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Monday, July 4, 2011

Separation of Church and State Loyalty

When I talk about the separation of church and state, it’s usually from a more atheistic position, emphasizing the political problems of overlapping religion and policy in a religiously diverse country such as our own. But there is another side to this position in the form of Christians who insist that there cannot be a Christian nation in any form where Christianity is made like the state religion or given undue favor. Instead, they say that the church, particularly in the form of all believers, should function as the Church (capitalization intended) and the state should function as the state. This is controversial on its face to a majority of Christians who take what seems to be a more modern development in contrast to classical Christianity, which I reflected on in “Classical Versus Conservative Christianity”. The notion that the U.S. is blessed by God only gained significant popularity in the 50s, if I understand it right. When we changed our national motto to “In God We Trust” in 1956, printing it on our currency and altering the Pledge of Allegiance to include the words “Under God” in 1954, this reflected an ideology that persists today. The ideology I speak of is something like Christian historical revisionism; a practice of trying to make the U.S. appear to be not only a nation that has had a Christian majority for centuries, but was intended to be a Christian nation in terms of favoring Christianity as the basis for its form of government. This idea is at the core of the debate of whether a Christian can be equally loyal to both their country and God. And the minority group of Christians who believe one should be loyal first to God and then to their country is that of the Anabaptists, manifest popularly today as Mennonites, who commonly do not fly the American flag in their churches or sing the national anthem, both of which are a source of pride for many Christians.

Many people born in my parent’s generation hardly even had a chance to experience a society where religion wasn’t made to be a focus of the United States’ identity as a whole, let alone my own generation where it was the default position. There’s an excuse that is thrown around by Christian nation supporters that religious freedom does not exclude other beliefs or lack thereof, but merely recognizes that Christianity is where the values of the Constitution came from. But this doesn’t sit with reality at all, since it only tries to favor Christianity in one way and then justify favoring it in other ways, such as the incidents with school sponsored prayer being defended on the basis of school traditions of having Christian-centered prayers. This doesn’t serve as any real justification for the exclusion of every other person who doesn’t believe as they do. It gives a sense of entitlement that is not only arrogant, but unfair in recognizing the efforts to advance the American way that have come from Jews, Muslims, and other groups, including atheists. One might also observe that the principles of this country are not exclusively Christian in nature, nor does their theistic history in terms of, say, the Declaration of Independence’s reference to a Creator, mean that atheists are not citizens or possess the same rights as theists. In that sense, the Christian nation thesis is not only difficult to defend historically, but also logically, since the mere presence of Christian beliefs in the founding fathers’ values doesn’t mean that they wanted to enforce those Christian values as normative on everyone else. They wanted the general value of religious freedom, which is something any religion tends to value, even Islam, contrary to many people’s preconceptions of it. Any Christian values observed could easily be found in other religions across the world in one form or another. And even if they couldn’t, it doesn’t mean Christianity should be given any sort of favor in terms of the development of the country, since those values can be agreed upon without believing in any of the Christian faith’s tenets in, say, the Apostle’s Creed.

Returning to the Mennonites and the Christian thesis of separation of church and state; many Christians would say that this kind of thought is tantamount to treason and contempt for the country they live in. But, the Mennonites respond, they are not being disloyal to their country; they merely see a need to separate their loyalty to a country that commonly espouses beliefs that do not sync with their pacifist beliefs, such as the military theme in the Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem, or the military implications of flying the American flag, a symbol used to mark victory in many wars through history. It’s the pacifist tendencies of Mennonites that strongly urge them to not support certain aspects of the U.S., as well as a belief shared in part with Jehovah’s Witnesses that you shouldn’t pledge your allegiance to any other power besides God and Jesus. Of course there’s a response that the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem are not compelling the sort of loyalty that is involved with religious belief. But every Christian group has their own perspective on it. My own home church I apostatized from had both the Christian flag and the American flag in the sanctuary, so clearly Presbyterians don’t have reservations about saying they support both their country and their church in the grander scheme of the term. But there are churches along with the Mennonites that don’t feel they are being true to their faith if they sing an anthem that can be said to glorify war as a means to advance freedom or fly a flag that has been used in those wars for freedom.

This sort of disagreement is more difficult to settle, because pacifism in Christianity has always been a significant minority, even in the early church, excluding martyrs of course. Many Christian thinkers, including Aquinas, Augustine and Luther, argued that you could be loyal to both a country and the Church (emphasis on capitalization here) without being hypocritical. Aquinas and Augustine brought up the ideas of just war theory and the cities of man and God respectively. Just war theory is a Christian philosophical theory that says war can be justified if it brings about justice. There are limitations of course, but some of them have been ignored with the advancements in military technology, especially the one against killing noncombatants. Augustine believed, similar to Luther much later on, that we can be loyal to a city of man and its laws as long as they do not conflict with the law of the city of God. In this way, Christians have had a long tradition of a truce of sorts between church and state loyalty. But Mennonites and others reject this, saying that freedom comes from God, not from human actions and to say otherwise is to betray the message of Jesus. I can’t speak myself on these sorts of things, but it makes me happy to find that there is this sort of perspective from a Christian viewpoint, when one finds more often than not Christians supporting the exact opposite: that Christianity is able to be resolved with violence and force even in contrast to many things Jesus himself said in the Gospels. There’s an unlikely ally in terms of secularism to be found in these Christians who want the Church to be the Church and not have involvement with the state. So until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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