The Great Ideological Divide Within Christendom
By: Robert E. Meyer
The history of Christianity has been replete with examples of various theological disagreements and contrary schools of thought, even within the pale of orthodoxy.
Modern times have provided us no relieve from this syndrome, which speaks to the inherent imperfections of human discourse and understanding.
There is one concept, more than any other, which can account for the great religious polarization within the Christian community, as well as the blue/red divide so evident in the political realm.
As a teenage youth and a fresh convert to Christianity from a nominal belief in God, I never perceived distinctions such as “liberal Christians,” or “conservative Christians.” I knew only that there were “Christians,” who I thought were predominantly like minded. However, soon after my conversion, I had at least a vague conviction that being a Christian had certain implications for the positions I took in favor of, or in opposition to, certain cultural issues.
Herein is the point of departure where the controversy begins. People disagree on the proper implications of living out the mandate inherent in the individual and/or corporate profession of Christianity.
Most of this confusion results from differing understandings of the concept known as “separation of church and state.”
Many conservatives are quick to point out that this phrase never appears in the U.S. Constitution, much less, any founding document. They would also point out that over the the last six decades in particular, the misuse and deconstruction of this phrase (from a private correspondence of Thomas Jefferson), has resulted in a growing hostility toward religious observations in public, as well as an ideological blitzkrieg to secularize society.
Those who sometimes classify themselves within the liberal camp of Christianity, complain that the “religious right” is fixated on a handful of cultural issues, while neglecting social justice at large. At the same time, liberal Christians frequently couch themselves with secularists, complaining about excessive “God talk” by elected officials, or castigating governmental leaders who stray from the Sermon on the Mount regarding their applications foreign and domestic policies.
These differences in perceptions can be explained by observing that each side takes a different view of the concept of church and state separation.
Conservatives believe in a functional or jurisdictional separation, whereas liberals tend to believe in an ideological separation, while blurring the lines of jurisdiction and responsibility between the two spheres.
In other words, civil government has specific duties and obligations, and the church has specific duties and obligations. When one institution tries to assume the rightful jurisdiction of the other, problems ensue. This has nothing to do with the state acknowledging or presupposing God’s providence, nor whether sound public policy should be based on biblical precepts. The founders of our country understood this distinction very well.
Those of the liberal persuasion expect the government to be free of religious influence. But contrary to that principle, they castigate governmental officials, who either don’t view the public largess as an extension of the Good Samaritan’s purse, or don’t make foreign policy decisions as Gandhi would have.
The reason why I would tend to identify myself in the conservative camp, is because I believe that liberal theological approaches deviate from both a biblical and constitutional understanding of what the limited and specific duties of civil government should be. As a peripheral consequence, the role of the church will be subjugated and diminished.
The charge that conservatives emphasize personal morality at the expense of social justice, assumes that conservatives can’t or won’t do acts of compassion out of their own volition.
Furthermore, using government as an agent of charity by increased dispensing of benefit rights only can lead to ultimate reliance on the state. It also narrows the role of the church to that of providing a venue for mystical experiences, rather than a being culture shaping force.
In conclusion, let me restate that an improper understanding of the concept of church and state separation leads to unnecessary conflict and the polarization of professing Christians.
New Media Alliance Television (www.nmatv.com)
Robert E. Meyer is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. (www.thenma.org). The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.