State Accountable to Church?

A few years ago I was back in Norway at a national conference on separating state and church – Norway’s constitution declares the Lutheran faith to be the state’s religion. I entered the conference hall very clear in my own Quaker mind that the ties between state and church had to be severed. The conference hall was filled with representatives of all denominations and faiths and there were experts on constitutional matters and freedom of religion from all over Europe. Imagine my surprise when a researcher from England declared that after consulting Muslims all over the United Kingdom, they came out in favor of continuing the Anglican Church’s role of state church in their country! Followed by a representative of Norway’s Islamic Council expressed his support for keeping the Lutheran church as the state church in Norway! Their point was simple: they feared that breaking the ties between state and church would lead to a government and society that is not required to consider and justify its policies in a moral and religious framework.

Dear reader, I went home and rethought everything I thought I knew about state and church. To a Norwegian Quaker, and I think to most Americans, many of whom came to the USA to escape religious persecution, the very idea of a state religion is anathema. We think of the state or politicians using the church to achieve its political goals. But what if, as the thoughtful Muslim leaders at the conference saw it, the roles were reversed and the church were to hold the state accountable for moral decision-making?

As I went home in a state of confusion, I realized that they had a point. This conference took place in September 2003, soon after the US invasion of Iraq. As I looked back to the public debate in the USA, Norway, and in the UK leading up to the war, I realized there were striking differences in the way the discussion unfolded in the three places. I think the role of the church was an important factor in the ways these differences played out.

Before I start to characterize and compare the public debate and the church’s role in it in the three respective countries, I want to assure my reader that my conclusion is not going to be that Norway is superior to the USA or that the USA adopt a state church. Perhaps quite the contrary. What I do want to do (as Third Culture Kids like me are wont to do since we have lived outside several cultures and compare and contrast their respective solutions) is to see whether the state-church model can give us ideas on how the church is called to be present in politics in ANY country with a Christian history (I regretfully don’t know enough about countries with an Islamic or other religious history to try to draw lessons from those models). I also want to say up front that as a Quaker I am a pacifist, and my statements assume that war is the wrong answer to any problem. This comes from my religious convictions, not from a political stance. 

In the USA, the discussion on whether or not to go to war was about keeping the USA safe and the patriotic duty to rally behind the President and Commander-in-Chief during a time of war. Church leaders went both ways, some questioning war, but my impression was that more supported it either based on patriotism or “just war” theory. A majority of Americans supported going to war. Those who tried to question the ethics of war were labeled as unpatriotic, and so the cost to those church leaders who opposed the war was high. I stand in awe of their courage.

In the UK, safety was an issue, but my highly subjective impression of the way the discussion went was that there also was a strong note of pragmatism and a religious and ethical discussion of pre-emptive war and the cost of war to Iraqi civilians. The Archbishop of Canterbury, as leader of the Church of England, and most other churches came out against the war. I don’t recall “just war” coming into the discussion at all, and I’m quite sure that politicians didn’t use religion to promote the war. The majority of the population was against the government’s decision to ally with the USA and invade Iraq.

In Norway, it was all about the morality – or lack thereof – of pre-emptive war and the price civilians pay when a war is fought in their country. The government, the state church, the “free churches”, and the population were about as united as can be – publicly – about opposing the war. I later learned to my dismay that the Norwegian government had signed Norway up as an anonymous member of the Coalition of the Willing and provided night vision goggles, munitions, and other supplies to the USA and the UK for the invasion. So Norway cannot be said to have opposed the war, but due to pressure from the church and the population, Norway’s government could not openly support the war. Norwegian politicians do not use religious motivation for a political stance – that is simply not done. They do speak in ethical terms, but it would be considered a violation if they were to speak of God on one side or another of a political issue.

I think the state church and all the other churches failed in Norway, failed because they took the Norwegian government’s criticism of the Iraq war at face value (perhaps trusting the prime minister more than they should have because he was an ordained Lutheran pastor representing the Christian Democratic Party), rather than maintaining pressure on the Norwegian government and being suspicious of what might be happening out of the public eye. Given Norway’s history of alignment with the UK and USA and its pattern of supporting countries that can help keep the European Union’s power in check (Norway is one of only two western European countries not to join the EU), there was every reason to be suspicious that the Norwegian government might be saying one thing in public, yet doing something completely different in secret.

To summarize, in the European state church model, the church becomes in many ways a Fifth Estate (the media being the Fourth Estate). The model allows religious leaders to hold politicians morally  accountable – although religious leaders often choose not to use their power. This Fifth Estate model prevents politicians from using religion for partisan political purposes – politicians are banned from speaking for God, that is the exclusive domain of church leaders. 

Query for prayerful consideration:

How might my church find moral authority – in the absence of a formalized channel of influence – to hold politicians accountable to moral and ethical decision-making? How might my church claim religious language as its domain and remove religious manipulation from a politician’s toolbox? And how might my church be both “innocent as a dove and wily as a serpent” in ensuring that my government lives up to its professed values?   

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One Response to “State Accountable to Church?”

  1. Johan Says:

    We received some similarly counterintuitive (from the liberal US point of view) comments from Muslims in Ramallah when the Friends Schools were going through a difficult period some years ago. According to the comments, these Muslims wanted the schools to be firmly Christian and Quaker and not to drift into a vaguely secular identity or become enmeshed in a Christian-Muslim tug-of-war.


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