The separation of church and state requires people of different faiths – indeed, compels people of different faiths – to live and let live. It is the constitutional prerequisite for freedom of religion. Without it, people of dissenting religious beliefs live only a theological whim away from religious persecution. Or worse: from religious slaughter. This is the central conundrum of contemporary Islam. Although Muslims who live in the West must implicitly accept the separation of church and state, Muslims who live in Islamic republics explicitly do not. And, in disturbing numbers, they are prepared to fight to the death in defence of authoritarian theocracy.
Democracy can make no compromises with theocracy – however innocuous. In the seminal words of the world’s most explicit commitment to the freedom of religion, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” By definition, a twisted Christian in the United States is as much at liberty to burn copies of the Koran as he is to burn comic books. Also by definition, an offended Muslim is at liberty to delete Bibles from his laptop and cast them into his electronic trash can. Indeed, it is the twisted Christian’s freedom that guarantees the offended Muslim’s freedom. This is the quid pro quo of civilized life.
The religious instinct to kill heretics and infidels is not really a consequence of religion. It is a consequence of theology, which is a different thing altogether. Religion deals in morality, the codes by which people live their lives. Theology deals in intellectual abstraction. It is profoundly dangerous.
C.S. Lewis, the famous champion of Christianity, understood this perfectly. Although he wrote many books expounding Christianity, he wrote none expounding theology. He preferred to deal with beliefs that Christians shared, he said, rather than beliefs they disputed. “You will not learn from me whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian or a Roman Catholic,” he noted in Mere Christianity, his classic Christianity 101. “This omission is intentional.”
Why? Theology separates people – either for no good reason or for reason that passes human understanding. Theology, Lewis concluded, should be left strictly to scholars. (“One of the things that Christians are most disagreed about,” he observed, “is the importance of their disagreements.”) For all practical purposes, it was morality that mattered.
This didn’t stop people from calling Lewis “the most widely read theologian of his time.” And, indeed, the most widely heard theologian of his time. From 1941 through 1944, Lewis attracted huge wartime audiences with his weekly radio addresses on the BBC – a series of evening broadcasts that proceeded regardless of the simultaneous delivery of Nazi bombs. The broadcasts made him famous – though wartime Britain was as indifferent to religion, and as intellectually hostile to it, as we are today.
“What of God himself?” asked author Justin Phillips in his account (C.S. Lewis: In A Time of War) of Lewis’s BBC years. “[God] was conspicuous by his absence. [Public opinion surveys showed that] two-thirds of BBC listeners were living without any reference to religion.” Lewis’s wartime broadcasts, which are now read around the world in 30 languages, demonstrated that – intelligently discussed – religious differences can co-exist and, ironically, can bring people together.
Lewis helps in understanding the varieties of religious experience – within Christianity and beyond it. He used a simple metaphor – a large public hall giving access to many private rooms – to distinguish “religion” from “my religion.”
“When you reach your own room,” he advised, “be kind to people who have chosen different doors. If they are wrong, they need your prayers all the more. If they are your enemies, you are under orders to pray for them. This is one of the rules common to the whole house.”
The problem with Islam is that it often seeks unilaterally to write the rules for the whole house. Thus, in Afghanistan, a radical form of Islam is the religion of the state – and 10 Christian aid workers got murdered earlier this year for carrying Bibles. In Iran, along with the wrong kind of Muslims, Christians are routinely subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention and imprisonment. In Pakistan, the legal code stipulates the death penalty for people who “defile” Islam. In Somalia, the Islamic terrorist organization al-Shabaab randomly assassinates Christians and other non-Muslims.
For Muslim countries, though, the persistent survival of this sort of barbaric justice is not enough. They want global recognition of their medieval governance model. Thus, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a formal association of 57 Muslim countries, campaigns at the UN for resolutions that would effectively criminalize actions deemed “disrespectful” of Islam.
It is a great, wicked folly, this state enforcement of official theologies. In countries blessed with religious freedom, we cannot compromise it – or, inexorably, we will lose it.
From Monday's Globe and Mail Published on Monday, Sep. 20, 2010 5:00AM EDT Last updated on Monday, Sep. 20, 2010 11:07AM EDT