Category: Adventists for Progress

The Paradox of American Religious Life, Religion and Economics, Separation of Church and State, and the Ironies of the Christian Right

The latest article from my website, Adventists for Progress:

East Iron Hill Community Church

One of the paradoxes of American religious life is how the U.S., on one hand, comes out of the Enlightenment’s classical liberal heritage of religious disestablishment from the state, while, on the other hand, compared to other pluralist liberal democracies, like Europe and Canada, its denizens engage in religious participation at comparatively higher rates than their liberal democratic counterparts. Why is this so?

Now, the sort of explanations one gets after posing the aforementioned question usually—but not exclusively—involve variations of either the following arguments: (1) one of the reasons for the comparatively high rates of religious engagement among Americans, as compared to (for example) Western Europeans, has to do, as some argue, with the supposedly “backward” cultural-intellectual life of America in comparison to other modern liberal democracies, or (2) since the U.S., as argued by others, adheres more strongly to a Judeo-Christian heritage, compared to other liberal democracies, it has been relatively more resilient against certain secular influences that diminish engagement in religious life.

These sort of facile arguments—which are problematic from the standpoint of both historical scholarship and from findings of the social sciences, as well as being, at least in regard to the first argument, condescending in its tenor (to put it more mildly)—fail to offer persuasive explanations of America’s religious paradox. For example, in the U.K., British parliamentary democracy still recognizes an established religion (i.e., the Anglican Church) and the state, there, funds so-calledfaith schools.” Yet, based on several studies (here, here, here, and here based upon certain data encompassing specific years between 2001 to 2012), rates of religious affiliation and participation are decidedly lower in the British Isles than in some other democracies without an established religion. Whereas, in the United States, such rates are higher, despite America’s historical heritage (unlike in Great Britain) of separating church and state that fosters both privatized religious activities and, to borrow the words from Princeton scholar Paul Starr, a “fully deregulated and unsubsidized religious economy.”

At the end of the day, the question is, again, what gives? Specifically, how does one explain this American paradox where religious engagement is higher in the U.S., despite having a long, historical heritage of separating church and state in its polity in stark contrast to other countries, like the U.K., Netherlands, and Australia, where establishment religion and/or direct non-preferential state support for religious entities exist?

Perhaps, one of the most persuasive explanations has do, in part, with the distinct intersection between religion and economics that exists because of the robust separation of church and state that gives rise to, again, a “fully deregulated and unsubsidized religious economy.” Based on several studies analyzing comparative religion and economics (such as “A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the ‘Secularization’ of Europe” by Stark and Ianoccone in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33 [1994], The Churching of America, 1776-1990 [1992] by Finke and Stark, and The Challenges of Pluralism: Church and State in Five Democracies [1997] by Monsma and Soper), Prof. Starr, in Freedom’s Power: The History and Promise of Liberalism, posits the following:

Inasmuch as churches in a free, pluralistic religious economy depend on voluntary contributions [as in the U.S.] rather than government subsidies [as in the U.K., Netherlands, and Australia], they tend to be more innovative and entrepreneurial than tax-supported churches in developing and marketing services that attract and keep members. Like any competitive market, an unregulated religious economy also allows stronger “firms” to emerge. . . . Where a single church has a monopoly, however, the incentives and opportunities for innovation are limited, and the proportion of the population attending church every week tends to be low. (Emphases added.) (p. 65)

Now, one of the fascinating aspects about the “religion and economics” analysis, which, again, arises out of explaining America’s religious paradox, is that it has caught the attention of those across the pond who wish to reinvigorate a renewed, dynamic religious engagement in pluralist, secular-inclined liberal democracies in Western Europe as exemplified by a 2012 commentary in the British daily, The Telegraph, entitled,Only a free market in religion will save Anglicanism,” by Ed West. In the piece, West laments the moribund state of Anglicanism in the U.K. and states the following (emphasis added):

The problem with the Church of England is not just that it’s a broad church, encompassing some very, very liberal Christians and some very, very conservative ones, or that it’s led by people so open-minded that their brains have fallen out. Its real problem is establishment, which makes it less the nation’s conscience and more a dinosaur national industry, kept dysfunctional by state subsidies.

In essence, despite coming out of polities where state and religion are not autonomous entities but are intertwined, some individuals in those societies, like the Ed Wests of the world, who favor a renewal of religious life in civil society, go counter-intuitively in the opposite direction toward a more muscular American-style secularization guided by a framework of religious disestablishment of deregulated, private religious practices and an unsubsidized religious economy.

(In light of all this, it is important to note that discussions that involve comparing the religiosity—or lack thereof—between Americans and other Western democracies are, at times, problematic insofar as some sloppily conflate both religiosity/non-religiosity in civil society and the association/non-association between state and religion in a given polity as interchangeable things. Which, at the end of the day, makes such discussions both imprecise and simplistic, for such issues involve a degree of specificity and nuance as some nations are faith rich in civil society, yet highly secular pertaining to religious [dis]establishment and [de]regulation in the polity, while others, of course, take the opposite course.)

Now, the other fascinating aspect of this discussion pertains to the following related question: Why do Americans, in the main, embrace secular sensibilities toward the machinery of the state, yet still hold a relatively more benign view toward religion in civil society? Using the insights of Prof. Starr to answer this inquiry, it has to do, in part, to the particular tendency within classical liberalism that arose out of the Enlightenment that was embraced by several early founders of America that influenced, in part, their thinking in the construct of the U.S. Constitution, in particular the Bill of Rights’ Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Prof. Starr writing, again, in Freedom’s Power, points out this tendency by delineating between two classical liberal approaches toward religion:

Broadly speaking, two currents in liberal political thought about religion emerged from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the age of the Enlightenment. One tendency, particular strong in England and America, sought to develop a political framework of religious liberty that would accommodate diverse faiths. The second tendency, particularly strong in France, identified religion with superstition and unreason and attacked clerical power. The first was the spirit of Locke [and Thomas Jefferson], the second that of Voltaire [and Thomas Paine]; the first, liberalism toward religion; the second liberalism against religion. The first called for a shared public sphere, the second for a secular public sphere. The first sought to release minority faiths from the tyranny of the established faith [such as in several colonial-era Southern states, like Virginia, where the Anglican (later the Episcopalian) church enjoyed a legal monopoly to the disadvantage of Baptists and other evangelicals as noted by Prof. Starr]; the second sought to release science, education, and the mind itself from all faith and dogma. The first culminated in the American Revolution, the second in the French Revolution. (Emphases added.) (pp. 62-63)

Now, in light of this historical development, regarding American religious life, it is all the more perplexing that Christian Right elements should be at the forefront of establishing a sort political bridgehead that would eviscerate the separation of church and state in America in order to promote a disturbing notion that radically blurs the lines between ecclesiastical authority and the state. Why is this perplexing?

Because what has kept religion, in particular Christianity, comparatively robust in the United States as opposed to other Western liberal democracies, is the flourishing culture of religious disestablishment, i.e., privatized religion—essentially a religious practice akin to a laissez-faire, libertarian economic approach to the marketplace where the government has a de minimis—if not nonexistent—role in this sphere. As such, it is deliciously ironic that individuals associated with the Christian Right, some of who are the most ardent “market fundamentalists” (no pun intended) when it comes to economic beliefs, somehow experience a rather quick conversion—a “road to Damascus” sort of experience—in which all of sudden they see the virtues of an active state role when comes to the sphere of religious promotion and practice in America. (This sort of disconnect glaringly—and rightfully—frustrates both theists on the left and atheists/agnostics on the right for they ask the following: How can the Christian Right reconcile their sheer antipathy toward a government role in the broad, public economy, yet accepts, without critical circumspection, the notion of a “beneficent state” that supposedly has the wisdom to be actively—and affirmatively—involved in a matter that is essentially private in nature, i.e., the sphere of personal religious practice and conscience?)

Anyway, in closing, when one wrestles with the paradox of religious life in America—whether one is persuaded or not by the “economics and religion” thesis—such an inquiry helps to spur a lively, thoughtful discussion on an intriguing matter. It is a matter, because of its serious nature, that also leads to, in the words of the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl, “an argument without end” that, at times, fosters more questions than answers.


(Photo: A Christian church in Iowa. Photo by Phil Roeder on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0 license. Photograph used in this article cropped by the post’s author.)


The Critical Question that President Obama’s Syria Speech Left Unanswered—And Why It Should Concern Christian Proponents of the Just War Doctrine

The latest article from my website, Adventists for Progress:

The public debate over the Obama administration’s posture toward Syria, in light of recent events of the last three weeks or so, has been one of profound substantive division where each side—pro-intervention vs. anti-intervention—has articulated compelling arguments for their respective positions. As with the public at large, Christians are as passionately divided over the “Syria question” as well, with some representing the Christian pacifist stance, while others embrace the Just War doctrine of AugustinianThomist thought. (And then there are some Christians who articulate a distinct alternative, known as the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, that informs their stance on the Syria issue.)

Now, regardless of what position Christians embrace that informs their particular position—for or against military airstrikes in Syria—there was one glaring aspect of President Obama’s Tuesday evening address that should concern everyone, Christians or not. Specifically, during the nearly 16 minute speech, President Obama failed to address one glaring issue: If the U.S military does engage in targeted airstrikes against key military installations of the Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, can the White House assure the American public that such action will not lead to an operational equivalent of “blowback” that inflicts even more suffering upon the Syrian people and, as equally bad, widens the conflict necessitating the expanded use of America’s military assets, including putting boots on the ground, that place our precious men and women, in uniform, in direct harms way?

For non-pacifist Seventh-day Adventist Christians who embrace the Just War doctrine (and not, as one would reasonably expect, Adventism’s honorable, historical tradition of pacifism), they should oppose military intervention by U.S. forces to insert themselves in the bloody Syrian civil war—as tragic as it is on so many human levels—on the basis that it fails one significant component of the Augustinian-Thomist doctrine circumscribing the use of armed force. That component is the key principle that states that there must be a reasonable chance of success in achieving the clearly articulated goals of the military operation. On this front, the reasonable risk of blowback—with all of its untenable, dire consequences (both on the military operational side as well as on the geopolitical state of play in the region)—far outweighs any purported benefits in giving the green light to airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria.

In fact, the stated mission of using airstrikes to stop unnecessary civilian deaths at the hands of the Assad military using chemical weapons as a result of exerting pressure upon the Syrian armed forces to desist may, as a result of the U.S. military action itself, actually encourage those same forces to do otherwise. As the University of Michigan Middle East scholar, Juan Cole, points out at his blog Informed Comment:

Something like a set of missile strikes on Syria in the midst of a civil war, and at a time of turbulence in the region, can have unexpected consequences. Radical Iraqi Shiites of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq have threatened to attack the US embassy in Baghdad in reprisal. If we had another Benghazi-type incident, we’d never hear the end of it in Congress, and it could been seen as requiring yet more American missile or drone strikes. If the US hits regime air bases, it could affect the outcome of the war, since the Baath troops cannot reliably get up to Aleppo by overland convoy. The youth that have overthrown two presidents in Egypt are protesting US interference in Egypt. Public opinion now matters in a way it did not used to, and getting making a whole generation anti-American is a definite risk.

If the local [pro-Assad] military units have access to small warheads filled with sarin, then likely they will deploy it when they feel desperate or panicked. They won’t fear a US cruise missile strike on Damascus afterwards. (Emphases added.)

That, in a nutshell, is why non-pacifist/pro-Just War doctrine Christians should oppose, among other compelling reasons, the proposed military operation by the Obama administration against the Assad dictatorship. The stated (and morally noble) mission of the Obama administration to prevent civilian deaths from the deployment of chemical weapons by the Assad forces would, in effect, be subverted by the airstrikes themselves. In other words, more civilian deaths, rather than saving lives, will most likely result from the use of chemical weapons by the pro-Assad forces who will most likely lash out against Syrian civilians as a result of being under the throes of a complicated mix of searing emotions—panic, fear, anger, desperation, and a visceral sense of revenge fueled by anti-U.S./anti-rebel animus— intensified by the bombardment from American military air power.

To put it in another way, Americans should place themselves in the shoes of ordinary soldiers in the Assad military (this is certainly not to condone, justify, or even lessen their acts of brutality against their fellow Syrians, but to make the following argument) and ask a key question: How would Americans respond if a foreign power rained down bombs on top of them?

(What some people reasonably fear might happen, if the U.S. military engages in airstrikes against Syria, is that such action may very well lead to a “rally-around-the-flag” effect where the sense of nationalism among the Syrian population, toward any violation against their national sovereignty, will further complicate the conditions on the ground that will stymie efforts, by the Syrians themselves, to depose the autocratic Assad dictatorship.)

In fact, one could reasonably argue that if the White House gives a green light for airstrikes against the Assad military—and such Syrian forces respond by expanding their use of chemical weapons against the civilian population—this could, very well, add further pressure for President Obama to respond with a more muscular military response. In reaction, perhaps, to assuage the voices from outside and within the administration—from neoconservatives to liberal hawks-humanitarian interventionists—who are imploring the President not to “look weak” in the face of a rogue regime. Which, if President Obama does succumb to such pressure would make mockery to this Tuesday evening statement: “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”

As such, there is a reasonable likelihood that the sort of mission creep, described above, would further box in Assad and his forces to become even more desperate—and thus more willing, out of acts of panic and pressure—to further expand the deployment of chemical weapons that target population-rich civilian centers to flush out, in their eyes, pro-rebel sanctuaries in the major cities of Syria. The result, or course, will predictably result in more civilian carnage—coming from both the Assad forces using chemical weapons in response to the U.S. air attacks and the unintended casualties from the collateral damage arising from the American bombardments themselves that naturally arise when any military operation is conducted from the air.

In closing, what President Obama failed to assure to the American public—specifically, again, the assurance that the U.S. airstrikes in Syria would not result in unintended consequences that would intensify the carnage of an already suffering civilian population—is something that should give pause to those who lean toward supporting airstrikes as well as some within the Just War doctrine camp, who are, as of yet, not definitively decided on the Syria issue.