Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Importance of Disestablishment in the United States

As most people probably know, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.” Freedoms recognized by the First Amendment are among the most important to our way of life in the United States. The freedom of religion we have in the United States has not only facilitated our material progress, but has also facilitated our spiritual progress. While this freedom does make it possible for false religions to exist and prosper, it also makes it possible for true Christianity to grow and flourish without the taint of state coercion, the contamination of state bureaucracy. The famous Christian writer, Os Guinness, has pointed out that the free market in religious views created by the First Amendment has caused a flourishing and prospering of Christianity in America in much the same way that our relatively unregulated economy has contributed to growth and prosperity materially. Rodney Stark reaches the same conclusion in his book “The Victory of Reason.”

Christians have occasionally given the impression that we would be happy to create a formal establishment of religion. This is not really true. It is easy to see though that people often have this perspective. On Thursday, December 13, I heard a portion of an interview with presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on Good Morning America. Huckabee was asked if he would “put his faith ahead of the Constitution.” Of course Huckabee said that the Constitution would come first. But what I suppose he really should have said is that this a ridiculous question. There isn’t anything in the Constitution that conflicts with orthodox evangelical Christianity. There are, of course, religions that do have ideals that conflict with the Constitution. And while we cannot have any religious test for office holders, there probably are some religious views that would not be conducive to the continuation of our freedoms. Orthodox, evangelical, Protestant Christianity, however, is not one of those views. It is not only compatible with our freedom, but it was the philosophical soil from which this religious freedom grew.

Today there are some people who want to reinterpret the First Amendment to mean something it was never intended to mean—that ideas that are in any way associated with, or parallel to, or in common with ideas originating in the Bible are forbidden sources of government policy making. This simply cannot be the case since all laws have their root in some view of morality and human nature and since views of human nature and morality are fundamentally tied to religious worldviews. So advocating, for example, that human beings should be treated equally before the law because all are of intrinsic value is not in any way an unconstitutional or improper argument even though it flows from the Christian idea that all human beings were created by God in His image. The idea that human beings are morally accountable for violations of just human laws is likewise an idea that flows from the worldview of Christianity. If materialism was really correct and people were merely bundles of reacting chemicals, there would be no real moral accountability for violations of the law, nor would there be legitimate or illegitimate human laws. Everything would simply be about power and conformity. Most of us do not consider it as such in our community. The United States was founded with the notion that there is moral accountability behind human laws and that human laws can be legitimate or illegitimate depending upon their correspondence or indifference to the higher law. So if by their understanding of the First Amendment people mean that we cannot maintain the ideas upon which our republic is founded—ideas that are inherently tied to a Christian worldview but are acceptable to most monotheistic worldviews—then they are badly mistaken because the order which makes the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence normative cannot require a view that would essentially require their dissolution. If the principles of the Judeo-Christian worldview cannot affect government, then there is no reason why people are obligated to keep their promises, no reason why covenants are binding, and no reason why constitutions should be respected. The Constitution itself depends upon the Christian worldview or at least its legacy being taken seriously.

But this does not mean that Christians favor an establishment of religion or want to establish a system in which church officials are the true leaders of government. Far be it from us to ever give the impression we advocate such a thing. Because church leaders are ideally experts in morality, they may occasionally have something to say about what they think government policy should be. But unless they are elected to public office, they are not the makers of public policy. And there should be no mechanical or constitutional linkage between the hierarchy of any church and the law making, interpreting, and executing bodies of the government of the United States or any state. To make it so would demean the church as well as endangering the free market of ideas that the United States has so successfully modeled.

The reasons for this are many. First, there is the pragmatic reason that has already been alluded to. It is not good for the church and the government to be physically and bureaucratically entangled in each other’s affairs. It demeans the faith and threatens it in a variety of ways. If a group of people who have erroneous religious beliefs come to dominate and control the government, then their power would endanger whatever groups remain and have true religious beliefs.

A second reason why we do not seek a true establishment of religion is that the Bible clearly teaches that Christianity is not a matter of being coerced into an acknowledgement of God, saying a magic slogan, or being brought into membership in some particular group. While Americans are sometimes justly accused of neglecting the community aspects and manifestations of Christianity, Christianity is fundamentally connected to the individual’s individual relationship with God through the saving work of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life, not through anything that can be coerced or forced by human beings. Having a personal relationship with God and coming to faith in Christ is linked to the preaching of the Gospel and to the use thereby of persuasion. This is persuasion through ideas, not persuasion through physical force. Protestant evangelical Christianity has always argued for its truthfulness based upon the Scriptures and their nature and content, and based on reasons—not based upon coercion. Despite occasional lapses in which the Christian church through the centuries has foolishly mistreated those who had allegedly fallen into heresy, including various people who were actually probably more correct than the authorities attacking them (Huss, Wycliffe, and Luther for example), the church has always taught that belief in Christianity is based on faith, and is as a result not coercible. Thomas Aquinas gave this as a basis for why human law should not enact the whole of special revelation into law. Aquinas noted that no one could be coerced into accepting the Gospel. It is incompatible with God’s laws and nature to try to force people to be Christians through human laws. So the greatest expressed fear of atheists, agnostics and other non-Christians—that Christians will seek to force them to believe or punish them for not believing—should be ill founded. We should not give them cause to dread such a fate. Christians should be the very first to demand that we maintain a free market in ideas so that there will always be an opportunity for people to hear the truth even though they will also have the opportunity to hear lies.

Another reason why Christians believe in a free market of ideas is because we recognize our own fallibility. All human beings are sinful and imperfect. All of us, from time to time, think we are being reasonable when we really aren’t being reasonable at all. This is true even of Christians. Perhaps sometimes it is even especially true of Christians. As a result, we cannot trust ourselves, or anybody else, to always be right about everything. All human beings are affected by their sinfulness. None, whether by reason of wisdom, by knowledge or by office, are infallible and incapable of erroneous teaching or supposition. As a result, we all need each other. We need to be able to freely discuss ideas and talk about the ways in which each of us may be wrong or right so that we at least have a chance at straightening each other out when one of us is wrong. The problem with established religions is that they carve in stone ideas, that while many of them may be right, are likely to also contain some errors. I can easily come up with errors of many Christian groups (though I suppose some people still will not admit that they were errors). If any of them are or were established, it makes it all the harder to correct those problems. One can see such errors in the established churches. I believe Anglicanism was wrong in its advocacy of Erastianism: the belief that the king is essentially the final authority on religious truths. The Lutheran church was probably wrong in its advocacy of a positivist view of human law even though it recognized the natural law view of the application of human law. Tridentine Roman Catholicism has itself been the source of governmental problems because its model of unquestionable centralized hierarchical authority leant itself to the maintenance of absolutist political regimes that were bad for everyone in nearly every way. We need freedom so that we can discover, discuss and correct each other’s errors instead of enshrining those errors with the power of law and tradition. Of course I recognize that this is in essence the Protestant view, though it is shared by many Catholics today and was shared by nearly the entire church prior to the Renaissance. The group within western Christianity that believed in papal infallibility and unquestionable centralized hierarchy eventually grew from a small but powerful movement responsible for the papal revolution, to a movement so dominant in the church hierarchy that they were able to force out of the church all of the people who would become the Protestants. The pro-centralized authority group’s views were not unanimously held throughout Christianity.

Another threat is that if we eliminate freedom of religion, we are just as likely to be the victims of a state church as the victors. As certain groups within the United States grow, a group with which we may strongly disagree could easily come to dominate a state run church. No one on the religious right would be happy with the state forcing them to yield to Islam or to new age teachings in their church-run schools. We should not do to others what we would not want others to do to us even though we believe our positions to be true and theirs to be false. The problem, of course, is that while Christianity is supportive of religious freedom, the views of the orthodox versions of many other religions and even a few minor sects of Christianity are not.

I should say in all of this that I’m not suggesting that Christians should be banished from the public square in the way many people would prefer. I don’t think that manger scenes, Christmas carols sung by public school choirs, the Ten Commandments on walls or crosses on monuments are in any way establishments of religion or improper. We need to exercise a de minimis rule and an acceptance of art and culture when we look at public expenditures, public practices, and their interface with faith. The real difficulty is going to be sorting out how we are going to deal with Islam. Christians are obviously going to be uncomfortable with government involvement in Muslim holidays. But how can we have government involvement in Christian holidays and not in any way acknowledge Muslim holidays in areas where there are large numbers of Muslims? Perhaps at a national level we can still justify paying little attention to it because the Muslim population of the United States is still so small. But in local communities where there are many Muslims this argument won’t work. In addition, in the United States just as in Europe, this balance is rapidly changing. Cultural relics will also change. This is one reason why it is so important for us to continue the work of evangelization in areas that have already been evangelized like the United States and Europe. Christianity is not something you inherit. It is personal and can be lost if it is not taught to the next generation in a loving, kind, and persuasive way. Europe failed in communicating Christianity to its progeny. The United States appears to currently be in a similar crisis. While we are communicating a kind of Christianity to our children, it is largely a kind that does not recognize the importance of reason, objective truth, or objective reality. Once Christianity is merely associated with private feeling, it will be lost in the United States just as it has been in most of Europe. Christianity in its orthodox form is inseparable from reason, logic, persuasion, and an objective approach to the evaluation of truth. It is not an irrational religion based on warm fuzzies or purely mystical justifications. Mysticism plays a role in the Christian faith, but it is not an exclusive role. As a friend of mine recently pointed out to me, Richard Hooker said that tradition plays a role in the Christian faith, but is subservient to reason and to the Scriptures. So we Christians need to be sure that we are clearly espousing our position. We believe that ideas that flow from reality must be behind government policy and that some of those ideas are going to be associated in some way with Christianity. But we don’t believe that religious hierarchies should in any way be officially connected to the government or official sources of government policy. We do believe that all citizens of our republic can and should be involved in the great discussion and debate about public policy. We also believe that that debate should be free, uncoerced and open. We should never create the impression that we believe otherwise. It is also clear that we will have to persuade others or it is quite likely that we will see additional changes that we don’t like in culture and probably in the end even in the law. If we’re going to preserve our freedoms, we have to preserve the ideals that led to those freedoms and explain the connection to people. While we can and should use the force of arms overseas against those who make war against the United States, we cannot use coercion at home to further belief in the Christian worldview. We can only persuade people and pray for people and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. If we are not able to persuade people, our entire republic and our way of life and our freedoms face extinction at the hands of philosophies that are happy to advocate freedom when they are in the minority but who will advocate absolutism when they become the majority. We hope and pray and work to prevent that from ever occurring.

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