct some of that money towards.

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