Submitted by Marvin Miller
Religions and governments are involved in ethics: they tell people, by commandments, laws, etc., what they want people to regard as the right thing to do.
Religion and government have always been entangled with each other. In ancient times there was no distinction between them. Over time, specialization occurred; the people who led the societies’ religious rituals were not the same people as those who conducted its civil and military affairs. This separation didn’t happen all at once. Even today in our own society, religious leaders are authorized by governments to conduct ceremonies that change the legal marital status of couples.
Where different people have authority, conflict can arise over who has authority over what. An example appears Sophocles’s play Antigone, in which the central character has a conflict between the king’s orders and what she regards as her religious duty. Another example is the Biblical “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” The obvious implication is that these are different.
In most countries, governments declare a particular religion to be the country’s official religion. Britain is officially Protestant, Israel is officially Jewish, Iran is officially Islamic, etc. Wars were fought over which religion would be the country’s official religion. The men who founded the United States were well aware of this and wanted none of it in their country. The United States was the first country with a constitution that prohibited an establishment of religion. But many people in our country, including some in high places, don’t like this idea. They want their religion to be our nation’s official religion.
The pregnancy/contraception/abortion issue is currently the most contentious ethical question involving religion and government in our country. Organized religion-based political forces are using government power to impose their ethical views on everyone. Lip service to liberty is general among us, but on this question, many powerful people come down on the side of government authority to impose their own religious views, and against individual liberty. “My body, my choice” was a sign often seen in the January 2017 women’s marches.
Immigration is another hot issue. Competition for employment opportunity may be the underlying motivation for hostility toward immigrants and immigration, but the basis for this hostility is often framed in terms of religion. The Irish and Italians were targeted based on their Catholicism, and Jews were targeted based on their religion. Today the religious targets are Muslims.
Religious diversity in a society weakens the powers of religious authorities to impose their ethical views. They react against this weakening using whatever means are available to them, including their influence on government. To the extent that they are successful, people who are not their willing subjects are reduced to inferior status and suffer adverse consequences.
The peaceful coexistence of people with diverse religious views depends on the continued existence of freedom of religion and the separation of religious authority, which applies to the members of a religion, from government authority, which applies to everyone in a society