Religion is increasingly finding its way into global politics, and vice versa.
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The notion of religious freedom—the right to hold and act on spiritual convictions without government interference—played a key role in the establishment of the American colonies, and in the formal beginning of the new nation. Early settlers faced hardships but left behind the burdens of mandatory state religions and persecution that were so common in the Old World.
Founding father Thomas Jefferson, in an 1802 letter to members of the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist association, wrote, “…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
This is the closest one will come to finding a common sound bite—“separation of Church and State”—that many mistakenly believe is in the Constitution.
Some argue that Jefferson’s statement advocated a government that, beyond just avoiding any state religion, acknowledged no higher power. Yet scores of biblical quotations and Bible-based artwork found in the nation’s capital are the tip of the iceberg of evidence to the contrary.
To cite just two illustrations, the east pediment of the Supreme Court building features a marble relief depicting Moses holding the Ten Commandments, and the Library of Congress displays a similar figure in bronze. Many more examples attest to what is called the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage.
The Real Truth does not take political positions, nor side with or against men’s governments or leaders. Our position is strictly neutral. But it is obvious that this “wall of separation” remains a hotly contested issue, particularly in the United States. Many legal challenges arise each year on grounds that a group has allegedly breached it.
Despite modern attempts to separate church and state in many nations, lines between the two continue to blur.
Lawsuits centered on the First Amendment’s religion clause involve a wide variety of belief systems and positions. The following are some examples:
Virginia: “…an unwelcome Christmastime tradition has once again turned into a holiday battle royale pitting Loudoun County vs. atheists.
“The town’s annual holiday parade put the annual controversy on center stage. Just feet from the parade route a large display on atheism was set up on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds for all parade-goers to see.
“For years this has been a tense turf fight. The county this year displayed a nativity scene and now a menorah—both on government property at the courthouse.
“But local atheists say that’s unconstitutional and are fighting to have a permanent holiday display of their own” (WJLA).
California: “Just as a California school district prepares to launch the first-ever comprehensive yoga program in public schools, officials also are preparing for something a bit less calming: a lawsuit.
“A group of Christian parents is threatening to sue Encinitas Union School District for indoctrinating children with Eastern spirituality, fearing that the district’s twice-weekly, 30-minute yoga classes could ‘nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs.’ The parents say school-sponsored yoga violates the First Amendment” (Christianity Today).
New York: “Americans United for Separation of Church and State, led by Barry Lynn, has sent a letter to the superintendent of West Point, claiming that the Academy’s prayer policy runs afoul of the Constitution and violates the cadets’ rights. ‘West Point cadets should be able to train for service in our nation’s military without having religion forced upon them,’ Lynn writes.” (Mr. Lynn is also a minister in the United Church of Christ.)
“But Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former Navy chaplain…contends that Lynn and others of his ilk are the ones trying to use government to prevent Christian cadets from exercising their First Amendment rights” (OneNewsNow).
Other national stories transcended these local issues.
In May 2012, dozens of Catholic institutions and dioceses, including Notre Dame University, sued the federal government over a new healthcare mandate that required them to subsidize contraception, a practice contrary to church dogma.
The Wall Street Journal reported, “‘The government…cannot justify its decision to force Notre Dame to provide, pay for, and/or facilitate access to these services in violation of its sincerely held religious beliefs,’ Notre Dame’s lawsuit argues. ‘If the government can force religious institutions to violate their beliefs in such a manner, there is no apparent limit to the government’s power.’
“The Senate voted 51-48 in March against an effort that would have scrapped the contraception requirement. Republicans warned against forcing religious institutions to violate their beliefs, and Democrats accused their rivals of seeking to roll back women’s rights.”
“The plaintiffs object to a provision that requires most employers to cover all preventive health services including contraception as part of their insurance policies…Sterilization was one of the methods of birth control included, as was the so-called morning-after pill [which induces abortion].”
Partly as a result of this action, ministers across America risked their status as tax-exempt charities and tackled politics from the pulpit: “About 1,600 pastors across the country violated a 58-year-old ban on political endorsements by churches in October by explicitly backing political candidates in their Sunday sermons, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom of Scottsdale, Ariz., a conservative Christian legal organization behind a campaign called Pulpit Freedom Sunday” (NBC News).
When the Internal Revenue Service did not take action against these ministers, it was then sued by an atheist group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation!
All of this was expected to impact President Barack Obama’s re-election bid, but the electorate itself was divided along religious lines. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 69 percent of Jewish voters and 50 percent of Catholics voted for Mr. Obama, compared to 42 percent of those classified as “Protestant/other Christian.”
America has long been viewed as a standard-setter, with many nations following its lead—for better or worse. But in the area of church-state relations, much of the world ignores America’s leanings and takes a different approach.
As of the year 2000, about 40 percent of the world’s nations had an official state religion. Certain countries are strongly connected to a particular religion, with much less political concern for any wall of separation. Think of Germany and the Lutheran Church, Italy or Ireland and Roman Catholicism, Greece and that nation’s particular type of Orthodoxy, and Britain, where the queen holds the title of the Anglican Church’s Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor.
In this regard, America appears to be an exception to the rule. In the book God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, the authors note that “contrary to…predictions, the portion of the world adhering to Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Islam and Hinduism jumped from 50 percent in 1900 to 64 percent in 2000. Globally speaking, most people—79 percent—believe in God (a slight increase from the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was 73 percent), and although in most countries majorities agree that religion is private and should be kept separate from government, these majorities are increasingly slim in a number of countries and the intensity of support for this separation has declined in over half of the countries polled. In India, for example, the number of people who ‘completely’ agree on the separation of faith and government dropped from 78 percent to 50 percent in just five years, from 2002 to 2007. Thus, over the past four decades, religion’s influence on politics has reversed its decline and become more powerful on every continent and across every major world religion. Earlier confined to the home, the family, the village, the mosque, synagogue, temple and church, religion has come to exert its influence in parliaments, presidential palaces, lobbyists’ offices, campaigns, militant training camps, negotiation rooms, protest rallies, city squares, and dissident jail cells.”
How does this long-term trend manifest itself today?
In the Mideast, religion and politics merge dramatically in the form of Islamist parties, which gained ground in the aftermath of 2011’s Arab Spring. They can be found in Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has become the most prominent religion-centered party both in name and function. As described by the Council on Foreign Relations, “Establishing an Islamic state based on sharia is at the center of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, both in Egypt and among the group’s many offshoots abroad.”
The group is making progress toward this goal. In late December 2012, a new Egyptian draft constitution passed a popular vote. “Like a previous constitution, the draft states, ‘Principles of Islamic Shariah are the principal source of legislation.’ For the first time, the draft defines those principles, rooting them in ‘general evidence, foundational rules’ and other rules from the long tradition of Islamic jurisprudence. Both critics and ultraconservative supporters of the charter say that opens the doors for stricter imposition of Islamic law” (The Washington Post).
The shift of the Arab world’s most populous nation from secular to religious has major implications for the region—a ripple effect that will eventually disrupt the global power balance.
Other nearby nations in which secular-religious shifts are being monitored closely by the West include Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
Africa represents a unique dynamic, as tensions rise between two major belief systems. The Pew Research Center reported that since 1900, the “number of Muslims living between the Sahara Desert and the Cape of Good Hope has increased more than 20-fold, rising from an estimated 11 million in 1900 to approximately 234 million in 2010. The number of Christians has grown even faster, soaring almost 70-fold from about 7 million to 470 million. Sub-Saharan Africa now is home to about one-in-five of all the Christians in the world (21%) and more than one-in-seven of the world’s Muslims (15%).”
Nigeria is a microcosm of this collision. Its population is 50 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian. While it endorses no state religion, it is sometimes hard to tell where Nigerian politics end and faith begins: “…sometimes out of faith, sometimes out of desperation, and sometimes merely for survival, Nigerians have taken political problems to the mosques and churches. In the predominantly Muslim North, shari’a law has been in place for a decade, implemented by a region so tired of lawlessness that Qur’anic law seemed an enlightened answer. In the poor slums of Lagos, churches provide the services that the state would not—could not—ever provide.
“Politicians have been quick to follow their constituents’ retreat to religion. They are conspicuously present at churches and mosques, allied with specific pastors and imams. They raise constituencies among their religious peers, and pour patronage on their fellow faithful” (Religion Dispatches).
On the Christian end of the spectrum, Africa also sees some of the most fervent calls for what is termed biblical morality, which can exert considerable influence on the lawmaking process.
In late 2012, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni gave a public prayer at an event marking the nation’s Jubilee (50th anniversary of independence) that was unprecedented for a modern civil leader. It called on his nation to repent of sins and dedicate itself to God.
“I stand here today to close the evil past, and especially in the last 50 years of our national leadership history and at the threshold of a new dispensation in the life of this nation,” he said. “I stand here on my own behalf and on behalf of my predecessors to repent. We ask for your forgiveness.”
“We confess these sins, which have greatly hampered our national cohesion and delayed our political, social and economic transformation. We confess sins of idolatry and witchcraft which are rampant in our land. We confess sins of shedding innocent blood, sins of political hypocrisy, dishonesty, intrigue and betrayal.”
“Forgive us of sins of pride, tribalism and sectarianism; sins of laziness, indifference and irresponsibility; sins of corruption and bribery that have eroded our national resources; sins of sexual immorality, drunkenness and debauchery; sins of unforgiveness, bitterness, hatred and revenge; sins of injustice, oppression and exploitation; sins of rebellion, insubordination, strife and conflict.”
“We want to dedicate this nation to you so that you will be our God and guide. We want Uganda to be known as a nation that fears God and as a nation whose foundations are firmly rooted in righteousness and justice to fulfill what the Bible says in Psalm 33:12: Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. A people you have chosen as your own.”
For the average Western politician, this would be unthinkable, at least in the current political climate. International press coverage of this speech was nearly non-existent. But the quoting of Scripture, references to national and individual sins, and a call to repentance are similar to what American presidents such as Abraham Lincoln once did routinely.
Of course, the roots of Africa’s Christian denominations are found largely in Europe, which was historically called “Christendom.” As recently as 1910, two-thirds of professing Christians lived within the Continent’s borders, according to the Pew Research Center.
While Europe has taken a secular turn in recent decades, religious connections are never far from the surface.
In February, shortly after a ban on prayer before British town council meetings was instituted by the High Court (subsequently overturned), Queen Elizabeth gave an ardent defense of the national religion during an interreligious gathering at Lambeth Palace, residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury: “…we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated…Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society—more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths…This occasion is thus an opportunity to reflect on the importance of faith in creating and sustaining communities all over the United Kingdom.”
Later in the year and across the Channel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the nation’s “Protestant and Roman Catholic churches…to stress their common beliefs at ceremonies marking the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation,” Reuters reported.
“Although still five years away, the date has already prompted debate between Protestants preparing major celebrations and Catholics who rue the rebellion of the German monk Martin Luther in 1517 as the start of a painful split in western Christianity.
“The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the country’s largest association of Protestant churches, wants the Catholics to attend its planned ‘Luther Jubilee’, and its annual synod in a Baltic resort near Luebeck is debating how to make it possible for them to do so.
“Merkel, daughter of a Protestant pastor, made a rare visit to the synod and said that, in a secularized world, Christian churches should stress what united them, rather than their enduring theological differences” (ibid.).
Elsewhere in Europe, the Catholic Church stands apart in any church-state discussion. It is both church and state. The Holy See, the church’s government centered in the sovereign Vatican city-state within Rome, maintains diplomatic ties with 176 other nations. Pope Pius IX once bluntly stated, “It is an error to assert that the Church ought to be separated from the State and the State from the Church” (Time).
John Paul II is considered to have been the most politically active pope in history, making a record 104 foreign trips during his 26-year papacy. His 1979 trip to his native Poland, at that time behind the Iron Curtain, was a catalyst for one of the largest geopolitical events of the 20th century—the breakup of the Soviet Union. This was a great victory for the Catholic Church, as it re-opened many nations in which religion had been suppressed under the Soviet regime.
Today, Pope Benedict XVI has been regularly calling for moral ethics in global financial affairs.
One of the theme’s of his papacy has also been “re-evangelizing” Europe, including Germany—fighting the tide of indifference toward religion, and challenging citizens to rediscover their common spiritual heritage.
But does it matter whether church and state blur? What does this trend mean, beyond a collection of anecdotes and statistics? And why should you care?
In summary, a lesson of history is that when great power is concentrated in human hands—which are in turn influenced by those who profess to represent a Supreme Being—terrible suffering often follows. Some of the most appalling examples can be found in the history of Europe—“Christendom”—and adjacent lands.
Outside Muslim-majority nations, most church-state issues involve traditional forms of Christianity. This is to be expected, since the various denominations under this umbrella form the largest religion in the world, with over two billion adherents.
These groups (to some extent) acknowledge the Bible as a source of doctrine and practice. So the question must be asked: does this Book have anything to say about “church and state”?
In the Bible’s New Testament, Jesus Christ instructed His followers to go “into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). While billions know the term gospel—which simply means “good news”—many are not aware of what the news is about. Yet another verse makes it clear: “…Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14).
Over the centuries, some have equated this kingdom with an existing nation or entity, run by flesh-and-blood human beings. But elsewhere Jesus plainly stated, “My kingdom is not of this world,” with the apostle Paul adding that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (John 18:36; I Cor. 15:50).
Others attempt to define God’s kingdom as a vague, invisible spiritual realm, or something that exists “in the hearts of men.” But a true kingdom must have four elements: (1) a king, (2) citizens, (3) territory, and (4) laws.
So the true gospel, the primary message of the Church that Christ founded, is about a state—a kingdom. While this is basic, it is probably very different from what you have assumed is the gospel.
Yet this good news holds the ultimate solution to the ongoing church-state dilemma—and much, much more!
To learn what this message is and is not, read the definitive booklet Which Is the True Gospel? by Real Truth Editor-in-Chief David C. Pack.