Clash of Church and State — What Are the Lines?

Written by Wes Walker on November 23, 2012

The turf war brewing between Church and State is coming to a boil. We’ve seen the early skirmishes already. So let’s ask some basic questions. What are the roles of Church and State in today’s culture? Are they both necessary, or is that ancient history? If they are both important, what are they there for? Should they be antagonistic, cooperative, or something in between?

First, let’s define terms. For clarity’s sake, in this discussion, the State will be ”the elected government, together with its ability to legislate and establish laws, and the people involved in those tasks.”

Church is harder to quantify. It isn’t merely religion, since less religious cultures have their counterparts. For now, let’s call it shorthand for “religious (or nonreligious) groups of individuals voluntarily gathered around an idea, belief, or goal.” For distinguishing the two groups, it is important that Church membership be voluntary, revocable, and that the group exercises no actual authority over non-members.

The following is specifically about institutions, not people. Clearly, individual persons can, and do, have both political and religious/ethical motives, and can be involved in both as much or as little as they choose.

The need for a State that can fulfill its mandate free of Church interference is obvious. Inevitably, and in every walk of life, people will run afoul of the law and require consequences. Some would necessarily have direct or indirect connections to the “Church” group.

Justice requires the State’s freedom to prosecute real wrongdoing, and defend the innocent regardless of personal affiliations — without powerful interests intervening. Any model, therefore, that blurs distinctions, or thwarts this process (Islamic Law, for instance) does not balance State and Church well.

The need for a “Church” is less obvious, but important. Remember Lord Acton’s “absolute power corrupts absolutely”? The danger in concentrated State power is that the same people with the power to detain, or even execute lawbreakers, dictate exactly what those laws and consequences are.

When citizens resist the will of the State, temptation to use State power coercively is strong — ranging from nuisance bylaws, or confiscatory taxation, to criminalizing speech or association. This results in a dangerous might-makes-right scenario.

What happens when the lawmakers and enforcers are the ones doing wrong? What is our recourse? This is where the Church steps up. Specifically because they have no political power to protect, they can serve as an arm’s-length watchdog. Because they have no coercive ability to detain or execute, their only tool is to make persuasive arguments for their vision of justice. This is their strength.

Historic examples: MLK, Ghandi’s hunger strike, Luther’s 95 Thesis. Some historians even credit Wesley’s Methodists for averting a “French Revolution” in England. These are all examples of cultural influence. They accomplished political change, but they did so by first changing the hearts of people — the laws followed later.

The freedom “from” religion crowd aims to curb the Church’s influence. Two possible reasons: one, to become the Nation’s conscience, replacing traditional values with their own. And two, to let the State own both roles (read: Totalitarianism). If the State has no dissenting voices openly challenging its errors, State power grows unchecked. These things have already happened even in “enlightened” countries such as ours. (Compulsory sterilization, for example.) Imagine if no dissenting voice had called forced sterilization a sin? Yes, I said sin. The State deals with legality, the Church with morality. This is a key difference. In our imperfect world, not everything legal is good, and not everything good is legal.

Hitler became Fuhrer, not because all Germans agreed with him, but because he was unopposed. Had the dissenting voices reached critical mass in 1930’s Germany, he could never have waged his wars. Why? Because when nobody obeys the tyrant, he stands alone — and his power is gone. Just ask Mussolini. What accomplishes this? Persuasion. A voice influencing public opinion.

This is why Nanny-states are dangerous. The same centralized power needed for Big Government exalts bad men into tyrants. Any government big enough to give you everything is big enough to take it away.

Free speech — especially unwelcome, unpopular and politically incorrect speech — must be jealously guarded and preserved as a powerful non-violent antidote to tyranny.

But like anything else, it is powerful only when used. In my view the Christian Church (when healthy) is ideally suited to the system outlined here. When healthy, orthodox and faithful, it transcends race, gender and social class. It holds the great and small to one moral standard and compels us to treat everyone as intrinsically valuable.

True, the Church hasn’t been healthy in a long time. Self-indulgent, anti-intellectual, hyper-individualistic tendencies proclaiming a moralistic therapeutic deism is not a healthy Church.

There’s a job to be done. The Church has sat in its hammock and left persuasion to others — because it’s hard work. But this is about more than voting the “right party”. It’s about calling culture (but first ourselves) to embrace higher ideals. That sort of change is a job for a bold voice, not an Executive Order.

The time to get engaged is now. Because when the Church is silent, others will persuade the nation in their own way: ACORN offshoots, ACLU, Occupy, “progressives” and others.

Don’t wait until things get uglier before you speak up: by then, your objections might already be classified as hate speech.

Upper Image: Moses Speaks to Pharaoh, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot; www.the; public domain/copyright expired

Lower Image: Elijah Visits King Ahab and the Ba’al Prophets (1 Kings); author:YahushaReigns; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.