Three Rocky Marriages


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Marriage of Religion and State

Karl Marx did not invent the metaphor that religion is the opiate of the people, but he did popularize it. His view seemed to be that religion was a creation of the state to ensure compliance of the populace. I have not studied Marx enough to know fully how he saw this, but one can certain imagine two aspects.

  1. Religion, dealing with, in part, eternal issues and destinies, can encourage those who are suffering and exploited to fail to rise up in opposition to oppressors. They may accept mistreatment, even seeing such abuse as part of being tested by god, God, or gods, prior to glory— or perhaps such submission to evildoers may be seen to be a virtue.
  2. Governments have often gleefully linked themselves to the popular religion. The marriage of State and Religion can be powerful. One controls the body and the now. The other controls the spirit and eternity. If the two work together– they provide a full blanket of control. Such a blanket can be both comforting and stifling.

There are still “Islamic” republics, who intentionally link their religion and government. Most other countries have recognized the stifling nature of such a marriage and have cut formal ties. Of course, informal ties may remain… and in some cases a secularized dis-organized religion (idealogy if you prefer) may be actively supported by the government…. North Korea is a classic case… but most countries utilize the tools of religion even if they claim not to support (or reject) any particular religion. Watch political rallies in the US, and you will see a crazy marriage of American folk Christianity and political symbols into a very uncomfortable, to me at least, state religion of sorts.

There is no good solution, I believe. Humans are religious beings, and they are social beings. I believe we have several millennia of recorded history to support these two points. As such, government (establish of formalized rules for large group social interaction) and religion (organized or disorganized) can never be fully divorced.

But if they are married, it should be a very unhappy marriage. In a previous post I noted that David Tracy mentioned in “Plurality and Ambiguity” that religion is not really a religion unless it challenges the status quo. That is because each religion claims to see something of Ultimate Reality, and that vision compels adherents to reject, at least in part, the flawed cultural setting they are in. When a religion supports the status quo, it is saying that it has nothing more to do than to maintain the existing power structure in society and principles that that same power structure teaches.

When religion supports the status quo (happy in its marriage to the government) rather than challenges it, Marx has a point.

Marriage of Religious and Civil Marriage.

Illustrating the challenge of church/state interaction— Many are familiar with the so-called “gay marriage” issue in the United States. Here in the Philippines we are a bit sheltered from it, although there are some who are seeking it here as well. Strangely, the Philippines appears to be more willing to tolerate homosexuality than the United States, but less willing to affirm it.

Marriage is a strange anomaly, at least at first glance. It is where even very secularized societies tend to bring together government and religion. Pretty much all cultures have marriage in one form or another. Even though people are talking that marriage is disappearing in modern (and post-modern) societies, it is probably more accurate to say that marriage is transforming. There seems to be a pretty universal recognition that sex and procreation are important enough for cultures to have a say in it. Even cultures that seem pretty libertine in many ways, often have surprisingly complex and nuanced mores and taboos. Of course, these may not be as evident, especially during transitional periods.

In the United States, despite being the, perhaps, first secular nation on earth, marriage was always seen as a joint effort between state and religion. Religion establishes the moral/ethical parameters for a culture (or sub-culture) while government establishes civil/legal parameters. In practice these overlap with each other a great deal, and are, in fact, quite dependent on each other. With regards to marriage, religion defined marriage for the state, and took care of most of the rites of marriage. The state provided legal teeth for the rite, and dealt with tracking the paperwork.

What happened in the United States in recent years is the breakdown of that generally unspoken agreement. While some argue that this breakdown is due to the secularization of the US, that is not strictly true. The United States has always been officially secular, although with strong informal ties to its Christian worldview and heritage. What happened was plurality. Multiple religions (major religions, minor religions, organized religions, informal religions, secular “religions” and idealogies) added their voices to the mix due to modernity. They were then given respect through post-modernity. When one talks about the term “marriage” there are many voices now saying what marriage should be. Should it be monogamous heterosexual, polygynous heterosexual, polyandrous heterosexual, conjoint, various versions of homosexual? What about non-sexual relationships… can these be defined under marital laws? Can an animal be viewed, legally, as a person? Can a human “marry” an animal (whether defining a sexual or non-sexual relationship)? Can, for example, dog marriages, an odd little practice of some pet owners, be seen as a marriage in the same sense as marriage between human persons? One can go on and on. If the term “marriage” is disconnected from its cultural and historical anchors, its meaning is defined by those that use it. (Note that this blogpost is, in fact, using the term “marriage” in more than one way.)

As soon as you say YES to one and NO to another, you are saying one group is authoritative and one is not. But each group wants to be authoritative. As David Tracy, again, noted. Modernity leads to plurality of perspectives, and this same plurality leads to ambiguity.

So what is going on right now in the US? I would argue that the issue of what (and who) defines a marriage is quite important. However, the over-the-top reaction of many (on both sides, frankly) comes, in part, from “buyer’s regret” or “marital strife.”

The church has “religious marriage.” The state has “civil marriage.” The church was seduced by the ability to guide the state and get legal support, equating religious marriages with civil marriages. Now the state is no longer going to the church for its definition of marriage. “Religious/Civil marriage” is no longer being guided from the religious side, but the civil side… but the church doesn’t really want to let go of this relationship (“marriage” so to speak). This is not the first time. The state (or in the case of the US… various states) years ago began redefining who can get divorced, and thus get remarried, commonly without much consideration of the church The church generally went along with it.

There are those in the church who seem quite happy to adjust their own definition of marriage to that of the state. In this case, this part of the church may be accepting a subservient role to the state (or societal norms). Is this always wrong? No, it is not always bad. Many churches refused to accept divorce, believing that morality and legality must go hand in hand even when the marital vow has already been viciously violated. The church needed a bit of adjustment in this area. Some religious groups also had issues with interracial marriage, for some odd reason… a little push from the outside was helpful.

The hyper-reaction of some within the church to the “gay marriage” issue is built from after-the-fact regrets. They linked (“married”) religious and civil marriages, and now regret it. But are they willing to divorce them? For those on the other side, is the church willing to challenge the society it is in, or simply bless the cultural mores?

Here in the Philippines we have a different problem but springing from a similar problem. The Catholic Church has considerable sway in some aspects of Philippine governance. Most notably this is true in marriage. Divorce is theoretically not permitted here. They do have something called “annulment” (which really isn’t annulment in the strictest sense, but an expensive and inconvenient divorce), but the vast majority of separations are common-law. This also means that an awful lot of the sexual relationships, even long-term committed relationship, are common-law— because of an ill-advised legal marriage to a faithless or abusive person in the, commonly distant, past. Since the government cannot affirm their relationship in marriage, can the church? Some feel they can, and some feel they cannot.

The church need to work towards having a rocky marriage with the government.

Marriage of Missions and Power

Missions can be linked to the State. Historically, it has gone hand-in-hand with colonizers or imperialists. Is that bad? Maybe. Maybe not. One cannot totally disconnect religion and state because they have overlapping domains. But, drawing from the metaphor in the first part, such a “marriage” should be an unhappy one. Missions in the colonial period was always at its best, when it sided with the local peoples and challenged the colonizers.

Today, the connection between Christian missions and state is (thankfully) much weaker. But there are other marriages with power.

Missions and Denomination. Missions is also at its best when its connection to denomination is “complicated.” Even though many missionaries and mission agencies are described as non-denominational… they commonly work within a religio-cultural structure that has many aspects of denominationalism. Denominations, or at least religious sub-cultures, have their place and form organically, whether or not they are formally organized. But missions is to be, first of all, God’s mission. As such, that takes primacy over supporting the wants and wishes of the denomination. There is a marriage between missions and church or denomination, but it should be a rocky or conflicted marriage.

Another power is money. Missions utilizes money… some forms require a fair bit of money. But missions and missionaries must follow God first, not the money. The marriage of missions and money is necessary, but it should not be a happy marriage.

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