This past week, I did a presentation on the relationship between religion and politics, specifically as it related to Christianity and Islam. I took on this task because I wanted to know more about how the two historically interacted, and something other than just the simple and overused answer of ‘separation of church and state’.
Where did this idea come from? Has it always existed, and if not, why not? What does it have to do with today’s world?
Secular-minded people live in a world of compartments and categories, all of them distinctly separate with their own assignments and limitations. We determine what is right and wrong, what is morally just and correct. That is the reality of our society.
However, religion has played a role in keeping politics on the straight and narrow. For most of human history, and still in many places today, religion is the guardian of the health of the society, not just with matters of morality, but especially with matters of justice.
It was the religionist’s job to stand up to the powers-that-be when they cross the line, sometimes even if that means violence. This is what drove many Christians to protest American slavery and illegally smuggle slaves out of the South before the Civil War. Yet, it was also what drove many Christians to create and support the Prohibition act of the 1930’s that made alcohol illegal.
With Islam, it was an obligation. It was the Muslim’s duty to stand up for divine law when the ruler broke it, whether they are Muslims or not. They had to obey the divine laws. Even though most Muslims today are moderate, in the minds of many, this idea of correcting injustice of the powers still exists. This especially applies to many fundamentalist terrorists groups, who define ‘injustice’ as defying their own interpretation of Islam.
The epiphany is that religion and state have been intertwined from the beginning. It is not seen by them as enforcing their own views on others, but as standing up for god’s law when others choose to break it. Non-religionists and moderates view it as pretentiousness and opinion. Compartmentalizing the two is a relatively new idea, first given birth by the Christian sect of the Mennonites, who saw the both the Catholic and Protestant churches being corrupted by political powers during the Reformation era.
This cause was later taken up by philosophers and ultimately took physical shape in the American Bill of Rights. Our society’s view of religion’s duty of correcting politicians is heavily influenced by the conflicts that occurred in Europe and the Middle East, either over belief or by belief somehow playing a role in them. It is no small truth that Americans have a fundamental distrust of being corrected by others, let alone by institutions.
There are other factors too, such as the rise of scientific knowledge and reason, which not only provided alternative reasons for the world, but also provided physical proof. This started to erode simple faith, which Christianity was heavily dependent on because faith was channeled via the church.
So the soul of the issue with religion and state then, is that religion maintains that is an obligation to god that they press their views legally. While the secularist and more moderate religionists maintain that it is not divine obligation but personal opinion that drives them and in that arena, a religionist’s views are no better than anyone else’s.
The struggle has taken on hostile tone in with conflict with Islamic fundamentalists across the world and certain conservative Christian groups exerting their influence in American politics. Shutting out god’s laws politics and society is considered sacrilegious, humanity trying to supplant god. As long as there are religions, or their followers, who insist that it is their duty to press ‘god’s standards’ in their societies, religion and politics will always have a bumpy relationship.