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In Theory: Can secularism stem 'dangerous' ties between politics and religion?

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Rabbi David Rosen, the international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said the greatest threat to religion in the world is when it is closely tied to politics.

"The most dangerous thing for religion is when it's married to political power. When it's an instrument of political power, then it betrays its own message," Rosen said.

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The article cites the rise of the Islamic State and "far-right parties in several European countries" as examples of when religion becomes radicalized through politics. Rosen argues that secularism allows for a "constructive tension" that may prohibit religion from being manipulated.

"Secular and religion shouldn't be seen as antithetical … I think the secular society is critically important for religion, just as religion needs to give moral content and spiritual direction to secular society," Rosen said.

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Q. What do you think of Rosen's comments? Can a healthy dose of secularism keep radicalized religions, especially in the political arena, at bay?

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Rabbi David Rosen is right on the money, in my opinion. What he was speaking of, in part, without using the words, was the idea of the separation of church and state. Our forefathers saw that danger because they had seen what havoc had been caused in Europe without that separation.

It is easy to criticize ISIS or ISIL, which have hijacked Islam and improperly mixed politics and religion. But we have right-wing fanatics in this country, too, and they are always trying to blur the line of separation of church and state. They continue to try to rewrite history (I think the practice is called “Revisionism”) with such claims as “we were founded as a Christian nation.”

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We were not. There were some Christian founding fathers, but there were also some Jews and at least one atheist, Thomas Paine, who is famous for writing the pamphlet, “Common Sense.” And an argument can be made that those “Christian” founders were actually more like deists than Christians. Thomas Jefferson, who had a copy of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, actually cut out pieces of the New Testament that he found “unreasonable.” How Christian is that?

It is easy to look overseas and find “scary” things. But let us not forget to be aware of what continues to happen in our own backyard. Some fundamentalist Christians would like nothing better than to change us into a theocracy. To plagiarize Ross Perot a little bit, that spinning sound you hear is coming from the graves of our Founding Fathers who were prepared to sacrifice everything so that each of us could be free to choose whether to worship and how, or not at all. Thanks be to God for their great insight!

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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Rabbi Rosen is reiterating a Talmudic concept called “Dina Malkut Ha Dina,” or “The Law of the Land is Your Law.” It states that as long as the secular law does not interfere with your Judaism, obey the law of the land. It enabled the Jewish people, where they were a minority community, to be good neighbors and stay true to their heritage for over 20 centuries.

The difference with other religious groups today, including, but not limited to, the Muslim immigrants to America and Western Europe is that they have come from countries where they were members of the majority religion and feel that that former majority status enables them to dictate, to the secular government, the ideology that they are used to.

As in Western Europe and the United States where “freedom” is the most important of secular concepts, militancy breeds results. In other cases, these politically motivated “religious groups” find themselves needing to attack the secular authorities to achieve their agendas.

In Syria and Iraq, two socialist/Ba’athist governments, ISIS has presented an Islamic rebellion. However, in actuality, its goal is to establish a “secular government,” a caliphate, which, as history has shown us, functioned as a secular state with an army, a navy, a ruling body and a foreign policy.

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The political parties of the far right also take advantage of the freedoms secular society provides to gain their goals. Remember, Hitler was elected to office. The religion of the twisted cross had a political agenda, too. If you cannot live the biblical dictum, “Love thy neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 20), at least you can obey his or her laws as your laws and live together in peace.

Rabbi Mark Sobel

Temple Beth Emet

Burbank

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I think that Rabbi Rosen is absolutely correct when he says that the greatest threat to religion in the world is when it is closely tied to politics. In fact that notion is the basis of our United States Constitution when it states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This document does not say that people should not be free to practice religion but simply that the government should not be connected to the formation of any particular religion — an important distinction. That official secularism established by our founders is what has allowed a variety of religious traditions to exist together in our country.

As we have seen throughout the history of the world, when a single religion takes over the government of a country, either past or present, a type of religious dogmatism often develops, and that religion can become radicalized. So the danger to religion is not secularism but a fanaticism of belief that makes all religions other than the accepted one anathema and their followers the enemies. And we can see many examples of that kind of religious fundamentalism in our world today. Religion, when combined with politics, often corrupts both.

I believe that a government that respects a variety of religions can remain neutral enough to provide safety for believers and nonbelievers alike. And that is the kind of political system under which I want to live and practice my religious tradition in harmony with those of other religions, recognizing both our common and unique beliefs and practices.

Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford

Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills

La Crescenta

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Rabbi Rosen’s perspective was shared by those who ensured that the boundaries separating church and state are defined in the Constitution.

The 1st Amendment’s declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” was intended to protect freedom of worship while also preventing any single religion from becoming an arm of government. For the most part, this system has worked.

The authors were aware that an unhealthy mix of church and state contributed to devastating conflicts, including the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War. I believe they also understood from those wars that, as Rosen points out, religion can be distorted and believers manipulated to serve evil purposes. As he noted, when religion becomes “an instrument of political power, then it betrays its own message.”

So yes, a secular influence in government is needed to help prevent the misuse of religion. However, that was only half of his equation for a healthy society. He also said that religion provides “moral content and spiritual direction to secular society.” This also is true. As an atheist friend once pointed out to me that the ethical foundations of secular humanism stem, in large measure, from religious teachings. The secular humanist eschews faith in deity while embracing religious concepts of kindness, charity and love.

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This brings us to Rosen’s conclusion that religion and things secular aren’t antithetical. Some like to make the case that they are, but history teaches us that unleavened secularism also has inflicted substantial suffering on the world. Those who doubt this should consider the modern histories of Russia, China, Cambodia and North Korea. We are fortunate to have a system designed to prevent the abuses of extremism by providing a secular government that co-exists with religion, freely practiced by those who believe.

Michael White

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

La Crescenta

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Every facet of life, politics included, is religious. It all has a view of action and behavior related to the philosophical perceptions of any given individual. Is there a God? Do you believe in him? How then, will you order society in light of his divine will? Do you reject God? Then will you govern in a manner that completely dismisses him, along with any input from those who believe he has spoken?

Secular society essentially tries to function without religious input, and the more secularists deny this, the more they are proven false by the imposition of all sorts of immorality and laws for its protection. What will be taught in school, the Petri dish of secularism? Often, it's not only what's contrary to religious thought, but hostile to it and violently opposed to its legitimate consideration. The more secular we become, the less moral, as that which informs societal morality diminishes. If true secularism rules the land, I fear we may well degrade into a once religious nation “under God,” to a pagan nation with a few marginalized religious “nuts” who still believe in all that spooky lore of yesteryear before modern secularism ascended the throne.

Western society, that which brought us to where we are with our freedoms, public education, hospitals and all the goodness of modern civilization, was shaped predominantly by Christianity. Now imagine if an upcoming presidential candidate revealed that his religion was that of Christ, but then said something inane like “Of course, I won't let my religion interfere with my duty as president.” What sort of person is this who believes in a God that he can conveniently dismiss? “I believe in God, I just won't listen to him when I make important decisions.” Is that what we want? Or maybe the candidate runs as an atheist and just says straight out, “I'll govern however I feel like, since there is no higher power to tell me otherwise.” Is that secular governance? Would we be better off kicking God to the curb? We're going to find out.

Rev. Bryan Griem

Montrose Community Church

Montrose

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