Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Keeping Religion out of Politics, and Vice Versa

Politics (the art and skill of government) and religion (the practice of faith in hope of salvation) really have little to do with each other, except that their mixture is usually always combustible. Therefore, people of principle should do their utmost to refrain from mixing them.

A case in point is the current dust-up over same-sex marriages. The problem is that the concept of "marriage" has a mixed heritage. As it emerged in early agrarian societies, it was a matter of contract between families or tribes, as a means of acquiring and keeping valuable land and passing it on to heirs in common. The religious element came only later, when the Church began treating the exchange of vows as a holy sacrament.

One pragmatic solution to the current disagreements would be to return to the original contractual basis for the relationship -- the way it is still done in some western societies. A contract is drawn up between the marrying parties; it is signed and attested to in front of a state-designated official, and the record is entered on society's official books, where it serves as a legal basis for determining questions of parentage and inheritance. And that is all that society, as such, needs to concern itself with. Religious norms or mores would have nothing to do with such civilly-sponsored unions.

Through their legislators, the people could decide what parameters applied to civil unions. They could decide, as they already effectively have in California, that such unions are open to any two persons (but not next of kin), regardless of gender; they could -- since it is all a matter of freedom to contract -- even decide to allow civil unions between three or more persons. The only constraints would be what a majority would back.

Then "marriage", per se, would become a term defined not by the State, but by the churches. Again, each denomination would be free to observe its own traditions and beliefs in performing marriages. However, there would be no State records of any such marriages, and the church's ministers would not be acting as deputies of the State in attesting to their performance. The only records would be those kept by the couples and by the churches themselves.

Thus people joined by the State could have done with the matter then and there, or they could, if they wished, become in addition "married" in a church ceremony -- in any church that will accept them under its criteria. Conversely, people could choose to marry only in a church ceremony, as long as they realized that the State would be under no obligation to regard them as each other's spouse, with all the legal rights and obligations that relationship entails. (Such a church-only marriage might be just the ticket for two elderly persons who did not want to mess up their finances and taxes, but who were also religious enough to want to solemnize their relationship before God and mortal witnesses.)

The details can be worked out -- the main principle is to keep religion and politics completely separate.

I see the same approach as offering a solution to the problem of the mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero. It is the fact that it is a mosque that injects the inflammatory element of religion into what would otherwise be a purely political decision of zoning, traffic patterns, architecture, and other secular considerations. And because of the horror of 9/11, the inflammatory element cuts both ways. As one Arabic commentator had the wisdom to observe (H/T Pat Dague, at Transfigurations):
I cannot imagine that Muslims want a mosque on this particular site, because it will be turned into an arena for promoters of hatred, and a symbol of those who committed the crime. At the same time, there are no practicing Muslims in the district who need a place of worship, because it is indeed a commercial district....The last thing Muslims want today is to build just a religious center out of defiance to the others, or a symbolic mosque that people visit as a museum next to a cemetery....[T]he battle against the 11 September terrorists is a Muslim battle...and this battle still is ablaze in more than 20 Muslim countries. Some Muslims will consider that building a mosque on this site immortalizes and commemorates what was done by the terrorists who committed their crime in the name of Islam. I do not think that the majority of Muslims want to build a symbol or a worship place that tomorrow might become a place about which the terrorists and their Muslim followers boast, and which will become a shrine for Islam haters whose aim is to turn the public opinion against Islam.
If we are going to keep religion from inflaming politics, then the decision of where to build a mosque -- or a church, or a synagogue -- has to be removed from the secular authorities, who are constitutionally prevented from letting religious considerations influence their decisions. And if religions are going to get along with each other, then they will have to demonstrate some practical cooperation in submitting their proposals of where they want to build to representatives of the other faiths who are already in a given neighborhood. In order to get a building permit from the civil authorities, any religious group, in addition to satisfying all other civil requirements, would have to produce a certificate of consent attested to by a representative council of other religious bodies in the immediate area. Such councils could be established by agreement among the churches themselves (within minimum limits, in order to prevent collusion between just a few to keep the "competition" out), or in default of such agreement, by local, neutral legislation. Representation on the councils would require that a church/assembly/congregation have a minimum size appropriate to the area in question.

And who knows? Over time, the councils might become competent to deal with more than just the issuance of new permits for for the construction (or conversion) of religious buildings. They might join resources, say, for a charitable project in their area, and do any of the other kinds of selfless things which religions are supposed to exemplify.

It is fairly certain that most of the strong opposition to the locating of the proposed mosque near Ground Zero stems from concerns that are moral and religious at bottom -- and that cut both ways, exactly as identified by the Arab commentator quoted above. Any such mosque would become a symbol of religious division in spite of itself, incapable of being viewed neutrally, because of where it is located, and because of the event that is irrevocably associated with that location. Religious leaders in the area will have no difficulty in perceiving this -- and the proponents of the mosque themselves might never have even gone this far with their ideas if they knew that they had to convince their own and other faiths first of their reasons.

But allowing politics to decide the issue has been a complete and utter disaster. Ambrose Bierce famously defined politics as "A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles: the conduct of public affairs for private advantage." We have seen the pandering of politicians at its absolute worst; we have seen the cowardly left kowtow to Muslim sentiments while refusing to condemn the atrocities being committed each day in the name of that "religion of peace". The result is an America which presents itself to the Arab world as weak and divided against itself, i.e., as they would understand it, under Allah's judgment, and without any principles of its own it deems are worth defending. This is, again, the consequence of mixing religion with politics. (Of course, most Arab states do so as a matter of course -- do we really want to make their polities our model of good governance?)

For an example of how taking politics out of religion would improve the latter, the prima facie specimen is the Episcopal Church (USA) over the last forty years: it has been riven by politics. The same fate is overtaking the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion as well -- just check out the many posts on the pages linked.

Take the politics out of religion, and the religion out of politics. Then both will be better able to function as they should. And both might then move on to their proper tasks in trying to make this a better world. But until they are firmly separated, their combination will continue to unravel the very fabric of our society.


  1. I would submit that the justification for state-sanctioned marriage is to give the married person special rights in their spouse's property to encourage them to (i) sacrifice some of their earning potential for the purpose of investing more time in their children and (ii) stay in the marriage. Both factors help children become more capable, well-adjusted, and productive adults and better citizens.

    These special property rights and the "married" status to which they are tied should be available only to couples who are responsible and loving enough to be willing to give their newborns a mommy and a daddy. "Gay" couples are not willing to give babies a mommy and a daddy, and for that reason do not merit state-sanctioned marriage and should not be allowed to raise babies or acquire babies through surrogates or artificial insemination. The premeditated intent to deny children a mommy and daddy is child abuse. Since such premeditated intent inheres in any same-sex application for a marriage license, the "best interest of the child" (if not society) mandates that all such applications be denied.

    Mark A. Brown
    San Angelo, Texas
    August 18, 2010

  2. Mark Brown, I do not disagree. Nor did I suggest a one-size fits all solution to civil unions: each State should be able to decide for itself on the appropriate criteria for State-sanctioned unions, as they traditionally have done. But setting it up on the basis I have suggested would remove the objection from certain quarters that religions are dictating decisions which ought to be purely political. Again, if we don't start separating religion from politics, we are headed for a lot more strife and division.

  3. If the only concern about homosexual marriage were that it is immoral under a set of somewhat arbitrary religious strictures (like eating pork), I would agree with the approach of separating church and state on this subject. However, the historical evidence indicates that the acceptance of homosexual marriage by a society is devastating to that society. I know of no societies that have left a historical record and have accepted homosexual marriage. (Perhaps you know of more history than I.) Given that we are certainly not the first society to come up with this innovation, the lack of evidence that it has ever been implemented effectively in a surviving society is very frightening. It is rather reminiscent of eating dynamite with a lighted fuse. I know of no one who can tell me from their personal experience that it is a bad idea. However, I am not about to try it. (Seriously, I suspect that there is more sociological wisdom in Romans 1 than most of us realize. See "Sex and Culture" by J. D. Unwin, Oxford University Press, 1934 for some really frightening historical analysis on this general subject.)

  4. John, again, my views are completely in accord with yours. But we have to recognize that a secular civil society balks at being handed religious dictates, no matter how well-intentioned, but based on evidence which they refuse to acknowledge. I think that those of us who are religious would do well to stop trying to save the entirety of the society in which we find ourselves, and instead to concentrate our efforts on where it will do the most good -- starting with our own churches.

    The current strife is gaining Christians no secular ground. That is a fact with which we must come to terms. It most emphatically does not mean that we must give up on trying to convince others. But the best atmosphere in which to accomplish that is one in which those others feel no compulsion, or coercion, from circumstances over which they think they have no control.

    The paradox of the drowning person applies fully here. They perceive that they are drowning with no hope of rescue or salvation, so they are not averse to dragging you, their rescuer, down with them. But if you can get the message through that their salvation lies not in whatever efforts you can bring to bear on their behalf, but rather in accepting the fate which they face, with trust in the faith of Christ, then and only then might they pull aside enough from their own self-involvement to see that "rescue" involves a form of accepting surrender to Christ's love -- of which they are fully capable, because of the sacrifice which He made for them to begin with -- before they ever found themselves in peril.

    There is no other way which I can see. Society can define civil union to suit the majority's views, but if those views go against what religion teaches, then society is all on its own, and it will need all the luck it can muster. If, instead, members of the society see the wisdom in adopting and putting into practice what religion teaches (but does not compel, for non-believers), then it will be out of a genuine conviction that they are doing what is best for their own individual advancement (and ultimate salvation, though society collectively can have nothing to do with that, except to try to stay out of the way).

    So much comes down to individual responsibility. There can be no repose in what others are choosing to do, unless it agrees with the principles of faith which you on your own can identify.

    That is why abortion is also a denial of the faith of Christ, embodied in His ultimate sacrifice.
    There is not, and could never be, a socially defensible position in favor of abortion. Yet we see the society around us sanction it time and time again. To do so, they must deny both Christ's sacrifice for them, and His teachings. There is no greater folly of which mankind is capable, while it blithely goes on, killing its own.

  5. In order to promote pansexuality (the exercise of the alphabet of sexual behaviors recommended by Gene Robinson) as a merely alternative lifestyle (without negative consequence to spirit, soul, body, relationships and child-rearing), factual evidence of the negative outcome of such behaviors in secular science, mental and medical clinical practice, CDC, social work and police statistics has had to be intentionally denied, distorted and/or hidden.

  6. I think that religion and secular political affairs should not mix, except though morals. Morals come, for most people, through religion and government is the enforcement of common morals. Not eating pork is not a common moral, but not stealing is a common moral.

  7. The seductive sophistry of the revisionists of many persuasions.....the Curmudgeon has struck again !

    Particularly liked the inclusion of the Louis Crew via Barbara Harris rationale concerning marriage almost verbatim from Harris's "eucharist" pitch[fork] at the TEC convention last summer.

    Magnificent spoof !!!

  8. To some degree I can agree with your evaluation of civil unions and holy matrimony.

    When you bring up the Ground Zero Mosque, I have to disagree. Even moderate Islam cannot separate religon and state. For most Muslims, the state must be synchronized with Islamic religious law. The desire to erect this mosque is to create a monument to a battle triumph.

  9. Please don't misunderstand me, deck. I am arguing that in this country, we need to ensure a greater separation of church and State. What Muslims do in their own countries to combine them cannot be done here, as I pointed out. My proposal would make Muslims in this country not only subject to the secular civil authorities, but also to their own and other religions when it comes to deciding to locate a new mosque. Given that they would have similar voting power, I don't think the council could be regarded as a restraint on their right to freely exercise their religion -- any more than are the thousand other already existing zoning, architectural and similar limitations on their right to build.

  10. Since my website's post links appear on yours (with many thanks), you're probably aware that I've hammered the case for the abolition of civil marriage for a long time. So I will not belabour the point.

    I don't quite see the development of marriage the way you do. Although the economic purpose of marriage is certainly a part of it, marriage is a divine institution from the start, and antedates the state. As a result, there's no good reason why the state must have a role in same, which is an assumption of both the proponents and opponents of what should be properly called same sex civil marriage.

    Marriage by contract has worked in societies for many years. I have an article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune about a distant relative's elaborate marriage contract from the days when the Spanish ruled the city. It's worked on this soil before and can do so again.

    As far as your mention of elderly people not wanting to mess up their finances with civil marriage, I would point you to this act of duplicity from my "home diocese."

  11. Don, I am happy to link to your posts; you run an excellent blog. And thank you for linking back.

    To say that "marriage is a divine institution from the start" is to profess what we believe as Christians (and presumably the Jews would agree), but secular society will not go along with our beliefs.

    All I am saying is: let secular society have the institutions they want to vote for -- just keep them from calling it "marriage", via a truce: we Christians won't interfere with your decisions as long as you stay out of ours. Secular society in no way sees itself as bound by tradition to our point of view, so in that respect, they are a will-o'-the-wisp. Leave them to stew in their own secular juices -- and if they end up learning the reasons why traditional marriage has endured for so long, then so much the better.

    But at the same time, I wholly agree with you that it is less than honest to deny church marriage to elderly couples (or others similarly affected) just on the ground that they don't wish to be "civilly" married, because of the adverse consequences. The church needs to cease seeing itself as an agent of the State in performing marriages.

    A lot of clergy I know are already refusing to attest as an officiant on the civil marriage license, and I encourage that behavior. Of course, many are doing it out of a perceived solidarity with those who want the State to permit same-sex marriages, but that doesn't matter to me. By encouraging them not to act as agents of state-sanctioned marriage, I am furthering what I hope will be the end of the unholy cooperation between church and state on so-called "marriage."

    The sooner that cooperation ends, the better it will be for both the church and the state.

  12. (continued from above) Moreover, the increase in cost of healthcare for those afflicted with the negative outcomes of the various extramarital sexual behaviors engender is considerable. I wonder (considering Obama's appointment of gays and lesbians to office) if the whole health care scheme is aimed at forcing heterosexual clean-living folks to pay more for healthcare and lowering the cost for the GLBTQ crowd. Maybe that's what Obama meant by re-distributing wealth.