It’s been said that one difference between the Muslim Religion and Christianity is that Muslims do not inherently recognize a difference between Religious Law and Civil Law. The reason cited for this is both cultural and historical. It has to do with the fact that when Christianity spread to Europe there were all ready nation states with political leadership that was separate from the religious movement. Indeed the predominate form of organized Christian Religion for many years was headed by the Pope in Rome, even after the fall of the Roman empire when most of Europe consisted of independent nations. The beginning and growth of Islam on the other hand started in the middle East where there were nomadic tribes without formal national governments, and the Prophet Muhammad became the political as well as the religious leader. How valid is this theory I cannot say, but the Muslim religion has spread well past the middle east into countries that had a civil, political government before they had the religion and still today have a separation of civil and religious law. So for some proponents of the idea that civil and religious law should be the same, the idea would seem to be more a result of history and culture than a basic religious tenet.
In the meantime the idea of separation of church and state in what are the basically Christian religions countries of Western Europe has been muddled at best. My Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines culture as it relates to societies as: a) the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thought, speech, action, and artifacts and depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations b) the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious or social group. In the west it was apparently generally believed that the ruler – generally a King or an Emperor was selected or at least blessed by God. This idea was no doubt promoted, or at least endorsed, by monarchs because it increased their authority and legitimacy. The Holy Roman empire existed in one form or other from 936 to around 1800. The core of the Empire was the various German principalities. The emperor wasn’t official until he was crowned by the Pope in Rome, making him in effect seem to be “chosen of God” or at least “Blessed by God”.
In 1517, in Germany, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door, and was excommunicated from the church in Rome in 1521. Luther’s difficulties with the Church in Rome seem to have been mostly with theology and practice. Henry VII on the other hand, despite having received recognition from the Pope for writing a treatise against Martin Luther, separated the Church of England from the Church in Rome so he could have a divorce from Catherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn (and get a male heir). He also, we were told this summer, became head of the church in the process. That sounds more like a political move than a theological disagreement. But although Martin Luther is credited with starting the protestant reformation, both the Lutheran Church and the Church of England seem to be generally referred to as protestant churches. When we were in Scotland, a few years earlier, we learned that the French had sided with Bonnie Prince Charlie against the English because the Bonnie Prince was Catholic. This time we went to Ireland and visited the Rock of Cashel which was a stronghold in the 4th & 5th Century of the Kings of Munster of Southern Ireland. However by the 1600s it had become a Catholic Abbey. In 1647 was overrun by a “British Cromwellian Protestant Army” and the 3,000 occupants were all killed. Was that a political or religious action? Today it’s the Catholics and the Protestants who seem to be at odds in Northern Ireland. In Dublin, we visited Trinity College , which was founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592, but had no Catholic students until the 1970s when the Catholic Church relaxed it opposition to their attending. In England we learned that grandfather of John Wesley – the “father of Methodism” – was imprisoned 4 times for unauthorized preaching. Doesn’t sound like much difference between civil and religious law.
Last year on a trip to the Baltic, we learned that Soren Kierkegaard, a believer in the religion of the official church of Denmark, did not think that an official state religion was good for the religion. So if it’s not good for the religion, who is it good for? The politicians? Maybe. There are people who believe that politicians need people to share common values and beliefs in order for them to accomplish working together effectively. Hence where there is no official religion, there must be a civil religion, on which laws can be based that will be voluntarily followed by the people.
Given the definition of culture referenced above, one might take the culture of a population to be equivalent to civil religion. But the moral values of the culture are clearly influenced by religion based on a concept of how God would have us behave toward each other. And many of our political laws are based on the moral values that we share. But as the definition also implies the customary beliefs of a group of people are also dependent on their understanding of history and their own experience. Our learning from our history and experiences is heavily influenced by the customary beliefs that we approach them with. So one is left with the feeling that all these things are interdependent and true objectivity is difficult to achieve. The best we can probably do to be objective is to talk to each other and to try to understand our different points of view. The more closed or isolated the society, the less likely it is to be objective. Does all this have much to do with our comfort and well-being? Maybe more than we sometimes realize. Max Weber, in his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, gives the protestant reformation credit for the rise of capitalism in the western countries. And many of us believe that the free market has a lot to do with the economic progress of the Western Countries. That was not what the protestant reformation leaders where trying to accomplish. But the reformation may have changed the culture in ways that let that happen.