Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Day 159: God and Politics

I attended an Oxford Union debate in seventh week called "God and Politics." It was fascinating for many reasons. Among the arguments against "allowing politicians to do God" (a silly way to phrase the question if you ask me) was to prevent England from becoming like America, where there is no separation of Church and State.

I found this highly ironic, because legally, the reverse is true. The English monarch must be Anglican by British constitutional law and, after Henry VIII (broadly speaking - his daughter Mary mixed things up for a bit but Henry and his son Edward's laws were re-instituted by Queen Elizabeth I), the monarch is head of the Anglican church, mandatory Anglican priesthood posts are still found in the House of Lords, Anglican churches are still supported by tax monies, and prayers and other religious observances are said (but not mandatory) in public schools. The monarch is also crowned (and anointed) by Anglican priests in Westminster Abbey. There are also subtle influences of this legal state, such as Christian references to three kings and wise men in English post offices. However, if the arguments of the Union debaters can be taken at face value, only 30-40% of Britains consider themselves religious, and as low as 5-10% attend weekly church services.

Compare the United States. We have a First Amendment, which says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof..." With all but one exception (Franklin Pierce), the president has taken the oath of office, which implies being held accountable to a Supreme Being, rather than the constitutionally-allowed affirmation. Religious symbols are found inscribed in marble in obvious and non-obvious federal buildings (see on-going controversy over the tablets Moses holds in a Supreme Court freiz), on our coins, in our pledge of Allegiance, and in our national anthem (see the last verse - , "Blessed with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land, Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation..."). However, Christmas trees in public arenas evoke law suits, prayer has been removed from public schools (1954?), the last tax-supported (or "established") religious sect was disestablished in Massachusetts in the 1830s, and, after the Founding Generation (a super-majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence held priesthood offices), clerics are rarely found in elected office. In fact, being even highly religious without a formal post can be cause for concern (see controversy around Mitt Romney's presidential bid). Yet religion thrives in America. I have heard that up to 90% of Americans consider themselves religious, and up to two-thirds attend weekly services.

How does one account for this dichotomy? I recollect something I believe James Madison discussed in his "Memorial and Remonstrance," that compulsory religion produces less faith, and that allowing man to follow his own conscience can lead to greater faith. I don't know if this is a better explanation for circumstances at the time of the Founding - when Americans were largely allowed, after the Anglican Church was disestablished in seven states upon Independence, to worship as they pleased compared to citizens in the mother country, where the Anglican Church continued to be established, compulsory, and state supported - but is an ill fit for today's circumstances.

Regardless, it certainly reminds me of a tenet of my faith - that of free agency, or allowing people to worship inside and outside of the Church as they wish. Forcing another to do anything is considered especially egregious. When coupled with priesthood power, it is condemned as "unrighteous dominion" and the scriptures say "amen to the priesthood of that man." ()

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