A Pair of Religious Articles:

Francis J. Beckwith has a review of a new book on the separation of church and state. I was not aware of the Ku Klux Klan's role in the move of that doctrine to the fore of American jurisprudence, as a result of anti-Catholic prejudce -- if the book is correct in its assertion, that is.

To some degree I am reminded of (former?) reader Robert M's repeated argument that the old and valuable law of Posse Comitatus should be set aside because it was passed out of anti-black sentiment among legislators. Most Americans are entirely satisfied with the notion of separation of church and state, even if we feel that the separation of "state" from church shouldn't mean that individuals who serve in the government should be banned from making decisions based on their religious principles. While it may be true that the KKK was behind this doctrine's rise, the doctrine points to something we have found to be useful and broadly beneficial when it is applied moderately.

We have read that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. It seems the reverse may also be true. A good idea, fielded in the service of a bad intent, can remain a good idea once the original advocates of it have passed away. Those who inherit the idea, being either unaware of or not interested in the bad intentions, keep what is good and discard what was bad. This points to a particular genius in the American system: not only do good ideas often rise to the top, but even bad intentions are often expressed as the cynical misapplication of what is a generally good idea. Once the bad intentions wear away, we are left with just another good idea.

I tend to think that the American courts have taken the doctrine of separation a bit too far, but also that the doctrine does point to a useful ideal. American society works best when religion is not used as a weapon against one's fellow citizens, but only as a weapon against one's self. Insofar as you wield the sword to strike down the evil in your own heart, you and your society benefit from it. The individual Senator or President can benefit from that practice as much as ordinary men or women, because of course they are nothing other than ordinary men or women.

This brings us to the second article, from the Wilson Quarterly, on an attempt to rejoin 'progressive' politics and religion. Or perhaps not religion, exactly...

A good sense of the continuing moral and political import of this American vocabulary of the spirit comes from Barack Obama, the recently elected Democratic senator from Illinois. Obama has said that, despite the results of the 2004 election, it “shouldn’t be hard” to reconnect progressive politics with religious vision: “Martin Luther King did it. The abolitionists did it. Dorothy Day did it. . . . We don’t have to start from scratch.”

Perhaps Obama’s most telling remark came in his observations about his mother’s faith: “My mother saw religion as an impediment to broader values, like tolerance and racial inclusivity. She remembered churchgoing folks who also called people nigger. But she was a deeply spiritual person, and when I moved to Chicago and worked with church-based community organizations, I kept hearing her values expressed.” Obama’s invocation of “spiritual” as an inclusive term, inextricably interwoven with the “broader values” of American democracy, is important and carefully chosen diction. It not only conjures up Whitman’s ghost but also suggests some of the poet’s own audacity.
The article also offers an interesting history of religion in American politics, from a different perspective. As this is MLK day (I am reminded by Sovay), it is probably a good idea to reflect on how he informed, and continues to inform, American politics.

One thing that is little known about the man is that he had a certain number of deacons who served as armed bodyguards. This fact may seem difficult to absorb, because of MLK's focus on nonviolence, and his personal willingness to be the target of violence as part of his method for bringing about change. He famously allowed violence and injustice to be visited upon him, in order that he might better spread his message.

Although this first seems odd, it should not be so difficult to understand: Jesus did the same thing. In Luke 22:36, Jesus bids his followers to sell their garments if necessary to buy a sword, knowing he will soon be taken by the authorities. But he will not allow his followers, though he bid them be armed, to defend him from being taken: that was to his purpose. In an age when people often ask "What would Jesus do?" it is worth noting that MLK actually did what Jesus would do: he exposed himself to violence that justice might arise from it, but he urged his followers to be prepared to defend themselves, and others of his flock, from the predations of the wicked.

MLK could follow in Jesus' footsteps because Jesus walked there first. Only because the message of Christianity lay underneath American society could American society be moved by an example of this type, just as Gandhi's example worked against the British in India. Nonviolence as a method of social change, I am far from the first person to note, relies upon an underlying morality in the society you're trying to change. American society was predisposed to justice, even though it was not yet capable of achieving and making real that justice.

That is why nonviolence worked. American society was shocked into making the hard changes necessary to achieve justice precisely because it hated seeing itself engaged in violence in the cause of injustice. America was not a wicked society, but only a society that was failing to live up to its ideals. The fact that it changed in response to MLK is proof of this: if it had been a wicked society, it would not have cared.

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