Sunday, May 30, 2004

Separation of Church and State

The motivation for the separation of between church and state seems pretty obvious, I think. However, it seems like people aren't really willing to face all the consequences of this decision. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, people want the freedom to have state support when and where they want it, and get rid of it when and where they want it. Like many issues in education, people seem to want to have their cake and eat it too. I think as a society we are spoiled. Idealistic liberalism can lead us to believe that living up to a new ideal is a way to avoid natural consequences.

The recent SSM debate shows us just how well people understand the degree to which we are affected by the morals of our society. In this case, many people want their moral views on the issue enforced by law. Whether or not these morals arise from religious conviction of social justice is really irrelevant. The more our beliefs are separated from our reality, the more unstable our position becomes. Like Jesus said, "ye cannot serve two masters". I think the conflict between church and state is typically not noticed because we are rather indifferent to the areas in which they overlap. To live in two worlds, indifference is un-avoidable. However, once we touch on issues that matter, friction occurs.

For us, hot topics may be SSM, abortion, Islamic fundamentalism, school prayer, creationsim, etc. But what were the hot topics during Alma's expansion of the church during Mosiah's reign (Mosiah 25-26)?

"therefore it became expedient that those who committed sin, that were in the church, should be admonished by the church"

I tend to think King Mosiah was cognizant of the difficulties associated with a large church (Mosiah 25, 19, Mosiah 26:12). This may be especially true if the heart of Nephite religion at this time was kept within a theocratic priest class. The problem Alma faced amounted to what we are experiencing now. What type of punishment should be given for actions that a specific group thinks are wrong, but others do not? In other words, where does the line between church and state blur? Is it all right for a church to stone a person committing adultery even if the state doesn't think so? Is it all right for someone to live a polygamous lifestyle if the state doesn't think so?

I think things get even more complicated if the tenets and beliefs of a religion are not well established. For instance, what should be done if a large sect of today's church starts believing that drinking coke is an abominable sin? What happens if the church hierarchy, perhaps like Alma (Mosiah 26:13), isn't ready to deal with the situation, and the people are demanding something get done?

Looking at this situation, it is interesting that Mosiah, whom we suppose to be the religious leader chose not to judge religious crimes. Why? Well perhaps he was politically astute enough to know that playing with religion and politics is a sure way to loose support of half your population. Perhaps the people were expecting religious crimes to be treated the same as societal crimes? With the literal way I see the mosiac law possibly being enacted, I find it rather easy to believe that the trouble Alma got into involved deciding what to do for sins for which God had given no clear punishment. For instance, if someone was to declare that God was a black jaguar that wasn't going to get resurrected, what do you do? To a church member, this heresy probably is as bad as adultery, but should the punishment be the same? I am sure some people would think so.

I find the solution to the problem quite interesting. The Lord doesn't give a legal answer. There is no mediation of sin. It is basically "if you are sorry, forgive him, if not, remove his name from the church". There is no attempt to maintain religious morals through law. In other words, we have religion running in the exact opposite way a state would. Perhaps this is why it was so easy for people in Chapter 27 to persecute the church. It had no bite, and hence no real power. The only power it could exert only occurred if you accepted it.

So does the separation of church and state make sense? I think it only matters when you have to choose between the distinct methods each use for behavioural control. Moral decisions are so personal any attempt to prevent religious interference runs the risk of religious tyranny. It basically removes a non-desirable group from the decision making process for no other reason than that their views are considered too unpopular. Whether or not this is done in the name of religious purity, and social liberalism is irrelevant. What matters is that if we try too hard to separate church and state, we may end up with a state that acts as much like a religion fundamentalist as any Islamic state. Of course those who are in the "in crowd" will never think so.


Clark Goble said...

It seems the interesting issue, which the BoM never touches upon, is what to do when a public figure is enacting policy in opposition to the church's teaching. This is an issue of big controversy amongst American Catholics for instance. (All the more troubling since American Catholics seem to be far more out of step with Rome than many other parts of the world)

Does the two rulers rule really work? Look at how the Jews functioned under Roman law. Could they have, for example, have excommunicated Herod? There appears to be tension between punishment under religious law and under Roman law. Apparently it happened - including captital offenses. It's ironic that Christians present the death of Christ in this way, but never mention the problem of stoning a woman for adultery within what was ostensibly Roman rule. Did this problem occur for the Nephites? I don't know. I note that many anti-Christs exhibit interesting tensions in this regard. In some cases "miracles" take care of things in a convenient fashion. It often seems that religious rivalry is the basis for a lot of violence in the Book of Mormon. Just consider Nehor. However Mormon notes in passing that the members of the church were violent as well. He downplays this, but I wonder if those who followed Nehor would have perceived things quite differently.

chris g said...

I think people forget how violent central american society was. We can assume that the Nephites were better than some of their neighbours, but I think a belief that their usual righteousness made them less violent may be a bit of an over estimation. This tends to assume that Nephites would have had to have had the same view of violence that we do now. I for one am quite content to assume that some of the religious laws that Alma was trying to enforce could have eaily carried the death penalty. That seemed to be the standard Mayan punishment (as far as I know) for most things. If this is the case, then Alma hesistancy in dealing with the problem makes sense. It also seems like a possible reason why the persecution got so bad. At least in school, once overly rigid laws are relaxed a little, people seem very intent on seeing how far they can push things. It is as if they get a feeling of power from what they are now able to do.