Why I was wrong (and why it doesn’t matter)


It seems like only yesterday I was talking about how I would try my best to admit when something I’ve said is incorrect. Weeks ago, I attacked the idea that Canada is founded on Judeo-Christian principles, pointing out the number of ways the Charter diverges from both Jewish and Christian scripture. I gave credit to Enlightenment-era philosophers for the idea of separation between church and state – an idea which manifests itself in the statues enshrining freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

It appears that I was wrong.

While poking around the blogroll of another Vancouver blogger who posts comments here occasionally, and who I often find myself disagreeing with (though we do share some core ideas), I found a particularly brainless post by a Toronto-based theology professor named Chris Carter. Mr. Carter (I am purposefully withholding the honorific title of “Doctor” since his degree is in theology – Mr. Carter, you have a degree in baloney!) attempted to turn logic completely upside-down and claim that Christians are tolerant of the mean old gays, who are forcing good Christians to abandon their religious convictions and (gasp, horror) grant gay people equal rights under the law. I pointed out that not only was Mr. Carter’s assertion that Christianity is tolerant of gays completely factually inaccurate (we don’t have to look much further than ultra-Christian Malawi, Uganda or the United States to see that this isn’t the case), but that the tolerance gays have seen in more developed countries (ignoring the USA for a second) has been opposed by Christianity at every turn. I pointed out that religious involvement in the passage of laws stands opposed to the idea of separation of church and state, and that recognizing the prejudice of Christians stands opposed to the development of secular society.

All of this was true, but I mistakenly gave credit to the wrong people.

Mr. Carter correctly pointed out that the separation of Church and state seems to have its origin in the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms as proposed by Martin Luther (although he mistakenly gave credit to St. Augustine who had a similar idea but stated that the heavenly kingdom outranks the earthly kingdom). The doctrine basically posits that there are two authorities – one for civil “earthly” laws and one for supernatural “heavenly” laws. He stated in no uncertain terms that the two should be kept separate. Insofar as Luther used passages from the Bible (specifically the “render unto Caesar” bit) as justification for this doctrine, it is in fact an explicitly Christian idea to separate church from state. While this seems to stand at odds with CLS’s account of the evolution of religious tolerance in the West, I am willing to accede the point that freedom of religion is a Christian idea, the origin of which is explicitly rooted in a specific interpretation of the teachings of Jesus.

Luckily for me though, none of that matters.

Freedom of religion (and its corollary, freedom from religion) is a good idea even when you take Jesus and God out of the mix. The modern-day interpretation of the separation of church and state does not rely on the supremacy of the church in matters of the supernatural; rather, it is rooted in the idea that equal rights for all people is practical and good for the development of a just society. While the origin of the concept seems to be based on scripture, it doesn’t need scripture to work. Charity is another great example of this. Jesus had a great number of things to say about being charitable to the poor, but that doesn’t mean that you have to believe in Jesus to be charitable. The idea is good because it works, not because YahwAlladdha smiles upon it. Take the supernatural justification out of the picture and the whole idea remains just as intact as it was when it was religiously-justified.

Other ideas – such as the “unnatural nature” of homosexuality, or the sacredness of a fertilized embryo, or the immorality of premarital sex – do not hold up under irreligious scrutiny. These ideas only work if both sides agree that there is a God, and that he hates humans so much that he will damn them (and only them) to eternal torture for having certain kinds of sex or getting certain surgical procedures. Once one side says “yeah, but how do you know God exists?”, then the whole idea is forced to stand on its merits in the observable world.

The separation of church and state does stand up to irreligious scrutiny. When we take God out of the picture, we see that a society that is founded on equal rights and justice is best served when the personal myths of one particular group are not allowed to trump the observable consequences to any person or group of people. The fact that a Christian developed the idea is an interesting fact, but does not somehow grant legitimacy to other Christian ideas, particularly those that are deleterious to society or individuals.

So to you, readers, and to Mr. Carter, I offer a retraction of the statement that the separation of church and state had its origin in the Enlightenment. As far as I can tell it was developed by a Christian philosopher, with explicitly Christian justification. A good idea is a good idea, and I’m happy to give credit where it’s due. Luckily for me, and for the world, this does not matter at all – it’s a good idea that stands on its own even when Jesus is completely removed from the picture.

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