Part of our cruise experience was being with a retired Methodist Bishop who interrupted our relaxing time at sea with four lectures of about an hour each. The subject of these was Soren Kierkegaard, a nineteenth century Danish philosopher and theologian who is often called the “father of existentialism.” Interestingly enough he lived at the same time as de Tocqueville whose writings I refered in the some of the previous “4C” posts. In this final post on our cruise experience, I thought it might be interesting to look at the similarities and differences in Kierkegaard’s heavily religiously influenced thinking with the more purely political observations that we encountered elsewhere.
Kierkegaard argued for a separation of church and state for reasons not usually heard in this country. He was a member of the Danish Christian church at a time when it was the official religion of the country. The church performed some of the roles of government such as keeping birth records. Everyone was also required to be baptized in the church at birth, and all citizens were automatically members of the church. Today that is no longer true. We saw a Church of England building in Copenhagen and the Danes talked about their freedom of religion. Kierkegaard is given some credit for bringing this about. In the U.S., the argument that we hear most frequently for the separation of church and state is that a state sponsored religion would be bad for the religions or religious denominations not selected for sponsorship. Kierkegaard’s argument was that it was bad for the religion selected. It made Christianity “too easy”, he said. Teachings were made too simple and standardized and did not require people to “think”. He apparently thought that people should think, study, and take personal responsibility for their religious beliefs. This would only happen if people had to read and interpret scripture for themselves.
Interestingly enough, a couple of weeks ago we attended a dinner sponsored by the Tulsa chapter of the Institute of Interfaith Dialog. The dinner was held to reward Tulsan’s who have been active in helping promote tolerance and understanding among various religions. The primary speaker of the evening was Mustafa Akyol, an internationally known writer who lives in Turkey and is Muslim. He contrasted Turkey’s approach to religion to that of Saudi Arabia. Being a Muslim and following the Saudi interpretation of Muslim religious practices is required in Saudi Arabia. Not so in Turkey where one can be a Muslim, a non-Muslim or an atheist. He said that he has seen Saudi’s outside of their country doing things that would never be allowed inside Saudi Arabia. (I had the same experience many years ago during time spent at Ft. Sill for military training. Our class included some visiting officers from several Muslim Arab countries. They were regular attendees at “happy hour”. An activity that they freely admitted would not have been permitted in their home country.) Akyol’s observation is that the government can’t force people to have true religious faith. That only happens when they are allowed a choice and have to think and choose for themselves what they should believe.
So what we seem to have here is an argument for separation of church and state from two different people with widely different backgrounds who have come to similar conclusions. And their reasons are different from those often heard in this country. That doesn’t make our reasons wrong, but it should give us pause for thought. At the heart of their argument is the need for individuals to take responsibility for themselves. Hmmmm. Where have I heard that before?
Many people believe that in countries that have state sponsored religion, the political leadership has used the religion for the political purpose of bringing the people of the country together behind some nationalistic political course of action. Indeed it would seem that religious doctrine from most religions of the world have been used and perverted in this way. In a country with true separation of church and state, this should not happen. However, the people of a country need a common culture, a common ethos, a common view of right and wrong in order to co-exists reasonably and peacefully. The current president of Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa – Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend – has developed the idea that we have in this country, what he calls a “Civil Religion”. We have, and need to have, in the culture a set of ethical and moral beliefs that form a basis for out civil laws. Without this we would have difficulty in a democracy ever coming together enough to pass laws and government policies that the majority of the population could voluntarily support. Our guide in Tallinn, Estonia volunteered that she was a “pagan” – which I took to mean she did not believe in “God”. But she told us, “pagan’s are religious”, but they have no organization to provide help as the Estonia Christian Churches do. So when her children were hungary, and her family needed food, it was the church that helped out, even though they were not members. She then volunteered that she wanted her children to learn good morals and ethics (I took her “pagans are religious” comment to mean that she had strong ethic and moral values). Since the Church was the only place she knew that would teach them these, she decided to take them to church.
Her idea of pagan religion sounds strangely not too different from Dr. Peluso-Verdend’s idea of Civil Religion. Surveys show that membership in religious organizations in this country has been declining for some time and may currently be no more than half the population. But our civil religion ethos and culture is still obviously attuned to helping people in need. Hence we have become much more of a welfare state than we were 80 or 90 years ago. Perhaps for a large part of our population, the government has become our organized “civil religion” or “pagan religion” church. If so, there are a least two problems: 1) If our government is a religious organization, it is in violation of the constitution. If the idea that non-beliviers in God need a church sounds strange to you, it’s not something I would have thought of either if not for our guide. Then in last Saturday’s Tulsa World newspaper, there was an article about a local Sunday morning service for atheists. 2) The government’s civil religion church is using tax dollars to fund its programs for the needy. Other churches use freely given contributions to fund programs for anyone in need – not necessarily members of their religion. If the majority of the population feels a moral obligation to help our neighbors, then there should be money available to do that on a voluntary basis. And the weight of opinion seems to be that people feeling individual responsibility and giving freely is better for everyone.
From this line of thinking one logical conclusion might be that we should have an official “civil religion church” organization. Maybe the government could help establish an independent Civil Religion Church that would provide welfare services to the needy and education to young people on the American ethics and moral standards that have made our country great. The Civil Religion church would not be exclusive – membership could also (or not) be held in any other religious organization of one’s choosing. This would probably avoid the constitutional problem of selecting only one religious belief to support. (If their were a requirement that everyone had to be a member of a religious organization of their choosing – including Civil religion – it might cause each person to think through his beliefs and thus take more responsibility for himself.) This church could take the place of government welfare programs without using your tax dollars. Rather, as with other religious churches, it could rely on private contributions. Our people have always responded well when the need is there, and the private oversight from contributors would probably result in much more efficient and effective services than we have now. And it would solve the concern expressed by de Tocqueville that the elected politicians would buy people’s votes out of the public treasury. It would also solve out current financial crisis with balancing the budget. The government could go back to doing the role we need it to do in our sport of life – be the rules committee and furnish the referees. And think of all the administrative overhead costs we could save.
There is probably no way that this would ever happen, but it’s a thought.