"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Separation Of Church And State And Augustine’s The City Of God–Time To Reconsider Secularism?

Ivan Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s  character in The Brothers Karamazov, explains to Father Zossima why he believes that the state should be subsumed within the Church.  How little crime there would be, he said, if men were beholden to first to God, the final arbiter of right and wrong.  Crime – sin – would be punished at Judgment Day, the consequences of ill deeds far more lasting than any secular punishment.

The United States, of course, has fiercely defended the separation of church and state and insisted; but the intent of the Founding Fathers has been misinterpreted ever since the framing of the Constitution.  Jefferson et al were never against the incorporation of and respect for religious principles within a secular state; just that no religion should ever be imposed on anyone.



The principles of the Enlightenment on which both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were based were profoundly religious.  Although philosophers of the 18th century valued logic and rationality above all, they were insistent that they be put to use in the service of God.  They like Augustine and Aquinas before them understood that the way to faith was through logic; and while faith would always triumph, the exercise of reason would strengthen belief not diminish it.

Today, however, these Jeffersonian principles have been deformed into policies which forbid the inclusion of religion in any secular institution or debate.  As a result the teaching of Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards find no place within schools at the very moment when they are most needed.  The dysfunction of inner-city communities from which the majority of public school students come, demands an insistence of the values of honesty, honor, respect, courage, and compassion embodied in both Old and New Testaments.

These values predate Christianity, of course.  The diptychs of Cato the Elder (234-149 BC) included in a curriculum for future Roman leaders stressed the same ideals.  A good Roman consul or even Emperor needed to have more than good management, military strategy, and administration to rule well.

In other words, Roman-Judeo-Christian values are universal and ex-temporal.  No successful civilization has ignored them; and most have incorporated them in education and civic life.

The institution of moral and ethical principles as normative values in society is a far cry from theocracy; and given the austere, medieval nature of ISIS and others which propose a religious caliphate, it is no surprise that Western democracies are harshly critical.   Similarly, since religious fundamentalists in the United States have often espoused radically right-wing conservative views and have flaunted their anti-intellectual sentiments, it is no surprise that progressives have been quick to dismiss them as retrograde and dangerous.

Worse yet, these same progressives have insisted that Judeo-Christian values have no place in a pluralistic democracy like that in the United States.  The inclusion of distinctly Jewish and Christian values would automatically marginalize and disrespect those of other religious traditions.

Nothing could be further from the truth. All religions espouse the very same principles.  Teaching – insisting upon – honesty, integrity, respect, honor, discipline, courage, and compassion would strengthen common values and would do nothing to disturb or challenge the beliefs of non-Christians.
America is very much a Christian country in that it espouses these Biblical values; and confirming that belief and commitment in no way disrespects those of a non-Biblical heritage.

Political movements which focus on ‘traditional’ values – respect for family, God, and Biblical lessons and injunctions – are not retrograde but avant-garde, for they see that that progressivism in an age of contentious divisions is in itself retrograde.

Identity politics which favors self-interested separatism instead of social and philosophical integration are corrosive and dangerous to the body politic.  Pride in ethnic, gender, or racial identity in and of itself is not dangerous; but when self-serving, often venal, principles replace common, mutually-respected values, there is indeed a problem.

Augustine’s work, The City of God is perhaps the most important Western work on the relationship between church and state.  As a good Christian who evolved from doubting roots into Christianity’s most influential theologian, Augustine argued for the co-existence if not integration of church and state.  As a good Christian, he believed that nothing was possible without faith – not civil society, not government, not family or community.  Faith precedes logic, civil discourse, laws, and governance, he said.  Without it, mankind would be lost.



Rational secularists believe differently. Justice can and indeed does exist without faith.  Belief is an add-on, important if not essential, but not indispensable.  Augustine never goes as far as the fictional Ivan Karamazov, but he comes close.

Where, then, does this leave us? The United State is a peculiar country.  It is one of the most avowedly religious in the world, but it insists on the separation of church and state.  At the same time, inroads are being made into America’s dogged insistence on institutional secularism. 

States are challenging the principle and the rulings of the Supreme Court – the philosophical fulcrum of liberal democratic secularism.  Individuals and businesses which reject abortion and gay marriage are mobilizing to challenge the purely secular judgments of the Court.   Conservative activists would like to see a diminution if not not elimination of what they see as a secular ex cathedra institution.  There is no way that the Court should decide Biblical matters.

There is no way that the United States will ever become a religious state let alone a theocracy; but these populist demands to de-secularize the state have gained traction and credibility.

The evolution from a secular and increasingly progressive state to one more attuned to Judeo-Christian, Biblical values will be long process; but the lessons of radical Islam –as dismissed and criticized as they currently are – cannot be ignored.  The advocates of a Muslim caliphate insist on God’s law over all; and while such authoritarianism is questioned, its purpose and goals must be considered.

Muslim radicalism is attacked and marginalized for the wrong reason.  Suspension of civil rights, misogyny, and rejection of liberal democracy are important considerations; but the advocacy for divine law are not.

Essential, historic, and universal values have been discredited, dismissed, and ignored by progressive secularists.  They persist at their peril.

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