Saturday, October 4, 2008

Wall of Separation?

Back in April I was asked to "debate" a professor at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri. The question: should there be a "wall of separation" between religion and government/politics so that government and the political process are strictly secular? It was more like a forum and less like a debate. Nobody "won." I'd like to take a few posts and offer some random thoughts about this topic. Nothing polished and definitive. Just some ruminations from a simple pastor.

Thinking about this question and topic I realized that the conversation can go in any number of directions. More often than not the debate focuses narrowly on what role if any religion should have in the public lives and official actions of politicians and legislators. Religion, it is argued, should not be a factor in the “political process,” narrowly conceived. I’ll come back to that in a moment. But before I do, I think it would be beneficial to step back or zoom out and look at the relationship between religion and politics with a wide-angle lens, if you will.

What I have in mind are broader definitions of religion and politics than what are often used in this popular debate. I’m afraid a modernist conception of “government” has captured the day. “Government” and “politics” refer to the highest levels of civil government—national or state government and politics. To what we might call “professional” politics.

Our media has reinforced this modernist meaning: “The government releases crime figures today.” “The government sets education policy.” “The government delivers unemployment statistics.” And so on. When Fox News reports on “politics,” as it does for an hour in Brit Hume’s Special Report every weekday at 5 PM, it is almost exclusively focused on national politics, and sometimes on State government.

But there was a time (pre-modernist) when the noun "government" and the adjective "political" denoted much more. There seems to be a move in these post-modern times to recognize that there’s much more to “government” and to “politics” than centralized state and federal power structures.

For example, pre-modernist dictionary definitions of “government” recognize that communities are governed at many different levels. The 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defined government in this way:
Government. N. Direction; regulation. “These precepts will serve for the government of our conduct.” 2. Control; restraint. “Men are apt to neglect the government of their temper and passions.” 3. The exercise of authority; direction and restraint excercised over the actions of men in communities, societies or states. . . . 4. The exercise of authority by a parent or householder. “Children are often ruined by a neglect of government in parents.”
Compare that with Webster’s New World Dictionary (1972) that I still have from my high school days: “Government. N. The exercise of authority over a sate, district, organization, institution, etc.”

The same reductionist tendency can be discerned with our use of the word “politics.” We have become comfortable with a constricted modernist definition. But the word comes from the Greek polis, which means "city." Politics had to do with the organization, life, administration, and rule of a polis (a city).

Expanding the domain of the activity in a pre- or post-modern definition would lead to something like this: “Politics as the art and science of organizing, administering, and ruling the affairs of a community.” The adjective “political” then ought to be recovered so that it encompasses the communal life of a people and especially the order of a community (family, neighborhood, county, city, state, nation state). Politics has to do with social leadership, responsibility, and service within the community.

With these expanded (recovered?) conceptions of government and politics, the question about the role of religion becomes acute.

When I talk about to my congregation about the Christian’s political duty, I am referring to the perspective Christians ought to have on and the role we should play in the life, order, and government of the communities to which we belong. What obligation do Christians have towards the affairs of government at all levels. Self-government, family government, neighborhood, church, and including the exercise of civil authority and rule.

To be continued. . .


Ken said...

Looking forward to reading the rest of your thoughts on this.

"Politics" is often sadly reduced to power and entertainment, in the media, in the church, and in my own sinful thinking as well.

Gary said...

Hey Jeff,

on roughly the same topic, let me highly recommend a text to you. The Secular Revolution, ed. Christian Smith.

Chris Smith is a sociologist and a christian. At the time of publication I believe he was the chair of the soc dept at UNC. The book is a series of essays on how American public institutions became secularized during the period 1870-1930. There are articles on education, psychology, journalism and law. Really some terrific stuff in there.

Also, just for trivia purposes, Smith's introduction to the book is without a doubt the longest introduction I've ever read. It has a ten page bibliography.