Church is Not the State

Editor’s note: Professor Victor Raj composed these thoughts on religion during a recent trip to his native India.

Religions bind people together, to be sure. For millennia, religions have been foundational for various peoples as they live together as families, communities, and societies. In this digital age too, across cultures and across the world, religion is a luring, shared experience for the vast majority of the world’s population. People and nations lean heavily on religious principles for developing worldviews and maintaining their identities. Religions have been tremendously helpful for communities and nations to set standards and showcase their moral and ethical consciousness.

Christianity plays a prominent role in the modern secular democracies primarily in the Western hemisphere. In England, for example, the Queen and Archbishop of Canterbury are honored for their presence and guidance in the government, working with the democratically elected parliament and the prime minister. The chaplaincy in Washington DC brings this awareness closer to home. It simply means that religions will not be erased from any nation’s mind to the extent that nations represent people living together in communities holding onto and projecting their own value systems.

While pluralism and pluralistic spirituality is on the rise everywhere, individual religions and their specific identities are not fading away from the grand scheme of a secular age. At the popular level, religious rituals and regulations, festivals and celebrations, draw people together across the boundaries each specific religious establishment may prescribe for who belongs in the organization.

Christianity has duly emphasized Scripture and doctrine as specific identity markers. However, the world’s other major religions—such as Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Islam—identify their members as belonging in communities rather than subscribing to historic statements of faith. Their religious identities may not be made public unless personal conversations pave the way for such confession. The all-inclusive New Age spirituality is more a matter of the mind than any formally regulated gathering of fellowship and worship in a public space.

Strangers who travel together long distances may start conversations on the weather, sports, economy, politics, et al. And when they are ready to talk religion, they generally try to be inclusive, respectfully accommodating each other’s point of view, at least for the sake of being able to sit next to each other on the plane, train, or automobile. Religious identities generally are not compromised, nevertheless. Travelers make sure that they follows daily rituals rather carefully within the flexibility each tradition allows. Muslims on a plane may not prostrate on a prayer rug to pray, but can complete the ritual simply by remaining in their seats with seatbelts securely fastened.

To be sure, religions borrow from one another and cross-reference music, prayers and patterns of worship and make them their own. Together they create platforms for advocating human equality, social justice, economic freedom, and other common causes that promote peace, equality and prosperity for everyone. Arguably, the world as we know it wouldn’t be the way it is without some form of religious moorings and ethical codes of conduct. In this sense, religion in its most basic sociological form can be a shared experience for those who visualize a moral and ethical society, promising liberty and justice for all. Conversely, religions can become parochial and exclusive, and, unfortunately, in some cases militant, as is evidenced in the case of radicals setting fire to holy places and intentionally taking the lives of worshipers.

Christians have reason to wonder why numerous men and women with means and who were born and brought up in the Christian tradition are falling away from the faith and embracing other religions and spiritualities. Celebrities and sports stars top the list. Other Christians hold an inclusive stance towards other faith traditions, for friendship’s sake and maintaining comradery and companionship. In 1995, several years after he died, some of John Lennon’s remains were brought over to India and deposited in the Ganges, with state honor. Religious experience has its exceptionality for many people.

But in a growing pluralistic world, religions travel with people. Immigrants indigenize their religions in their new domicile in uncompromising ways. For many Hindus in the United States, icy mountains replace the Himalayas, and the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers substitute for the Indus and Ganges. Instead of walking on barefoot, pilgrims may drive or fly to places of pilgrimage. For libation, pasteurized milk and refrigerated fruit substitute for cow milk and fruit from the orchard. There is something to please everyone in a multi-cultural and pluri-religious environment.

Secularization may be affecting all the world’s religions today. Today’s world however is not oblivious to narcissism and religious fundamentalism. Resurgence of religions has been turning some democracies into “religion-states.” The typical Indian citizen wakes up every day to Hindu devotional songs and cannot retire at the end of the day without listening to mantras and incantations. In metropolitan areas cows are let loose and freely run around beating pedestrians and rush-hour traffic. Monkeys have free reign on Main Street as they are sacred for those who strictly follow popular Hindu spirituality. With the Hindutva ideal in mind, several state governments have banned beef consumption at home, and in restaurants and hotels.

In his inaugural address, Yogi Aidthyanath the new Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh promised an inclusive agenda for the state under his leadership. The government will not discriminate against people in the name of caste, religion, and sexual orientation. Yet, the political party he represents has the mandate to claim that every Indian is a Hindu.

In a context like this, it becomes all the more laudable the way Lutheran Christians distinguish church and state.

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