Sunday, August 22, 2004

Mosque and State

[Some further reflections on religion and secular society, in Islam and the West]

Plant your feet in the land of pure Islam, where religion governs all life's choices, and look at the West: The Seal of the Prohpets, Muhammad, has delivered God's message. And we have rejected it. Whether we are Christian, Wiccan, Jew, or secular, our refusal to submit to Islam is a religious decision. Moreso, our secular government is seen as an act of religion. We choose to limit faith to private and personal matters, not to give it primacy in civic law and communal life, as Muslims do.

We say that experience has taught us the wisdom of separating church and state, religion and law. But is this so? It also is true that this rule of secular law is allowed us, if not required of us, by the Christian Gospel.

Now, I haven't seen any Muslim apologists make this argument, perhaps because they haven't studied our sources and noted how the foundations of Western secularism are rooted in Christian (Protestant) theology. But they are so rooted, especially in Christ's injunction about God and Caesar.

In part, certainly, the authors of the Enlightenment knew their audience would be overwhelmingly believers, and the secularists had to walk the tightrope to coax such minds out of their theocratic notions without appearing to be anti-God. I can believe such cynicism of a Hume (who often wrote about Islam when he meant Christianity) or a Tom Paine.

But Locke and Milton were sincere Christians, and they advanced the notion of secular government and separation of church and state. And they drew deeply on the Scriptures to do so.

In both the documents I quoted earlier -- Locke's letter concerning toleration and Madison's resolution asserting government non-cognizance of religion, the authors grounded their assertions in the Gospel. Locke, direct quotes nine times from the Bible in his letter. He denounces religious intolerance in explicitly Christian terms:

[T]he Gospel frequently declares that the true disciples of Christ must suffer persecution; but that the Church of Christ should persecute others, and force others by fire and sword to embrace her faith and doctrine, I could never yet find in any of the books of the New Testament.

Since Christianity lacks a detailed code of laws and behaviors, government legislation of religion would be dangerous to faith:

Nor, when an incensed Deity shall ask us, "Who has required these, or such-like things at your hands?" will it be enough to answer Him that the magistrate commanded them. If civil jurisdiction extend thus far, what might not lawfully be introduced into religion? What hodgepodge of ceremonies, what superstitious inventions, built upon the magistrate's authority, might not (against conscience) be imposed upon the worshippers of God?

Even when he extends the widest degree of toleration, Locke bases it on the absence of a prohibition in the Gospels to do so.

[N]either Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing. The Church which "judgeth not those that are without" wants it not.

Madison, in his Virginia pamphlet, also addressed a God-fearing audience. Probably there's a degree of sophistry in his painting Patrick Henry's bill to provide public funds for religious education as an anti-Christian bill, because "it at once discourages those who are strangers to the light of revelation from coming into the Region of it; and countenances by example the nations who continue in darkness, in shutting out those who might convey it to them."

But in the course of his central argument Madison makes statements that, though he comes down on the secular side, show as high a respect for religion as you can find in the works of any ayatollah:

Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign.

By that way of seeing, if America's culture of faith had been Islamic, not Christian, the laws of the nation would have been bound to follow Shari'a. Both Locke and Madison, I think, would say secular civil government is an act of obedience to Scripture.