The Case for Religious
in a Secular State
by Gene TeSelle, Witherspoon Society Issues Analyst
We in the West have learned that religious passions can cause so much
disruption in political life that their role needs to be limited.
Germany did this after the Wars of Religion in 1648; England after
Puritanism and Restoration in 1688; the U.S. in the First Amendment in
1791. It has now become a commonplace to say that, while there should be
a separation between religious and political institutions, this does not
mean a separation of religion and politics, since religious people and
institutions can seek a just society for good religious reasons.
Not everyone grasps this point, however, and we often
find the whipping up of religious passions over political issues, often
through the formation of explicitly religious parties. In recent
decades, so-called Hindu fundamentalism has threatened the pluralistic
ethos enshrined in the Indian constitution, and Islamic fundamentalism
has destabilized a number of states in the Islamic world. Israeli
fundamentalists, joined by fundamentalist Christians in the U.S., have
tried, with some success, to extend the boundaries of Israel to the
so-called biblical boundaries (stated in widely varying ways in the
Bible itself), denied that there are any "occupied
territories," and resisted any exchange of land for peace.
Fundamentalisms have been examined comparatively in a
wide-ranging project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. You
would need a wheelbarrow to carry the five huge volumes, and you are not
expected to go out and buy it; but you should know about it, and maybe
you will want to refer knowingly to it. It's The Fundamentalism
Project, edited by Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (University of
Chicago Press, 1991-1995). The multiple authors recognize that
fundamentalism in the strict sense applies to a movement in the U.S.
during the early twentieth century. Taking its salient characteristics
and studying analogous phenomena in other religious traditions, they
construct an "ideal type," using it heuristically and
acknowledging the many differences. They tend to find that
fundamentalisms are occasioned by industrial civilization and deal with
its anxieties by seeking a return to an older, simpler time, even as
they make use of modern media of communication and exploit to the full
the freedoms that are unique to modern civilization.
Fundamentalism or zealotry need not take overt
political forms; it is all the more effective when it does not. In the
U.S., James Davison Hunter has taught us to speak of "culture
wars" in two books, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define
America (Basic Books, 1991), Before the Shooting Begins:
Searching for Democracy in America's Culture War (Free Press,
1994). Culture wars, he suggests, have an intrinsic tendency toward
dualistic thinking: they are based in competing moral visions, such that
those who disagree are placed beyond the bounds of legitimacy. Therefore
there is an urge to "force political solutions" rather than
trust continued dialogue.
Ever since the Progressive Era there has been an
"ecumenism of the left," exemplified by the Federal and the
National Council of Churches, Reform Jews, and Catholics responsive to
the social encyclicals of the popes. In opposition to it there has been
a more intermittent "ecumenism of the right," exemplified by
fundamentalism and other forms of anti-modernism, the National
Association of Evangelicals, the Moral Majority and the Christian
Coalition, and kindred movements among Orthodox Jews and conservative
With the immigration of adherents of other religious
traditions, we find them, too, responding to the legal environment in
the U.S. in contrary ways, since they have tended to join one or the
other of these ecumenisms. For some of them the atmosphere of religious
pluralism offers relief from the intense struggles they have experienced
in their homelands; thus we find some Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims
fighting bigotry and emphasizing what religious faiths have in common.
For others, freedom of religion offers them the opportunity to press the
claims of their religious traditions upon their own members and
emphasize their rights against any form of government regulation. Diana
Eck, A New Religious America: How a 'Christian Country' Has Become
the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (HarperSanFrancisco,
2001), discusses the experiences of adherents of various world religions
in the U.S. Out of her Pluralism Project she has a recent software
publication (priced at $195) entitled On Common Ground: World
Religions in America.
Similar tensions are found within Christianity itself.
Many Christians in the Third World suspect that the churches of the West
have become apostate. In January of 2000, bishops from Singapore and
Rwanda, in violation of the rules of the Lambeth Conference, consecrated
two priests as missionary bishops to signal their dismay at the
condition of the church in the U.S. and its need for transformation.
Conservatives, of course, welcome this support from the Third World, an
area with which liberals so often like to profess their solidarity, and
they predict with glee that the liberalism of the churches in Europe and
the U.S. will be swamped by the growing number of Christians in other
areas and by their immigration into the U.S.
The complexities of the situation have been explored
by Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christianity: The Coming of
Global Christianity (2002), summarized in an article entitled
"The Next Christianity," Atlantic Monthly, October
2002, pp. 53-68.
What we are seeing on the world scale is not a
Manichaean "clash of civilizations" but a tension that runs
through the middle of each civilization and each religious tradition. It
is likely that nations in the Third World will go through their own
changes analogous to those of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and
the Age of Revolution, and for similar reasons: religious pluralism, the
complexity of economic life, and the reflectiveness that is evoked by
factors such as these.
The tensions within and between religions have been
explored by Karen Armstrong in Islam: A Short History (Modern
Library, 2000) and The Battle for God (Knopf, 2000) .
ratified (or not) by the presbyteries
A number of the most important actions of the 219th
General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their
action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book
We're providing resources to help inform the
reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.
Our three areas of primary interest are:
which would remove the current ban on
lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as
possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.|
which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of
10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government
that was approved by the Assembly. |
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