Saturday, June 16, 2012

Unavoidable Conflict

The conflict between church and state is, you might say, built in. Religion organizes people; it forms communities. The leader or leaders of such communities then come to represent a power. By its very existence, this power rivals that of the secular ruler. The constitutional separation of church and state is a reasonable but awkward stratagem. It works for a while. Here and there. This separation has biblical rootings: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”: quoted in three of the four gospels. Problems surface when Caesar demands what belongs to God—or the Church encroaches on what belongs to Caesar. In a very complex modern world even drawing the line between the two is extraordinarily difficult.

This issue is at the core of today’s runoff elections in Egypt. To one side is a relatively weak representative of Caesar, but evidently backed by a military oligarchy strong enough so that it could simply squash a parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other is the Muslim Brotherhood itself which might, just might, if it waxes strong eventually, impose religious law.

The problem is compounded by the fact that humans are social creatures and that a vast gulf opens between religion as a social phenomenon and religion as an inner experience. My own view of collectives is, to put it mildly, reserved—and no matter what their nominal coloration. They tend to be somewhat less than human. Internal guidance may conflict with the demands of both collectives. As a minimum, let there be separation—be that separation enshrined in constitutional language or not. It won’t always be so. Millions of years to go yet, and a snapshot from the U.S.A. is barely even a moment on such scales. There is no conflict for the individual if Jesus’ words are understood. Caesar is all collectives; we give them what is theirs. The rest is conscience.

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