If you have ever had a discussion with me concerning religious or political issues, you will know I have strongly held convictions in both areas. I was raised in a Protestant Evangelical home and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy as an adult. I have always leaned toward the Right when it comes to politics and that has been mostly due to my views on the social issues; since graduating from college, my opinions on fiscal policies have also become more conservative. So when I write about subjects interesting to me, you will see they are from a conservative Christian perspective. I am not trying to hide this from anyone; in fact I want to make this fact very clear so that I do not ambush anyone who doesn’t know me.
Before I elaborate on my own attitudes though, I want to take a look at a contemporary discussion surrounding faith and politics. Recently, certain politicians have made the bold assertion that the idea of “separation of church and state” is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution thus inviting endless scoffs and ridicule from the public sphere; is this really fair? Well that depends.
To say that the “idea” does not come from our Constitution may be a stretch. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” When you start with the premise that the church and the state should be separate, then it is easy to see that our constitution can be used to support this. It may even be proven, in fact it most likely would, that some of the founding fathers shared this desire to make a clear distinction between the secular state and the heavenly church. The historical setting in which our founding fathers found themselves would also lend to a desire to free political influence from the hands of clerical authorities. The late 18th century was an end cap to over two hundred years of sporadic violence from the Reformation and Counter Reformation in Europe. An individual’s peace and safety depended on whether or not they were of the same denomination, Roman Catholic or Reformed (Eastern Orthodox were dealing with Turks and Western influence), as the current monarch. Based on this culture of relative violence, and throwing in the Age of Reason, you will see that separating church and state was very much on the agenda of some of our nation’s fathers.
But let’s go back to the above excerpt from the First Amendment to see exactly what it says, or doesn’t say. You will not find the actual words “separation of church and state” anywhere in this First Amendment nor anywhere else in the Constitution. That is because the Constitution never uses this phrase; it is just not in there. In fact you will have to go outside this document to find the origin of that famous phrase, in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson. Look further into the history of our country’s early years and you will see church and state were not completely separate; let me rephrase that, you will see that faith and state were not separate. The Church’s clergy were not involved in policy making but they were most definitely involved in instructing the policy makers. U.S. history is abundant with evidence of Congress using prayer as the catalyst for decision making and Almighty God being made the focus or purpose for creating a free society. So literally, the “separation of church and state” does not exist in the Constitution; technically though, it does. But actually, faith, primarily the Christian faith displayed in various forms, was the motivating force driving the crafters of our Constitution to create a free and just society.
What on Earth does this have to do with my philosophy and approach regarding faith and politics?
I mentioned already that the Orthodox East, or Byzantium, was dealing with its own problems during Reformation and counter-Reformation in Europe. In fact, there was never an internal event in the Byzantine Empire, Church or politics, with the same divisive results as the Protestant Reformation, and so there was not a desire on the same scale to separate church and state. The Empire and its head, the Byzantine Emperor, were always welcome as prominent members of the Church family since the time of Constantine. Sure there were bad Emperors and Constantine had his flaws, but he is considered a saint in the Orthodox Church largely because he put the Church under his protection and ended the period of sporadic persecution which Christians endured since the time of Christ. And so it was in the Byzantine Empire, the church and state enjoyed a mutual partnership as long as the Emperor was willing to offer his protection to the Orthodox faith. The clergy did not rule, but they had influence among the leaders and respect from the people. The Church was not the state but they were also not completely separate. This was the Byzantine ideal and the collapse of that ideal (Turks and Bolsheviks) applies directly to our situation here in modern America.
There is a connection between the Byzantine Empire and America regarding the nature of the relationship between church and state. American Christians once enjoyed “protection” underneath its government and this was due to a strong faith pervasive among the people in this democratic nation. Now that this faith is largely waning, protection has been lifted in a sense, simply because the people of our democratic society no longer want it. It doesn’t matter how our founding fathers envisioned the nation; they created a society that is “of the people and by the people” so if the people today envision something different, there is little anyone can do- at least as far as influencing policies of state.
The argument I have been trying to make up to this point is while you may separate church and state, as long as there is faith among the people, you cannot separate faith and politics. If a country has a faith, like early America’s overwhelming Christianity, it will impact every level of state matters and aid in shaping the policies of a country. The opposite is also true of course; when a country starts to lose its faith, like our modern America, this will create a change in how “the people” want to see their country run. When a nation is in a transition between these two realities it will create a highly tense cultural atmosphere- hence, a crisis of faith and politics in America.
Now the same goes if an individual (here is where this blog is concerned; I know, about time) has faith in a particular religion; it too will influence how they react to matters of the state and aid in how they cast their ballots. If a person has a faith, as I do in Christianity, it cannot be divorced from their decision making faculties and asking them to do so would be akin to asking them to disregard who they are at their core. Incidentally I believe this applies to politicians as well. Now I cannot speak for others, but personally this concept does not work in the reverse. My politics should never have a bearing on my faith, especially the partisan politics of our current state. Republican or Democrat will never correlate to Christian or non-Christian- an easy snare for a Christian who is interested in politics to fall under. Still, this does not bar one from engaging in polite and intelligent discussion of various issues as long as they do not become demeaning (I will offend) and mean spirited(and defend). I think everyone can agree that our First Amendment is clear about this. I know for certain my faith requires it.