Should religions rule nations?

Recently, radical Muslim clerics in northwest Pakistan — now under Islamic law —  are calling for expansion of Islamic law across the entire federal republic of Pakistan.  This raises the question: Should religions rule nations?  In a word–No.  However, this needs important clarification.

There seems to be couple senses in which a religion can rule a nation:

First, if a religion rules a nation the leaders of the specific religion are also in governing control, thus in enacting laws the ruler(s) acts only in the interest of that particular religions beliefs.  The State is always subservient to the religion.  The religion is eternal whereas the state is the temporal means through which the eternal truth is communicated and brings society to order.

Second, if a religion rules a nation this could also mean that the ruler is appointed by the leaders of the religion.  This is the case for Charlemagne at the beginning of the 9th century, as Pope Leo III appoints him as Holy Roman Emperor.  However, Charlemagne rules as a Christian Emperor seeking to structure society and government upon a Christian understanding of the world.  Thus, while he is not head of the Church like the Pope, he still governs in the interest of a particular religion.

Often living on this side of history makes us develop habits of thinking that C.S. Lewis calls, “chronological snobbery.”  We assume the myth of progress, the “success” of American democratic ideals as a triumphalist situation in which we can now look condescendingly toward our ‘naive’ ancestors.  We commit the fallacy of thinking the “new” is automatically better than the “old.”

Furthermore in looking at the past, the question of “Should religions rule nations?” is a much different than “Should religious believers have attempted to rule nations with their religion?”

It is all too easy to condemn the views of dead people, and while the past societies may have been wrong they deserve the utmost Charity.  We must let those who have gone before us to have their say.  Yet, often the vices of Christendom are more often discussed than its overwhelming virtues.  The critics of past Christian nations will sooner point to the Crusades, rather than to the Churches role in education and relieving poverty.

Yet, historically, people of faith have resorted to integrating their faith and government so as to ensure the success of their religion.  This is not to merely propagandize.  Most people of faith believe they have the Truth.  Truth is essential to any manner of governing.  Religion is not about subjective beliefs, but facts about the world.  Thus, they do this in order to give their posterity the Truth.

It is not my purpose here to argue that past societies, particularly Christian ones, are unjustified in their nationalization of their particular religion.  However, in the wake of a history of religious bloodshed wisdom now says that the integration of a nation with a particular religion is to be avoided.  In a pluralistic world no nation should operate under a system in which the ruling class forces others to believe a particular religion.  Christianity in particular is not a religion of force, but rather of choice and love.

However, there are eternal truths that all people in all cultures have believed, regardless of religion, e.g. morality.  Unfortunately, European nations and increasingly in America, the nationalizing of religion is often associated with people who are pro-life, and, furthermore, many are accused of the desire to nationalize religion because they engage in public religious discourse.  The secular world desires to denude society of religious language as a secularists view of reality is that faith is merely about private living, not knowledge.

It is important to note that the most religious of people were the founders of the free-world.  Government, as the founders realized, ought to protect fundamental rights.  These rights, regardless of the religion that is the actual source of them, are that of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Yet, this happiness is not a subjective state that one determines on their own, the happiness here is an objective state that one reaches through becoming virtuous by acting out virtue.  Being good is what makes one happy.  Therefore, a nations primary goal ought to be about making good citizens.

Having a religion rule a nation is often more about the force of the religion upon the people, and less about the actual making of good citizens.  One becomes good through free choice, not through coercion.  Radical Islamic nations often fall into the trap of coercing others into belief, rather than persuasively communicating it’s message.

Just as nation ought not nationalize religion, but should allow the free expression of differing religions, a nation with religious freedom ought not reduce religion to merely personal private beliefs held only by merely subjective faith.  Legitimate religions, that is those religions that are grounded upon a reasonable view of reality in line with a universal norms, ought to be allowed freely and openly debated even in a public forum.


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