Church Not State

By Hart, D. G. | The American Conservative, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Church Not State


Hart, D. G., The American Conservative


Christians must choose between faith or worldly relevance

For much of human history, religion achieved prominence through the support of the prince, emperor, or state. It helped elevate the importance of religion further if the emperor himself were divine. Christianity never had an emperor cult, but between Constantine's rule in the 40Os and the revolutions of the late 18th century, churches held a prominent rank in their societies largely thanks to civil government's patronage. Religion was honored in the public square - and incorporated into politics.

The loss of religion's formerly privileged place has led believers to confront a difficult choice. Now that we can no longer count on the state to promote and subsidize religion, we either need to convince government to take it seriously once more and act again as its patron, or we must find a new way, free from the states blessing, to understand the significance of faith.

Over the last 30 years, born-again Protestants have overwhelmingly backed Republican candidates in the belief that for religion to matter, it must influence not only what people do when they gather for worship but also what they do every other day of the week Faith must reach beyond the walls and fellowships of churches into the halls of power. From secularists and liberals who fear a return to theocracy - as if even Old Testament Israel was run by the Aaronic priesthood - to the Religious Right, which thrives on complaints about a "naked public square," arguments for taking religion seriously in politics have coincided with the resurgence of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan.

Consequently, to propose that a truly conservative position is to contend for faith's own inherent merits, quite apart from any benediction from the civil government, is to risk sounding liberal - or even worse, secular.

So thoroughly have conservatives identified with arguments for the worldly relevance of faith, even to the point of driving away libertarians, that calling attention to the doctrine of the Trinity's insignificance for public-school voucher programs or charter schools is to bear the mark of infidelity. And this is precisely the problem. The idea that faith is important to the degree that it shapes public life - especially the workings of government - although asserted with the most laudable of motives, is in fact the greatest impediment to taking religion seriously.

The ideas and standards that inform most faithbased politics do not arise from religions own ideals but from the shifting demands of policy, legislation, and re-election. "Religion" is a sloppy and imprecise word - not only does no such thing as generic religion exist, but actual religious traditions do not share a common set of ideals or practices that we may reduce to a single religious impulse. Any effort to give due weight to a spiritual or divine aspect of human experience will inevitably lead to the recognition of profound differences not only among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but also within the various churches of Western Christianity that have molded religious life in the United States. The political urge is to blend religions together - to sort them as "conservative" or "liberal" rather than according to their own doctrines. But being true to faith does not allow that.

Important reasons exist for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, for example, not to admit Roman Catholics into membership or to receive by transfer the ministerial credentials of Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors. By America's public standards of tolerance and freedom of expression, such reservations appear sectarian, dogmatic, even uncharitable. But if we want to take seriously the theological and liturgical convictions of Orthodox Presbyterians- which would be a form of taking religion seriously - then we need to be prepared for the kind of disagreement and balkanization that come with the most devout of faiths. …

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