Spence Green

التكرار يعلم الحمار

I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

Church and State, Part 1

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Bradford sent a helpful email last week in which he suggested that I attempt a more synthetic understanding of my experience here. He correctly observed that I have thus far reduced the environment to the “least common denominator.” While my method has been disorganized and informal, to an extent this judgement is correct. Maybe that’s why I’m such a perpetual drag! At any rate, given President Bush’s recent campaign to spread the idea of democracy throughout this region, I present here some disorganized notes on the tractability of such rhetoric. I have considered the import of Islam as a political force since my arrival, but have yet to articulate these observations. Note that I usually reserve armchair philosophy for my journal, so I am unsure of the quality of this little bit.

This experience has altered my opinion on the balance between church and state. This debate has grown insipid in America. One side rightly contends that the phrase “separation of church and state” did not appear until much later, and only then in Jefferson’s personal correspondence (around 1802, I believe). At the Constitution’s ratification, about 97% of the country professed faith in Christ, with Jews and a small smattering of other religions composing the rest. The Decalogue seems implicit in American law, hence its display in courthouses across the country. Some thus suggest that the American system drew inspiration from the Christian, namely Protestant, movement.

Others counter with an appeal to the non-establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This ammendment resulted from perceived deficiencies in the English system, primarily the government’s abuse of the church. Statement’s like “In God We Trust” thus seem as approbation of a certain creed instead of a simple acknowledgement of a “higher power.” Further, a republican government empowers the populace to modify their government as they see fit. If a majority now desires to shed any acknowledgement of God, then it has that civil right. America is now engaged in such a project.

Now I have tended toward the latter side, for I believe, with Locke, that government finds its provenience and authority in man, and man locates his origin with God. It is quite impossible to separate religion and politics; the intersection points between the two compel the most incendiary debates. The true nature of religion–either a strictly psychological phenomenon or a legitimate force–seems irrelevant. The simple observation that it has existed in every culture, at every time, and in every place renders religion as a subject worthy of the utmost consideration, particularly in the political life.

The founding fathers rightly insisted on a system that balanced competing forces and ideas, one of which was religion. They recognized that liberty exacerbates dissension, for “liberty is to faction what air is to fire.” Liberty, it seems to me, has become the central idea of the West, politically, scientifically, and now morally. The system that was born during the abstract theorizing of the Enlightenment, found traction in America, moved (tragically) through France, and later throughout the Western world has become a sort of template for prosperity. If such a generalization seems permissable, then I further submit that the Middle East’s central idea is Islam, which makes little distinction between religion and the state: they are usually one. The Arab world must now decide how it will associate with the West and vice versa; the effects of such calculations are apparent in the newspaper.

My current opinion then is that the Western system is preferable to theocracy. Such an observation seems apparant in the West, but not here. Bradford encouraged me to see this place not as a foreigner, but as a indigenous citizen. I once heard Lamin Sanneh comment that the installation of a secular, republican system in the Middle East (namely Iraq) is a disastrous prescription. Without a popular mandate, he is correct. Arab governments are now grappling with whether such a mandate exists, but moreover whether it is permissable and benefical. As I thought more about these issues, I recalled The Federalist Nos. 9 and 10. A review of the argument made there is instructive.

Written by Spence

November 20th, 2005 at 11:50 am

Posted in UAE

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