Should Church and State Be Separate?

With all this madness regarding Donald Trump becoming the new American President, I was hoping all the tension and hostility would eventually die down a bit; and maybe, just maybe, Trump would actually prove himself to be a somewhat decent leader. Unfortunately, I’ve been disappointed by both sides equally. We not only have a national leader who unapologetically tweets his bombastic ego, but we also have a hostile, entitled society that resorts to relentless character-assassination under the guise of ‘tolerance.’

Trump has certainly proven himself to be so flippant that the media will use even the slightest dirt to paint him to be the most disgusting, worthless human being of our time. It’s almost damn-near impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to determining what is truth from either conservative or liberal news sources. The elite, reactionary left also refuses to acknowledge the outcome of the election as well as any possibility of Trump doing good, and has crowned itself the so-called ‘resistance’ when there is little empirical evidence of loss of life due to his presidency.

I can honestly understand why many conservative voters have felt compelled to vote for Trump as the ‘lesser evil’ due to personal convictions. But like every other election, voting for someone does not mean you worship every aspect of the candidate, and that’s an ongoing stigma I’ve seen in every election campaign. Too often, a person’s character is measured based on the candidate they are considering to vote for, and being torn between two extremes is not fair for anyone. The situation in America has not only driven an ideological wedge among its own citizens, but its effects have rippled emotions beyond its borders. Partisan politics have done society a great disservice by placing people in boxes as well as falsely labeling conservatives as religious wingnuts and liberals as reactionary hippies.

I had two theories before the American election. One of them was, if Hilary Clinton would have won the presidency, it would have led to the rapid, radical secularization of North American society and the eventual mass persecution of Christians. But now that Trump has office, I can easily foresee the opposite effects unfold. I’m seeing a dark underbelly of nominal Christianity that uses religion as a vessel to acquire power, under the guise of making America great again. While I don’t deny that God can look past people’s negative qualities for the purpose of doing good, I’m seeing genuine, well-meaning people buying into the policies of these corrupt politicians as though their actions were commanded to them by God Himself. I see a radical movement that is void of anything Christlike, and it makes me fear for the kind of world my children’s children will grow up in.

As a Canadian, I’m thankful that I live in a nation where I can feel free to subscribe to whatever belief-system I choose. I’m happy that I can be open about my values without fear of violence or death, and I’m happy that other people with differing worldviews can feel just as safe to express themselves as well. To me, religion is a personal relationship that requires consent, and nobody should ever feel manipulated or forced to conform. A separation of church and state certainly allows people of all walks of life to have equal freedom to live and worship as they please, and works harmoniously as long as the state recognizes and acknowledges the existence of these diverse groups.

But what is true equality? If hate-speech is criminalized for the sake of protecting minorities, then why aren’t there blasphemy laws that protect all religious groups from hateful slander? If the LGBTQ community ought to be free to practice the same rights as everyone else, then should Muslims be allowed those same rights to practice Sharia Law? Where is the line drawn if one group’s practices infringe on another’s right to exist? If it’s an issue of privilege, how long before the pendulum swings and the minority becomes the majority, and the former-majority becomes a persecuted minority? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions and it is impossible to please everybody.

But I think if a certain ideology involves compromising the life of another, then that’s a major problem.

To me, isolating any group that aligns itself with a specific set of values is not what I consider to be inclusive politics. More often than not, separation of church and state is often implied by many to the complete isolation of Christian influence in the process of lawmaking. In reality, it should apply to all religions, but it isn’t unreasonable to point out that Christianity has been exclusively singled out due to historical animosity caused from the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Protestant Revolt among others. Similarly, a quick Google-search would indicate that some countries allow the practice of honor-killings, female circumcision and the stoning of homosexuals to death under the influence of Islamic Sharia Law. If both Christianity and Islam have a history of violence, how would a completely secular state that is naturally biased and hostile towards religious groups do any better? A common quote by America’s founding fathers that is often taken out of context to justify the suppression of religion is,

“Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law.” – Thomas Jefferson

In the first few centuries after Jesus’s death and resurrection, Christians were heavily persecuted, tortured and put to death by the Roman Empire as their numbers grew with the spread of the Gospel. It was only after Emperor Constantine’s conversion that Judeo-Christianity became recognized as a religion and was legalized throughout the Roman world. The Church began to visibly collaborate with the state, but like all institutions comprised of human beings, they were not without sin. Many church officials and political figures were easily swayed by fear, wealth and their desire for power despite aligning themselves with the authority of the Popes. Like the Kings of Israel in the Old Testament, it comes to show that no human is immune to corruption.

During the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s, the Roman Catholic Church affirmed their support for the separation of church and state in their declaration Dignitatis Humanae. Because of the vast amount of new and previously-existing religious groups, this development in doctrine was a long-time coming. In my perspective, having the Christian Church collaborate with the secular state is not a bad thing, but it only makes sense for all individuals to practice freedom of religion without the use of manipulative fear tactics or threats of violence. Every citizen ought to have an equal right to express their concerns, and the same applies to people of other worldviews. When it comes to being religious while living in a secular state, Jesus once said,

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” – Mark 12:17

Despite their dismal history, one of the things that drew me back to the Catholic Church is their willingness to pursue the healing of old wounds, build bridges that were once burned and restore unity among separated Christians. Like a weathered old man who has experienced a lot of past regret, I see a side of Catholicism that is reaching out and seeking repentance with the international community – which has been especially evident with Popes Francis and John Paul II. This is an attitude I have rarely seen among some groups who continue to view religion with such high contempt.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reinforces the freedom of expression and opinion, as well as the right to freely and publicly practice religion. But how much freedom is too much freedom? Has America reached the point where freedom of expression is subject to the opinions of who can scream the loudest?

I hate to bring up the Hitler comparisons because it feels so worn and overused. But when we look at our modern North American society we still hear the extreme notions that, in order to acquire true peace, a certain group must be eradicated. The comment boxes in social media especially don’t mince words in that sense either. I’ve seen atheists blatantly express their desire for religion to disappear forever. I’ve seen religious individuals (both Protestant and Catholic) say that ‘unbelievers’ need to be severed or cut-off from the vine of their great nation. Both analogies are not too far-removed from how Hitler and the Nazis viewed the Jews. And now with Trump as the new President, that same attitude towards Muslims has been floating to the surface like a septic clog. As agnostic thinker Robert Green Ingersoll once said,

“Whoever imagines himself a favorite with God holds others in contempt.”

Given the amount of negative attention Trump and his followers have been gaining, the movement associated with making America great again is giving Evangelicalism a bad name. Some of the most genuine and loyal friends I have identify themselves as Evangelical Protestants, and the bile I’ve seen spewing from this pseudo-spiritual revival of America is not a reflection of those dear brothers and sisters in Christ I know and love. It is a Christless, neo-fascist movement that demands an eye for two eyes and a limb.

Billy Graham, one of America’s most highly respected Evangelical preachers of the 20th century once said in 1981,

“I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

Sharing the world we live in doesn’t mean being unequally yoked, and the same applies to collaborative politics. It’s easy for Christians to forget that we live in the world, but we don’t have to succumb to the world’s expectations. We ought to involve ourselves in our communities as well as our governments – but we ought to be careful not to believe that our own, finite, individualistic ideas of a perfect utopia are the only right way, lest we ignore the concerns of the people around us with whom we share the world with.

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