The fundamental disagreement between the religious right and religious left
By: Robert E. Meyer
There has much conversation in recent years about both the religious right and religious left, as to why their views differ. Since both movements claim to be functionally Christian in their orientation, we need to examine why they often support opposing cultural mandates when it comes to putting faith into action.
Probably the most often quoted verse from scripture regarding the matter of the entanglement of God and Government is Christ’s comment about paying taxes… “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s.” The statement has ramifications for everything in life and not taxes only. The obvious question we must ask before we can expound on Jesus’ comment is, what exactly belongs to Caesar and God respectively? As we answer that question, we see how the religious right and left, respectively, arrive at their opposing ideologies.
Many people have said that Christ’s statement here upholds the principle of church and state separatism, thus it proves the “theocratic” objectives of the religious right to be off base. But that analysis is both an oversimplification of the issue, as well as an inaccurate inference.
The principle of church/state separation has always existed in the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition. But it existed as a functional or jurisdictional separation of the duties of civil government and role of the institutional church. It exemplified the justice versus grace dichotomy. Even under the Old Testament Hebrew theocracy you saw this type of separation in the distinction between the duties of the king and the priest, between the palace and the temple, etc. Pagan cultures often fused the top religious leader and political into one office.
Today, when people talk about the separation of church and state, they are referring to an ideological separation, or absolute separation where religious precepts should not inform government policy. Those on the religious right and many social conservatives tend to reject this understanding as a latter day perversion of that normative principle. Leftists, secularists and, often the religious left, tend to hold conceptually to this view of church and state separation, though we will see later that their practical application is often in opposition to it.
Such an understanding of separation relegates the role of religious belief to mere personal pietism, private cogitations, or forms of mysticism that are corporately acknowledged with some “God talk” on the weekend in a house of worship. Obviously, secularists are happy to coexist with this degree of religious presence in the culture. They are delighted when those of religious conviction capitulate to this status, since it produces little effect upon culture. The public domain is then the sole sphere for the promulgation of secular ideologies.
The religious right views the role of the federal government, based on the exegesis of Romans chapter 13, as being limited to punishing the evil doer, and rewarding and encouraging good social conduct. They believe that the U.S. Constitution generally maintained fidelity to this biblical precept by limiting the jurisdictional sphere of government. And this is the crux of the distinction between the religious right and religious left, as well as the initial point of departure between social conservatives and contemporary liberals. The disagreement begins with differing beliefs about what the role of government ought to be.
Because of their view of separatism, secularists, with the religious left as willing confederates, view political talk or politicians motivated by religious convictions to be vain, dangerous, or displaying evidence of pandering to the ignorant masses. But then leftists often take an interesting detour. After condemning public religious observance, they turn on a dime and excoriate conservatives for not implementing governmental economic policies based on The Sermon On The Mount. This inconsistency is based on a flawed conviction about what government ought to do.
You will find this theme running through secular thought, as well through icons of the religious left, such as Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, and Jim Wallis editor of Sojourners Magazine. This is in spite of the fact that Jesus never addressed the Roman government or ruling Jewish body with the Beatitudes. Nowhere did Jesus call for governmental implementation of his policies, but entrusted them to followers who believed in him, expecting them to act as individuals, or in concert as a church body.
The same principle permeates the differing view of morality. The religious left views morality as a support for the “proper’ social causes, whereas the religious rights sees morality as a function of personal conduct. The religious left views the state as a secular conduit for bringing about the mandate for the gospel of social justice.
For this reason, I believe it is the Christian left that actually violates church and state separation in the traditional normative sense. The result of this is that the sphere of government grows out of balance, as it accumulates more and more jurisdictional power. Entitlements to the indigent replace charity. Everything imaginable becomes a newly recognized “human right.” The role of the church is no longer one of responding to human need, or acting as a vanguard of culture, but merely a sanctuary that helps facilitate subjective mystical experiences.
Leftists frequently seize upon the narrative in Acts chapter 4, claiming that the ideal economic paradigm promoted in the scriptures is socialism. In reading the chapter, you discover that early believers in Jerusalem shared all their wealth and lived in a communal setting. The difference here is that they did so voluntarily. In addition, all property was given to the church for redistribution, it was not siphoned off by the government. That’s not true socialism. It is also interesting to consider that The Apostle Paul, in the course of his missionary journeys, frequently attempted to collect offerings for “The poor saints in Jerusalem.” This demonstrates that such as economic paradigm was far from a panecea for economic disparity, even among Christians.
The religious right, while eschewing a state established church, believes the government ought to acknowledge God. This is because they believe the primary role of government is to punish evil doers and reward good behavior. This objective could be frustrated or even reversed, if a state becomes functionally godless, and adopts a moral code that actually punishes the good and rewards the bad. We see this coming into vogue today, where things that were once vices are practically civil rights, and at the same time, people clinging to traditional values are viewed as bigots.
As evidence that their views correspond with the founders intent regarding proper understanding of the First Amendment, conservatives frequently quote George Washington.
His views on the duties of the state toward The Almighty…
“Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour…”
His views on the role of religion and government…
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity…And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Obviously this discussion only scratches the surface. Future pieces will be necessary to expound on this foundational piece.