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Defenders of the Faith


Time, Nov. 12, 1984

Photo: Indira Gandhi, Time, cover, November 12, 1984

Conquer your passions and you conquer the whole world. - Hindu proverb

Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. - St. Paul, Romans 14:23

Two murders reported in a single week, seeming to have little connection with each other and less connection with us.

Last week India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot to death by her Sikh guards, while in Poland the body of the pro-Solidarity priest Jerzy Popieluszko was recovered from a reservoir. It was not known whether the suspected assailants were working for the Polish government, by eliminating a troublemaker, or against it, by creating problems for the relatively soft-line Premier Wojciech Jaruzelski. Either way, both killings involved clashes between the faithful and the state. In one instance, a religion struck at a government; in the other, politics struck at religion. For many of us, the events might have occurred in another galaxy. Yet all summer long, America has been arguing the issue of church and state, of the proper relationship of religion and politics. Suddenly, two object lessons or one lesson divided in two.

However different their tactics, the Polish priest and the Sikh assassins would both be considered defenders of the faith. Popieluszko preached against an oppressive government, and the Sikhs lashed out at a leader who they feared was out to destroy them.

What generated both acts of protest was not any popular consensus or parliamentary vote but the deep-seated belief that the protesters were doing the work of God.

Such a belief propels all acts of faith, which grow out of a special state of mind. Faith is belief without reason. Fundamentally, religions oppose rational processes, perhaps on the theory that a God who could be approached by mere rational thought would not be worth reaching. 'Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has,' said Martin Luther. 'It never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but . . . struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.'

This way of thinking accounts for all that is beautiful in religion. It builds cathedrals, paints Madonnas, lends credence to miracles, sings hymns, offers communion with the suffering, fills the coffers of charities, proffers salvation to the soul and brings the world to its knees. It also sets heretics on fire, promotes ignorance, inflames bigotry, encourages superstition, erases history, invades nations and slaughters the opposition. (The playful Huguenots buried Roman Catholics up to their necks so as to use their heads for ninepins.) Underlying all such activities are the adoration of mystery and the desire for submission: God works in mysterious ways, and lead thou me on. The basic premise of religion is both wondrous and analogical: God is unknowable, and he provides clear and specific errands for his flock.

Governments, which can behave quite as terribly as religions and occasionally as beautifully, are built and run on exactly opposite bases. Governments depend wholly on rational processes.

Not only do they strive to manage and contain a rationally ordered society; they seek to persuade people that it makes sense for them to be governed the way they are - this despite the fact that certain governments may behave irrationally or may manipulate rationality for brutal ends. When religions and governments clash, therefore, it is a collision not simply of institutions but of entirely different ways of apprehending experience. If a priest adopted the thinking of a Prime Minister, the faith would go out of his calling. If a Prime Minister adopted the thinking of a priest, laws would be made in heaven.

All this connects with the American debate on church vs. state in a fundamental way. Those who would like to see religion exert more control over government claim that the founding fathers wanted it that way. They are nearly right. People like Franklin, Washington, Jefferson and Madison sought to separate church and state so that no one sectarian God would ever bestride the land. Yet the founders wanted God somewhere in the picture, as a guide to national moral conduct. Thus arose the God of our civil religion. You've seen him. Big fellow. Flexible but no pushover. Spencer Tracy could have played him. His good book is the Constitution, his psalms were written by Walt Whitman, fair-minded citizens constitute his clergy.

What the founders did not want, however, was a country run on the bases of religion. America was born of the Age of Reason, so named not because people were more reasonable in the middle of the 18th century than at other times but because they set reason as the standard of human aspiration. 'What reason weaves, by passion is undone,' wrote Alexander Pope. Alexander Hamilton agreed, though warily: 'Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion.' It was one thing for individuals to be governed by emotions and another to assign such governance to a new country. Keeping church and state apart was a way of separating reason and passion, or reason and faith, another check and balance.

This is easier proposed than carried out, but it is worth the effort, since the premises of church and state are not merely opposed but actively antagonistic. Faith implies the refusal to accept any laws but God's. How can a government that relies on the perpetuation of its authority be compatible with an institution that takes dictates from invisible powers? Prime Minister Gandhi's soldiers fired on the Sikhs for acts of civil disorder.

The Sikhs killed Mrs. Gandhi for an act of desecration.

In short, church and state are natural enemies, not because one is superior to the other (can reason be proved superior to faith, or vice versa?), but because they make antipodal and competing claims on the mind. Frequently the mind is torn between such claims, as Geraldine Ferraro indicated when she stated her public and private views on abortion. Still, the essential antagonism lies not in issues but in premises, which suggests that no matter how many grounds of agreement church and state may find, the basic conflict will remain unresolvable. When the 3rd century theologian Tertullian said that Athens can never agree with Jerusalem, this is what he meant.

Those who would like to foist church on state may be advised to look east this week. Two deaths in places as different as Poland and India were brought about by a hostility that goes as deep as anything in our experience. When Adam bit into the apple, he moved from the world of faith to that of reason, and so was expelled by a God who decreed that two such different modes of thought could not possibly live in the same garden. What God has put asunder, let no man join together.