Thank you to Rev David Robertson for taking part with me in The Big Debate in Belfast about Christianity, to the Christian churches who organised it, and to William Crawley of the BBC for hosting it. Thank you also to David for his kind words about me, which I here reciprocate, on his blog post analysing the debate. There are some parts of his analysis that I would like to tease out in a series of posts here, and I will start with this paragraph:
“In addition to this Michael presented an Erastian view of Church/State relations – if a theocratic state is one where the Church runs the show (something which the Bible does not accept), an Erastian state is where the State runs the Church. Separation of Church and State is meant to be what secularism is about. But Michael blew that apart when he declared that the State should tell the Church what to do. It was a genuinely shocking admission. As I said it will be a cold day in Hell before I will accept that the state can tell the church what to do.”
For context, here is the relevant exchange from the debate.
Question from audience: Do you both think that a secular Government and society would be beneficial for Northern Ireland, and that is where the Government has no play in telling religions what to do and religions have no control in the Government?
William Crawley (host): Do you both believe that secularism, not atheism, not Christianity, but secularism, separation of church and state, would be a good thing for this State? You’ve already made that argument, Michael…
Michael: One nuance to what I have said. I don’t believe that the Government shouldn’t be able to tell churches what to do. I think churches should be subservient to the Government, in that they are an organisation within society and should follow the law in the same way that anyone else does. Because one of the problems that we have, particularly with the Catholic church, is that they seem too think that vatican Canon Law tales precedence over the law of the land, and that isn’t the case.
William: So for example, in employment law, churches have an exemption in employment law, if they want to employ somebody whose beliefs are consistent with their own religious beliefs, isn’t that reasonable?
Michael: I think that they should have that exemption for roles that are essential to the carrying out of their religion, so if they want to say that a priest has to be a Catholic. But it doesn’t mean that the gardener of the church has to be Catholic.
William: Right. David, where are you on the secular question, of separation of church and state?
David: I’m for it, basically. But I think that concept of a neutral secular Government is impossible. I think many people use secularism as a guise, basically, for their atheism. In Northern Ireland we do actually have a secular Government. We don’t have a church Government. It’s a secular Government. And I’m glad that there is a secular Government.
William: Does Northern Ireland have a secular Government?
David: Yes. The Churches do not appoint the Ministers of State. What Michael has said though, should send shivers down anyone’s spine. And for me, it does. Because what Michael has said is that we as a church should be told what to do by the State.
Michael: Yes, as should atheists.
David: And I would say it will be a cold day in Hell before I let any Government tell me how I should run my church, what should be done in the church, what we should believe, and how we should act upon it. This is the kind of secular totalitarianism.. every State in the world says it has religious freedom, even Saudi Arabia.
Michael: You’re a funny man, David. Nobody has said any of those things. You’ve just invented that in the same way as you have invented your God.
David: Did you not just say that the Government should be able to tell the church what to do?
Michael: I said that the Government should be able to tell everybody to obey the democratically agreed laws of the land, and the idea that you should have some sort of exemption that puts you above the law, simply because you believe that the creator of the universe is telling you things, is anti-democratic.
Now let’s look at David’s blog analysis of that exchange.
The Bible and theocracy
Firstly, David suggests that the Bible does not accept theocracy. As with many other matters, parts of the Bible overtly endorse theocracy and other parts seem more ambivalent. Some of the most overt endorsements of theocracy include:
- Exodus 24:3 “So Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the judgments. And all the people answered with one voice and said, All the words which the Lord has said we will do.”
- Deuteronomy 26:16-17 “This day the Lord your God commands you to observe these statutes and judgments; therefore you shall be careful to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you have proclaimed the Lord to be your God, and that you will walk in His ways and keep His statutes, His commandments, and His judgments, and that you will obey His voice.”
- Judges 8:23 “But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.”
In the New Testament, the Jesus of Mark seems more ambivalent about theocracy than the Jesus of Mathew:
- Mark 12:17 (when asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to caesar) “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
- Mathew 5:17-18 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
An Erastian State?
Secondly, David suggests that an Erastian state is where the State runs the Church. But Thomas Erastus, the sixteenth century Swiss theologian whose name is attached to that theory, was actually arguing from a theological perspective that it was unscriptural for the Church to establish ecclesiastical authorities that could refuse sinners the sacraments by excommunicating them.
As a practical corollary to that theological argument, he suggested that, in a Christian society, a magistrate should have the same powers as God had previously commanded Jewish magistrates to exercise; “so that wherever the magistrate is godly, there is no need of any other authority under any other pretension or title to rule or punish the people.”
Whether he was correct in his interpretation of scripture is neither here nor there. The point is that he was proposing, on the basis of theology, a way of following God’s law as conveyed through Christian scripture, in a Christian society (and not in a pluralist one). He could by no means be described as proposing a scenario “where the State runs the Church” unless of course the Church was disobeying God’s commands.
Separation of Church and State
Thirdly, as the debate extract shows, I am actually proposing a stronger separation of Church and State than Erastus suggested, insofar as his suggestion involved both Church and State implementing God’s commands in a Christian society. However, my proposal is not, as David suggests, “a genuinely shocking admission.” It is a reasonable, democratic and common sense approach to respecting freedom of religion and belief within a pluralist democracy.
I am not proposing, as David suggests, that “the State runs the Church,” no more than I am suggesting that the State runs Atheist Ireland or the Drumcondra Credit Union or the South Tipperary Cycling Club.
I am proposing that churches, like any other organisations, should run their own internal affairs, and manage their relations with other people and groups. The State should not interfere in those affairs, but only as long as churches, like any other organisations, obey the laws of the land. Once a church, like any other organisation, breaks the laws of the land, then the church and its officials should face prosecution to the same extent as any other lawbreakers would.
Separation of Church and State does not mean that churches have equal power to the State to run quasi-States within a State, that are independent of the laws of the land. It means that churches do not have undue influence over the affairs of the State, and that churches have the same autonomy to act within the civic law as any other organisations have.
A Cold Day in Hell
Fourthly, David suggests that “it will be a cold day in Hell before I will accept that the State can tell the Church what to do.” The easiest way to illustrate the consequences of such a position is to examine its application to another religion.
For example, if an Islamic Mosque in Britain was to be run by people who insisted on their right to stone adulterers to death, or to cut off the hand of a thief, or to regulate the circumstances in which a man can beat his wife, would David agree that it will be a cold day in Hell before he accepts that the State can tell those people that they cannot do these things?
I suspect and hope not. I suspect and hope that David would realise that the law of the land takes precedence over the rules of religions, and that the State is entitled to prevent such religious rules form being enforced. That is not the same thing as the State telling religions what to do. It is the State treating religious and atheist people equally before the law without discrimination.
Here is the full debate. The relevant extract starts at 1:06:54.
I will return later to other aspects of David’s analysis.