Theocracy: from the Greek (theo=God and kratia=rule), meaning government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided
-Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
This month, we’re going to tap into questions surrounding separation of church and state in the U.S., Islamic Law as it governs countries and individuals, and how we think the relationship between God and government should operate.
In the Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament), God makes a covenant with Abraham. A covenant is a political agreement as much as a religious one. Each party has responsibilities toward the other. A formal relationship between parties is established. Consequences for keeping (and breaking) the covenant are established. Sounds a bit like a government, don’t you think?
From this time forward, the descendants of Abraham, later known as the Hebrews or Israelites, operate under what might be called a theocracy. In reading through the Old Testament, you’ll note that people talk to God and get direction from God. Many of these directions involve matters of the whole people of Israel (where to go, what to do, who to invade, etc.) Their laws come from God (through Moses), and are, at first, interpreted by judges. Then, the people ask for a king. So God gives them kings – some good, some not so good. But the idea is that the king is God’s divinely appointed representative. God also sends prophets to tell the people – including kings – when they’re doing something wrong.
As the Israelites get subjugated by other, non-Hebrew, nations, they have to learn how to adapt their theocracy to work within the confines of governments that do not share their values and practices. This has been part of the story of the Jewish people for centuries now. How does one follow God’s law in the context of civil laws that may or may not be compatible with your beliefs and practices?
But it is not only our Jewish brothers and sisters who must struggle with this question.
"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mat 22:21 NRS)
Jesus himself was presented with the question of how faith and politics should interrelate, and the ambiguous statement above has been interpreted in a variety of ways to support opposing viewpoints on a number of matters.
The earliest followers of Christ were, at times, severely persecuted for their faith. Some decided to hide their faith and even made the obligatory pledges to the Roman god (Caesar) in order to avoid the penalties that could be inflicted for failing to do so. The early church encountered a crisis at the end of this persecution in discerning how to deal with those who hid their faith to save their lives or livelihoods.
In 381, Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire, and a whole new set of questions developed around how Christian faith should operate in the context of government. A Christian movement characterized by diversity struggled to homogenize itself so as to present a united voice in the ruling of an empire.
Since that time, the church was involved in many matters of state, including education, social welfare, land holdings, regional governance, and political alliances, and even the appointment of emperors, kings, and other officials. This intertwining of church and government has led to countless power struggles involving questions of divine sovereignty, personal freedom, the will of the people, and the common good.
Which brings us to the present day…
The Supreme Court of the United States is currently in deliberation about the rights of two corporations, Conestega Wood and Hobby Lobby, to not comply with the mandate in the Affordable Care Act to provide coverage for contraceptives to their employees. I won’t go into detail here, but I always like to read three sides of any story.
So, I encourage you to check out this article, written by the legal counsel for Conestega Wood: http://jurist.org/hotline/2014/04/joseph-larue-birth-control-mandate.php
And this article written by the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State: https://blog.au.org/church-state/may-2014-church-state/featured/the-clash-over-contraceptives
Once you’ve heard from each pole, you can read what the Christian Century has to say on the topic: http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-03/whose-religious-freedom
There are several questions raised by this issue:
1. How much governmental interference in religious beliefs or practices is acceptable to attain “the common good?”
2. What constitutes a “Christian nation,” and is that an accurate description of the United States?
3. What obligation does the government have to protect the religious rights of corporations?
There are some countries where these kinds of issues would not arise because there is no separation of faith and politics. In Muslim countries governed by Islamic (or Sharia) Law, the religious law and ethic constitute the nation’s laws. With the political uprisings within several Muslim countries in recent years, the relationship between Sharia and secular law has been hotly debated. Generally speaking, Sharia law has been incorporated into secular political systems in three ways:
(note: the following information is sourced from the Council on Foreign Relations website.)
Dual Legal System: The government is secular, but familial and financial disputes can be settled in sharia courts.
Some Western countries have allowed, or are considering allowing, sharia courts to settle specific disputes and create legally binding decisions regarding such matters as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In the U.S., this question gained attention when Oklahoma passed a measure in 2010 banning the use of sharia law. In Florida, leaders are now considering a similar measure. And great controversy arose last year when a farcical news source reported that Dearborn, MI was the first city in the U.S. to fully implement sharia law.
Government Under God (theocracy): In countries where Islam is the official religion, sharia law is a source, or the source, of the law, and civil law antithetical to Islam cannot be enacted. After the “Arab Spring” of 2011, the relationship between this kind of governance and a democratic political system has been debated.
Completely Secular: In countries where the government is declared to be secular in the constitution, sharia law might play a role in local customs, and Islamist political parties operate but typically are carefully monitored and controlled by the government. This form of government represents the minority of Muslim countries, and the popularity of Islamist parties is narrowing the gap between religion and state.
"The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism."
— Reinhold Niebuhr
Religious fanaticism from Christian, Muslim, and even Jewish communities has troubled political systems across the globe, and muddies the waters of a discussion of faith in public life. Given that fanaticism tends to make headlines more than faithful witness in public policy, how do we, as Christians, navigate faithful living and civic citizenship. What responsibilities do we owe God? What about the government? What happens when these interests conflict?
Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that "Religion, declares the modern man, is consciousness of our highest social values. Nothing could be further from the truth. True religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values." How do we go about questioning and challenging the status quo, the “highest social values,” without falling into fanaticism? What are some of those social values that need questioning today?
We’ll discuss these issues and others at our first gathering of Untapped Questions, Wednesday, May 7, 5-7 p.m. at the Stand Bistro in Birmingham. Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments with the community here online as well.