Monday, July 8, 2013

The Roots of Separation

The separation I have in mind is that between church and state. The subject is still on my mind because events in Egypt underline it—and I got to thinking that my previous post on this subject did not go far enough. It suggested, vaguely, that religion should be reflected in governance of people.

To be sure, separation of church and state is a fundamental and crucial element in the implementation of democracy, and not just in the Islamic world.  And it strikes me that in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition—and by extension also in Islam—the unification of secular and religious rule was very intimate, in our own case well past Renaissance times. Moses was, in effect a ruler; as was Muhammad. In the Christian tradition itself, after the Reformation, which created a cleft within Christianity itself, we have the Peace of Augsburg (1555) in which the parties agreed to a formula: Whose realm, his religion (cuius regio, eius religio); thus whatever religion the ruler professes shall be the religion of his realm. It therefore seems that the real separation between church and state required the dawning of the Enlightenment and the consequent rise of secularism. But is that really true?

It occurred to me that it isn’t. The roots of separation come from Christ’s own teaching in some memorable words recorded in Matthew (22:15-21). There Jesus is asked if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus asks to be shown the money rendered as a tax. He is handed a coin. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Jesus asks, looking at the coin. “Caesar’s,” is the answer. And then comes the saying: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The curious fact of “separation” is that we owe its institutionalization to our own Founding Fathers, whom I’ve described as “secularists to their very enlightenment cores.” They introduced this concept, and it is entirely consistent with Jesus’ words in Matthew. Moreover, the current liberals in Egypt also insist upon it when saying, as quoted in the New York Times this morning, that Egypt’s constitution should include “a separation of religion and politics, because parties should not be built on religion.”

Brigitte’s comment on this issue, however, is also important, thus illustrating the dilemmas humanity also faces. She points out that while separation is good, the establishment of unbelief, often a feature of secularism, errs too much in the other direction. She points to lawsuits attacking religious displays in public, the pervasive celebration of nationalism by the flying of flags, the signing of the national anthem before every sports event in reverential tones, the attack on public prayers at high school events—matched by seemingly obligatory prayers recited before every session in both houses of Congress.

Yes, one might say: There are no shortcuts, alas. Our relations to the divine cannot be institutionalized, be it by constitutions, establishments, or treaties. But the history of a religion, like Islam, and the conflicts in a decaying culture like ours, makes avoiding such shortcuts very tough indeed.

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