A major part of America’s population, now in the grip of a reawakening of religious fervour, thinks that crisp, clean line dividing church and state makes little sense. Not unlike South Africa’s Chief Justice.
For the past week or more, South Africans have been worrying over the complexities and complications of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s “request” that his judicial colleagues and court managers attend a rally, prayer meeting, executive training session or whatever it was delivered by an America-based evangelist/motivational speaker. The issue for many was whether or not Justice Mogoeng somehow had the right (or thought he did) to “compel” members of the judiciary to participate in a for-profit, evangelical-bit-of-mutton dressed as management-training-lamb.
Mogoeng’s memo (actually a staff member’s memo at the justice’s instruction to contrive to make it look more routine and less extraordinary) is the kind of thing that would be almost unimaginable coming from a predecessor like Justice Arthur Chaskalson, a former colleague like Albie Sachs or current Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. But it might well have been possible just a few turns of the political wheel earlier back before the new constitutional order.
Despite South African hand wringing over this incident, however, at its heart it is not just a unique, local question. Rather it is part of an ongoing, worldwide argument – complete with all the shouting, arm-waving and the general throwing of things around the metaphorical kitchen. This is true not only because this argument is deeply rooted in history but also because it represents what may well be an irreconcilable philosophical difference between two ways of thinking about the nature of society – what is the good (as in right, proper and upstanding) life, and what are the true purposes of moral instruction.
Over half a century ago, when this writer was attending a nice, ordinary elementary school in America in a small city in the state of New Jersey, it was perfectly appropriate to begin each day of instruction under the watchful eye of the class teacher after the half-mumbled, patriotic “Pledge of Allegiance” – “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” – followed by a New Testament chant in unison of “The Lord’s Prayer” – “Our Father who art in heaven…” – regardless of the religious background of the students. It was normal to have Christmas pageants and Easter parades in that school even though a majority of the school’s population wasn’t even Christian. Such demonstrations of public religiosity were totally unexceptionable, and along with celebrations of Independence Day on the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day, Columbus Day and George Washington’s Birthday, they were essential elements of a civic culture fundamental to what sociologist Ben Anderson has described as the “imagined community” of a nation state. Ingesting these civic celebrations was what new immigrants did to become real Americans, almost regardless of their faith at home.
But the sustained exertions of the country’s first lady of atheism, Madeleine Murray O’Hare, eventually culminated in that famous 1962 “no prayer in the schools” Supreme Court decision that eliminated the compulsory recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer” – and pretty much any other prayer, even rotating selections for holy literature from every faith – in American public schools. Further court cases eventually abolished a whole range of public school religious practices as well as public expressions of religious feeling such as sculptures in front of courthouses extolling the Ten Commandments.
But that first court decision – and all the others that followed – did not end a kind of religious civil war in America over what constituted the appropriate line to be drawn between church and state. This is despite the constitutional injunction in the opening line of the First Amendment to the Constitution that states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
There is, after all, the overarching statement on the American national currency, “In God We Trust”, the relatively recent addition to the Pledge of Allegiance of the phrase “under God”, routine openings of congressional sessions with a prayer, and the prayers before the inauguration of a new president with a prayer with the actual oath of office taken as the new president places his right hand on a treasured family Bible or one used by a revered former president. Then, too, there are the national Christmas trees (now usually flanked by the national Hanukkah menorah on a National Park Service public space), those greatly –prized presidential Christmas cards, and so much more that speaks meaningfully about the place of religion in the texture of American life. And without putting too much weight on it, survey data routinely says Americans say they value religion, religious experiences and weekly prayer – at levels significantly higher than citizens in Europe and many other nations.
Despite the argument many make that religion has no place in American public institutions, a view that comes easily from an uncomplicated reading of that constitutional phrase, organised religion has been there for Americans since before the beginning of the nation – but, not necessarily in ways that many from among the religious might like to remember. The Rev. John Winthrop could tell the Puritan dissenters their new settlement would be like a great city upon a hill and a light unto the other nations of the world. And of course some of the original settlements were founded as sanctuaries for various persecuted religious minorities – dissenting Protestants, Quakers and Catholics – and that other minorities soon found sanctuary in the American colonies as well.
But, those same Puritans’ own Massachusetts Bay Colony quickly began to drive other, more unconventional Protestants out of their newly-established settlements on pain of imprisonment, while in others, being a Catholic was distinctly bad for one’s health. In fact, the last state to surrender its state support for an established church only did so some 50 years after the Declaration of Independence.
And for a major sector of America’s population, now in the grip of a reawakening of religious fervour, that crisp, clean line dividing church and state makes little sense. For such people, the argument America is a nation built upon the rock of a Judeo-Christian heritage and that this should be frankly and fully acknowledged in public behaviour by public servants, holds much sway. There is no favoured place for secular humanism – even Thomas Jefferson’s preferred version.
As a result, a politician like Rick Santorum can base his claim as a potential president on the many who feel similarly, who want religion (their religious values, of course, not those of Mecca or the Ganges) back in the public forum, even on issues of private, bedroom decisions between adults. This is the feeling that leads parent groups and student clubs to bootleg prayer back into public schools – arguing it cannot be bad for a voluntary club of self-professing believers on an educational campus to study the Bible and pray for guidance – without coercing others to join in. In response, opponents remonstrate that the school remains a public place, supported by the tax dollars of all citizens. A club pushing such an agenda can be threatening to others. Besides, if one really feels the compulsion so strongly for the benefits of prayer, then that is the purpose of religious institutions in the first place.
To all of this, Republican presidential candidate-to-be Rick Santorum could say recently of President John Kennedy’s statement back in 1960 that his Catholicism would not – and should not – weigh upon his governmental decisions made Santorum feel nauseous (he actually said “throw up”) because it rang false for what any person of faith should believe is crucial for any public office and office bearer. A President Santorum – together presumably with Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – would almost certainly nod their heads in agreement with Justice Mogoeng’s evangelical management training plans – as well as a sub rosa agenda to encourage support for his brand of religion. He had, after all, communed with the Almighty before applying for his new position.
Naturally, of course, this meandering line cuts through other societies as well. In the UK, the reigning monarch remains the head of the Anglican Church – uniting church and state – even if as the monarch has little temporal power left. And this is in a society where a significant majority of people have told poll takers they don’t feel the need to attend religious services regularly.
The French example cuts differently, dividing nominal Christians from devout Moslems. There the national debate that has been over whether Moslem girls should be permitted to wear a hijab in public schools seems to speak to both the fear of “the other” as well as a subliminal reintroduction of religion into public educational institutions – a debate most French thought they had finally put to bed a century or more ago.
Over in Israel, meanwhile, besides the obvious possibilities for religious tensions between Jew, Christian and Moslem; among Israeli Jews, the ultra-orthodox minority has gained a range of special privileges that includes restrictions on commerce on Saturdays in Jerusalem and the special right to be exempt from national military service in exchange for religious study. This latter right has frequently irked the rest of a Jewish population that while it feels strong loyalty to the state, has much less of a connection to one particular version of religious practice. This should not be too surprising in a nation that has both religious fervour and secular socialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as its twined heritage.
One could go on and on, how the Japanese commingle state practice and ancient religious concepts in a politically potent formula with both domestic and international repercussions each year when the Emperor goes to the Yasukuni Shrine to pray for the souls of the World War II dead – including a number who have been judged to have been war criminals. Or how Indonesia – the world’s most populous Islamic nation – extends religious acceptance to five faiths only, and where clashes between devout Christian and Moslem communities in several places have often happened – usually over disputes about the allocation of state resources.
To this writer at least, the common thread in all of this, and where we circle back to Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s effort, is that there are three very different approaches on how state and church relate. The problem is that they remain largely mutually incompatible.
For the first, there are those who embraced the Jeffersonian, Spinozan or even Socratic approaches to religion in the public square. In effect, this says: your religion is fine for you, in your own mind and family, and with consenting adults, but do not make me support or endorse it.
The second could be called the broad church – an acceptance that religion has a place in the public arena, but that this does not specify particular forms of public worship. Perhaps a president should attend religious services, but it is more important he lead by moral example rather than by religious diktat.
For the third, however, such people know for certain how God speaks, in support of what ideas, and on what topics – and that he speaks to them directly. This is not just a Christian problem, of course. People with bombs strapped to their bodies hear the same seductive whispers.
The problem is how to make those with such personal revelatory instincts accept the other alternatives as moral choices as well so that they can allow that public space to be occupied by the rest of the public. Justice Mogoeng, like would-be president Rick Santorum, seems to have decided that those big questions about the nature of society, what is the good (as in right, proper and upstanding) life, and the purposes of moral instruction has one simple answer and that everything else follows logically upon that personal conversation with a supreme deity. And so, the selling of religiously tinged management nostrums, or insisting upon sectarian religious answers over how to run public schools or national health care policies becomes the answer in a real political world only when there are no more mysteries or questions left to ponder.
For more, among entire religious and philosophical libraries, readers may find these two sites helpful:
School and Religion at the Public Broadcasting Service website;
Public Views of the Divide between Religion and Politics at the Pew Research Center website.
Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a famous Johannesburg theatre and remains on its board, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Post-retirement, Spector has also been a Bradlow Fellow of the SA Institute of International Affairs and a Writing Fellow of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Only half humourously, he says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's increasingly cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music, and a dish of soto ayam (one of Indonesia's great culinary discoveries) will bring him close to tears.
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