Monday, February 21, 2011

Of Conservative Christians, Secular Conservatives, Christian Progressives, and Secular Progressives

As a significant number of my posts are, this one started out as a comment I left on someone else's blog or website.

First let me say that there are some confused conservative Christians who don't get what I am about to say. But by and large, I find that most would agree with what I am about to say, even if they have never thought about it before.

I was raised a Catholic.

I was taught by the nuns in Catholic school the principles and values and reasoning behind why our Founders designed what they designed the way they designed it, and I was taught to respect it.

You can't get a whole lot more religious conservative than "Catholic".

American Catholics (and most other American Christians) do understand the dangers of having an official state religion, and the flip side of that, state religious persecution. A lot of American Catholics came here to flee precisely that. And that bit from Matthew 22 comes to mind, "Render to Ceasar what is Ceasar's, and to God what is God's" There's your original "separation of Church and State." Most Christians understand it well. Catholics have seen their religion abused by states and they have been abused by states because of their beliefs.

The history throughout which Christians used Government to enforce Christianity occurred largely before this old New Idea was birthed at the founding of our nation. American conservatives are religious, and espouse Christian values, but they in general do not insist that the esoteric teachings of their denominations be enforced as law.

One of the beauties, I think, of the way this country was established is that it mirrored the Christian view of the relationship between God and Man ... that is, man has free will, and each is free to accept or reject God in his own way. The consequences for which, good or bad, were to be meeted out by God.

But nations are not theoretical vaccuums bereft of humans and culture.  If the Judeo/Christian religion family specifically has a commandment that says "thou shalt not kill", does that make it a religious law that should not be enforced? Stealing? Libel? Who gets to decide when a value is "religious" and when it is not? It's really not as cut and dried as secularists would have you believe.

There must be a line, somewhere, but how do we decide where that line is? (A: largely, at the ballott box - but don't tell the California Supreme Court.)

It turns out people do have values, and those values are reflected and enshrined in their religions. Since a country is inhabited by people and since, in a country that uses democracy to at least partially decide, especially on the local level -- what laws are going to be enforced and how -- and people have religious values -- religious values will necessarily make it into law. This is where at least I believe atheistic conservatives go wrong and have contradictory beliefs. Why do we agree on certain values? Why is murder bad? What is "bad"? Where does that come from? There is a certain amount of denial necessary to maintain that there is not a higher plane from whence these ideas eminate. If there is not, then values are truly arbitrary. So why are we even arguing over them? Everybody's right. If values are arbitrary, then we can just do whatever we can get away with until somebody physically restrains us or kills us.

Secular progressives do not distinguish between Church and State, they are working hard to make the State into everyone's Church. The State is the only entity with the authority to enforce its laws (outside of self-defense and defense of others' life and limb). This is the same moral hazard as having an entity that claims to speak for God endowed with the exclusive right to enforce laws. It is, in the end, no different.

It was largely Christians and some secularists acting in the Christian tradition (whether they went to a Church or not) that designed our system of government, drawing on a vast array of lessons learned throughout history from secular and religious governments alike. And this is why most American Conservatives are Christian. They are comfortable with the founders' model, because it is essentially the model of their own God the way they understand him. There is much difficulty in separating cultural values from religious values when the two have been naturally intertwined throughout history. I say it is impossible. Remove one, destroy the other.

Those Christians who are progressives have typically been led astray by calculating secular progressives who have used selections of Christian teaching and cleverly confused or obfuscated who it is that these commandments and teachings are aimed at -- the individual. "Society" does not have a soul. Each of us do. It is our job to care for it. Not to pass that job off to the government by voting that others must do as you have been commanded to lessen or even offload your moral burden on others, thus conveniently freeing you from your own responsibilities.

So ... as a non-church-going Christian sympathetic psuedo-Catholic theologian of the Transdimensional Disorder of the Friendly Sons & Daughters of the Cosmic Raccoons stripe ... I'm probably more in the Conservative Christian park.

In the Christian world, there can be Church and State.  This allows for common ground between Christian conservatives and secular conservatives.

In the Progressive world, there can be only One.


Doug Indeap said...

I generally don't view things in such a leftie-rightie way and thus seldom bother with those labels.

That said, I thought it worth mentioning that the constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle of separation of church and state, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect. Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you.

By founding a secular government and assuring it would remain separate, in some measure at least, from religion, the founders basically established government neutrality in matters of religion, allowing Christianity (and other religions) to flourish or founder in society as they will. Given the republican nature of the government, it is to be expected that the values and views of the people, shaped in part by their religion, will be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires or calls for this; it is simply a natural outgrowth of the people's expression of political will. To the extent that the people's values and views change over time, it is to be expected that those changes will come to be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent this; indeed, just the opposite--the Constitution establishes a government designed to be responsive to the political will of the people. It is conceivable, therefore, that if Christianity's influence in our society wanes relative to other influences, that may lead to changes in our laws. Nothing in the Constitution would prevent that--and moreover the establishment clause of the First Amendment would preclude Christians from using the government to somehow "lock in" (aka establish) Christianity in an effort to stave off such an eventuality.

Having said all that, it occurs to me that I speak of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, but in making your comments, you may have been thinking more of the political doctrine that often goes by the same name and generally encourages political dialogue on grounds other than religion.

philmon said...

Well, no, I think the two of us are actually in agreement here. Everything you said there is some sort of paraphrasing of what I am saying. I am speaking of the Constitutional Principle, yes.

In my understanding, doctrine is explicitly layed out in some sort of codified document -- at least since the invention of written language. So unless you're talking about case law ... much of which I think especially in the last 50 years or so has overreached in this area ... I am not sure what you mean about a political doctrine that encourages political dialogue on grounds other than religion.

The main point of this article, actually, is a foray into trying to explain that American Christian Conservatives are not the Taliban as their opponents would like you to believe, and their values are not only compatible with our form of government, they are largely responsible for its inception.

They are capable of holding value "A" without passing laws that force value "A" down your throat. There is no fine line dividing religious values and cultural values. Just because they pass a law enforcing value "B" doesn't mean they will necessarily be forcing their entire alphabet of values on everyone. But one should not be surprised to see many of these values reflected in the laws of a nation largely comprised of Christians, be they religious Christians or cultural Christians.