The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Religion & Politics

July 25th, 2004 · No Comments · history, media

Over the last few years, there seems to be more public arguments over the place of religion in . Lawsuits have been filed to move monuments inscribed with Biblical text from public grounds, and more recently, the phrase “under God” in the pledge has come under attack. The phrase “separation of Church and State” is frequently invoked as a bromide against governmental dalliances with religion, as if it were really possible to separate the two.

The fact is that religion is inherently political — more to the point, politics was derived from religion. Before there was politics, there was religion, and men of religion held all the power. Folks who lived in the ancient, pagan Roman Republic would attach themselves to specific congregations as per family or political loyalties. The leaders of the temples who could gather up particularly large congregations found that they could wield substantial local political power; and when these leaders cooperated, they could cause significant grief for the Republic. Part of the incentive for Constantine to convert the Empire to Christianity was the control he would have over the resulting religious establishment — thus becoming the recognized leader of both politics and religion.

The idea that there would a secular political power without the approval (or at least the blessing) of the head of the church has only been available in for a few hundred years. Medieval European kings were crowned by popes, if not anointed by some local high-clergy. Napoleon caused a huge uproar when he crowned himself Emperor, in a snub to the Catholic Church. However, today, most state heads still seek the allegiance of church leaders during election campaigns.

The idea that churches would become politically segregated is not terribly surprising since that’s been the nature of congregations of faith since the beginning of time. Some recent articles in the Statesman (A fight for souls, votes and Church, political beliefs align) go into more detail about this from a local angle. In brief, however, churches have been building congregations by attracting members as much like the rest of the congregation as possible. So all the Democrats tend to modernist churches, while Republicans generally favor traditionalist churches. (Go figure.)

It seems to follow that since many people look to their church to provide moral guidance, the majority of members from the same church would view political issues with a similar bias, generally favoring the same side of an issue or the same candidate for office. Moral guidance is the heart of political guidance, the two operate hand-in-hand. Legislators draft laws to display their moral leadership, while church leaders deliver sermons taking sides with political issues. Even as many today wonder how anyone could claim morality without allegiance to a church, it’s hard to imagine a successful candidate for office who openly claimed atheism.

The idea behind the “separation of Church and State” was to prevent the kind of perpetual bloodshed seen in Europe during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, when changing civil leadership often meant changing one’s professed faith. The hope was that by preventing the state from either establishing an official religion or banning specific denominations, at least one form of imperial tyranny could be alleviated. It had nothing to do with whether laws were written based on religious principals or if the heads of state declared their own preference of faith. Even phrases like “In God We Trust” printed on currency or “under God” in the pledge don’t even come close to violating the original spirit of “separation” because they don’t require or prevent citizens’ worship in any way.

Issues of politics and religion would both be better served if we recognized and accepted the role of religion in politics and made a point to understand how religious contexts color the issues. Congregations of faith are one of the most ancient forms of social interaction — much of how humans communicate derive from such relational structures. We ignore the power and history of these organizations at our own peril.

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