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The issue of Church and State

By Peter Holmes

THE call for a separation of Church and State has been echoing around the Australian media for as long as I can remember.

When the Church offers any kind of input to a public debate, there are loud calls for the Church to stay out of politics.

When a member of parliament or anyone who holds public office seems to be influenced by their personal faith, the same voices call their suitability for public office into question.

Unless, of course, the Church happens to agree with the media’s present opinion on a hot topic, in which case the government are called to listen to the voice of “compassion”, while they carefully avoid attributing any moral authority to the Church itself.

Over the years I have been privileged to participate in public and private discussions and debates with agnostic and atheist friends.

With a few notable exceptions, these friends have played the “separation of church and state” card as if it were the trump card which defeats all of the Church’s or individual believer’s attempts to contribute to public debates on moral matters.

The use of this slogan against the Judeo-Christian moral code is ironic in the extreme.

Because the separation of Church and state is an idea introduced and implemented by God himself, in the Jewish Scriptures, and defended and advocated by both Christians and Jews to the present day.

It is, in short, a Judeo-Christian idea.

When the Israelites first demanded a king “like the other nations”, God warned them that taxes and misuse of worldly power would be a serious drawback of the kind of kingship typical of the nations around them.

In the nations around Israel, in fact in most ancient nation states, the absolute ruler of the nation was also a religious leader.

 In some cases he was worshipped as king and god of that nation, or perhaps as a kind of avatar of the deity.

In any case, he wielded both secular and religious authority from the same throne.

But in Israel, things were different.

When God relented and finally gave the Israelites the king they wanted, He set in place an arrangement we refer to today as ‘the separation of Church and state.’ On the one hand the king ruled via the military and political means available to the nation, but he was supposed to maintain and defend the innocent, the weak and the poor according to God’s definition of justice, not his own.

On the other hand the priests and prophets had little military or political power, but mediated God’s forgiveness and proclaimed his divine word. The king was responsible for protecting the weak and providing a kingdom where all that is good could flourish.

Should the king become corrupt, or begin using his God-given authority to harm the innocent, or disregard the needs of his subjects, the prophets would hold the king to account.

Even King David, the greatest of the Israelite kings, the king by whom all other kings are measured, once used his power to murder an innocent soldier and take the man’s wife as his own.

In this case, the prophet Nathan confronted David with his evil deeds and pronounced God’s judgment on the king.

What is worth noting is that neither the king nor the prophet are permitted to seek to take over the responsibility of the other.

The relationship between the king and the prophet worked both ways. Just as husband and wife are different, bringing different gifts and responsibilities to the relationship, neither the king nor the prophet may dominate the other, discount the other nor overstep the boundaries of their particular role in the kingdom.

A wife is not a husband, but it would be ridiculous for a husband to ignore his wife’s feedback and advice on being a husband.

In the same way, though we celebrate and cherish the unique and unrepeatable gifts that a wife brings to a marriage, it would be folly for her to completely ignore her husband’s advice on the basis that he was not a wife.

The relationship relies on a delicate balance between the two, mutual feedback and mutual support.

The moral codes that have formed the basis of Western civilisation have been perpetuated and sustained by this delicate balance.

At times in history the balance has teetered too close to one precipice or another, but the balance has been maintained.

The Church has clearly and energetically advocated the separation of Church and state in Australia.

Where the agents of the Church have failed to uphold this standard, the state has held her to account.

The Church in Australia willingly and properly submits herself to the scrutiny and censure of the state where she has failed to protect the vulnerable people she cared for.

On the other hand, the Church still energetically and properly calls the government of Australia to account on moral matters.

This is not a usurpation of power, neither of religion or of the state, it is an enhancement and protection of a proper use of authority.

It is a voice of conscience, which is not muted by the rich and powerful, by a social majority or a tribal prejudice.

It is the voice that carries a genuine concern for the innocent, the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the refugees.

Please God both Church and state continue to hold each other to account in the promotion of good, the defense of the innocent and vulnerable, and in the promotion of the flourishing of all Australians.

Peter Holmes is an Australian theologian.

Written by: Staff writers
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