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Saturday, October 15, 2005


Dubya's favorite political philosopher

Recently I read a somewhat lizardoid condemnation of the new Iraqi constitution, which enshrines Islam as one of the sources of Iraqi law. Now there are various responses that one might make to this: there is, for example, the yar-boo-sucks-it's-better-than-Afghanistan response; or there is the rather more sophisticated response that recognizing a religious belief in the constitution does not necessarily make a country a theocracy - even Sweden, that liberal icon, has an established church whose membership roll BTW is kept by a department of the government. (I swear this is true. A Swedish friend of mine who converted to another religion when he got married had to register the fact with the Swedish embassy). For that matter, the constituent countries of the UK (England, Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland) each have an established church, and each church has a different theology, and each church has the Queen as its Supreme Governor, with the gloriously surreal result that Her poor Majesty is forced to change her religious opinions from Episcopalian to Presbyterian every time she crosses the border into Scotland.

But it struck me how remarkable it is that we in "the West"/ "the free world"/ "civilization" (we don't have a snappy name for the societies that cherish the values that evolved out of the European Renaissance, but you know what I mean) regard the separation of church & state as a Good Thing. There is almost no precedent for this in human history. If you could talk to the ghosts of Marcus Tullius Cicero, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Harun-al-Rashid, and Charlemagne, they would laugh at the idea that a person's relationship to the State and a person's relationship to the Deity could ever be separate. Cicero would be proud to tell you that he served as an augur (soothsayer), an official government post to which he had been elected; Ieyasu would explain to you that he held the office of Shogun because he had been appointed by the Emperor in Kyoto, who was the descendant of a goddess, and a god in his own right; Charlemagne might be diplomatically silent on the question of whether he was the boss of the Pope or the other way round, but he would boast of forcibly converting the Saxons to Christianity, their alternative to living as Christians being dying as Odinists; whilst his penpal Harun-al-Rashid would have serious trouble understanding your point - surely all government derived from the Will of Allah, by definition? Government without God, to these people, was a little like water without wetness; like sky without air.

The modern notion of separate church and state evolved out of the chaos spawned by the Reformation, and the exhaustion that the people of Europe felt after one hundred and fifty years of making fratricidal war in the name of the deity they called the Prince of Peace. It was a kludge, a compromise, not a policy. Periodically, Puritans or Bourbons would try to turn back the clock to the mythical days when everyone believed The Truth... but gradually "the West" learned that the separation of church & state strengthens both, and when by contrast church and state become confused, then the Church becomes unholy and the State becomes ungoverned.

I said that separation of church and state is almost unprecedented in human history. Because there are a couple precedents. Genghis Khan, for instance, whose oldest ally was a Christian and whose wisest councillor was a Chinese Taoist, practised religious toleration throughout his empire. (True, he rabidly persecuted Moslems; that was because the Caliph had dissed him. Another disadvantage of uniting church & state is that one has to suck up the other's fuckup).

However, as far as I know the first person who ever expressed the notion of separation of church and state lived before Genghis Khan. It wasn't Socrates (who was condemned to death by the Athenians for blasphemy against their gods, and explicitly acknowledged that they had every right to condemn him), nor was it Aquinas (who did however expound the notion of human law and religious law as separate, though both dependent on the Will of God). No, as far as I can work out, it was Jesus Christ.

As far as I am aware, the first instance in human history when anyone ever formulated the idea of separation of church & state was the moment when ol' JC, asked whether it was morally permissible to pay tribute to the Godless Idolators in Rome, replied with "Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor's, and give to God what is God's". Separation of church & state, folks.

George W Bush is notorious for saying, during the 2000 presidential debate, that his favorite political philosopher was "Jesus", and oh, how the MSM (and pretty much everyone else) howled. Ha! Dubya's so dumb! WTF did Jesus ever contribute to political philosophy?

Well, here's one, and I think we can agree it's a biggie. From the notion that religious belief is a personal, not a political, matter, derives a whole load of other notions - for instance, that the other aspects of a person's inner life are nobody's damn business - that there is in fact a whole sphere of human action that is not within the appropriate purview of the state - that people who differ from you in a bunch of ways can still be just as good a neighbor and just as good a citizen and human being as you are.

And BTW this is why I utterly despise "religious conservatives": next time they feel tempted to wave signs reading "WWJD", they might want to check with his biographers.

(Posted in response to this over at M Simon's blog.)

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