June 10th, 2012

The Fusion of Church and State

photo credit: Ian Sane

The state’s steady interventions into the lives of those who it seeks to control are rarely checked and constantly occurring. Whether the issue is food production, drug use, automobile manufacturing, education quality, firearms, health care, business licensure, or any number of other areas of life, the flaxen cords of the state loosely encircle themselves around each person, slowly tightening. Only a relative few recognize and object to this trend.

On the matter of religion, however, the opposition is sometimes more vocal and visible. When the state steps on the toes of the churches, some ecclesiastical leaders will inevitably and rightfully squeal. Consider the federal government’s recent imposition of a health care mandate through bureaucratic fiat, requiring religious institutions to offer birth control products to their employees as part of their health care plans. The government paid lip service to religious liberty in supposedly trying to “strike the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventative services,” yet pressed forward in its ruthless attack on religious belief by requiring that churches fund something with which they may doctrinally object.

Every Catholic bishop in the United States of America objected. Baptists considered it “a frontal attack on our religious liberty.” Lutherans called it “an infringement upon the beliefs and practices of various religious communities.” (My church was silent from this strong chorus of church-based opposition.) As is evident from these and many more statements like them, religious reaction to the state’s overreach can be firm and (allegedly) unwavering.

The interference of church by the state is better seen in other countries where state-sanctioned religious institutions are directly funded by tax dollars. The latest intervention comes from one such country, Denmark, where that country’s parliament voted last week to require that homosexuals be entitled to marriage within the "official" Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Social media exploded in the days following this announcement amongst conservative Christians, fearing that this development will accelerate an ongoing trend whereby governments around the world, including America, impose mandates upon churches that run afoul of their faith’s tenets. This fear is well placed. Unfortunately, most people incorrectly diagnose the underlying problem, believing that the government should uphold their definition of morality (or their interpretation of God’s definition). In the example of Denmark, such persons believe that the government should do something about marriage, but that that “something” should be the opposite of what they disagree with. Few entertain the notion that the correct solution is getting the government out of the marriage business altogether.

Of course, Denmark’s example is not directly comparable to events in America, since no “official” church exists, and therefore the temptation for the state to intervene occurs on a more subtle level. But examples like the birth control mandate show that even where such a separation between church and state exists, the state views itself as a God over gods, to regulate religion as best it sees fit (even if offering verbal deference to “balance”). Further, it shows the danger of allowing the state to have such influence over religion, for as its influence increases, so does its perceived authority and justification to enact even more controls.

And so, the faithful are defensively digging in their heels. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decried the recent “needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions…” Multi-congregational rallies are being planned and carried out to oppose the state’s attack on “religious freedom.” Conferences are held to discuss the threat of the state against churches.

But is the blame for the attacks on religious freedom to be placed entirely upon the shoulders of the state? Or have the faithful unnecessarily exposed themselves to the interventions they so despise?

Consider the heated battle over the very definition of marriage. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent, hundreds of thousands of man hours exhausted, and no shortage of hot air expended in the public square, all in order to debate and defend God’s definition of marriage. But this unfailingly controversial fight would not be necessary had churches rejected the licensure and regulation of marriage to begin with. Only in the past century has the government’s permission slip been required in order to participate in a private, personal, and religious ceremony—marriage.

Imagine the hellfire and brimstone that churches around the country would call down upon state capitols were the government to require licensure and regulation of baptism. And yet, they have over the years permitted and propped up a system that turns a religious sacrament (marriage) into a government-regulated process, thus implicitly justifying the government’s apostasy from its proper role, which is only to protect the life, liberty, and property of those who have affiliated with it.

Similarly, the very ability of preachers around the country to pound their pulpits and issue commentary on matters they deem important has also been restricted through IRS rules, smothered with bureaucratic intimidation and harassment. In exchange for tax exemption, churches have for the past several decades surrendered their freedom of speech. Fortunately, some are pushing back.

But churches can’t have it both ways. They reap what they have sowed, either through acts of commission or omission. They must sleep in the bed they’ve made with the state, and complaints against government control in religious matters are disingenuous when those persons ignored or consented to government control over things with which they agreed. By rendering too much to Caesar, they increasingly find themselves less able to render to God.

When people surrender control over something to the government and champion its exercise of that power in a way they prefer, they have little right to object when the current of public opinion (inevitably) shifts in a different direction, leading that power to fall into the hands of those who use it in a way that they do not prefer. Never give a power to your friend that you wouldn’t want your enemy to have.

A clear and compelling view on the matter of church and state comes from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ official declaration of belief regarding government, which states that “we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.”

Getting the government out of religious matters requires consistency across the board, and not selective objections which tolerate or welcome one form of control (marriage) while objecting to another (birth control). The strength of churches around the country stems not from having laws enacted which support their doctrine, but from their independence of the state altogether. In short, protecting religious freedom will be best achieved by extricating the state completely from all religious practices and processes.

22 Responses to “The Fusion of Church and State”

  1. Ron Adair
    June 10, 2012 at 11:03 pm #

    Mosiah Chapter 26 in the Book of Mormon pretty much sums it up.

    Great article, Connor.

  2. Liz
    June 11, 2012 at 1:49 am #

    This particular government was formed, to protect the institutions that created the little lives of those, that laid the foundation of this government. One of those institutions was traditional marriage. Of course our government should respect that. It would be ridiculous for government to ignore marital ties and family formation. Or to create a parity between modern sexual alliances, and traditional marriage. Unions involving something other than one deeply committed man and woman, are inferior. A solid society cannot be built on them. Name me one success story. Just what I thought.

  3. outside the corridor
    June 11, 2012 at 7:12 am #

    good article, Connor.

  4. Gary
    June 11, 2012 at 7:56 am #

    Liz, your thoughts are likely shared by many, but just because the government removes its support for an institution, in this case marriage, doesn’t mean the institution will be worse off. In fact, there’s good reason to believe it will be better off.

    It’s likely that many people shared similar concerns to yours when governments were removing their support for state-sanctioned religions. People would have argued that society would suffer unless true religion was promoted by government because bad, evil belief systems would spread. History has born out that when governments stopped promoting a state religion through compulsion, good religion flourished by spreading through persuasion. The United States is my foremost example. Bad, evil, religions are allowed to exist, but they fail to persuade the masses.

    Also, consider how you dramatically lessen the influence of the gay-rights movement by removing this “war” of marriage outside of the realms of government. The gay-rights movement is not really after a certain definition of marriage. Instead, what these people really want is the awesome and compulsive power of government affirming them as a belief system, movement and identity. They are like a religion who wants to be the official state religion. Remove that possibility, by denying them the chance of changing the definition of marriage for everyone, and they are left like unto what they should have been all along—a very small minority religion that must spread its tenets by persuasion and proselyting. Their “religion”, once it has to fend for influence by persuasion, like any other, is just not that attractive.

  5. Joe
    June 11, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    “By rendering too much to Caesar, they increasingly find themselves less able to render to God.”

    No man (or Church) can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye (and the Church) cannot serve God and mammon. – Matt 6:24

  6. AV
    June 11, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    God created marriage and only God can make the rules for it.

    Only God can dissolve a marriage, no politician or judge has that power, thus all divorce decrees are invalid to God, the couples are still married, thus why Christ said remarriage is adultery, except in cases of fornication (which is different than adultery).

    All of man’s laws and decrees can’t change God’s mind or stance on the issue.

    God’s laws always trump man’s laws.

    Man’s laws have no validity if contrary to God’s laws.

    We can lose our exaltation by supporting man’s laws if they are contrary to God’s laws.

  7. Nick
    June 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    Great article here.

    Although I’m still not convinced that you can completely disconnect government from morality. Marriage and family are the building blocks of society, and I’m not sure how society will work if our government is completely neutral to that fact.

    Unfortunately, in today’s world that might be our best option, irregardless of my opinion.

  8. jimz
    June 11, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

    How do you intend on removing all the benefits of marriage by removing any governement regulation? What about inheritance laws, tax implications, child custody, visitation rights etc…. It sounds like a major overhaul of a lot of legal issues around marriage in general if its not legally regulated.

    The most interesting thing about what you said is ironic. It WILL redefine marriage for everyone. Actually what you are proposing will do that more than what marriage equality advocates could have ever hoped for. You are misguided if you think homosexuality is a religion.

  9. Andrea
    June 11, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    Hmm… I’ll shamelessly self-promote my musings on the subject : http://anchiosonpittore.blogspot.com/2012/03/voice-of-people-on-behalf-of-one.html

    I like your idea of getting the government out of our religious sacraments, but isn’t marriage also supposed to be a contract? Isn’t that one of the two valid purposes of government? Of course, most marriages today don’t LOOK like a contract. Divorce rates might look different if marriage required reading and signing a detailed contract. Lots to think about.

    jimz has me thinking on another note. I had an interesting conversation about “gay rights” a while back. I was genuinely curious as to what the big deal was. My marriage is a deeply personal, religious, and spiritual commitment. If my church did not recognize my marriage I would feel devastated, but if the state didn’t recognize it I’m not sure that I’d care. It is much more important to me to have a temple marriage than a legal one. I was referred to a website with a list of laws that “discriminate”. There were three categories (my classification): the “So what?”s, the “That can be fixed with private contracts, no problem”s, and the “That law sounds completely immoral and I can’t believe that anyone, gay or straight stands for it!”s. I think the same thing would apply to the general concept of getting government out of marriage.
    I seem to recall statements from the Church that the government getting out of marriage would be a Bad Thing, (actually I just remember feeling disturbed when I heard it reported that they said it–anyone have actual links out there?) but it does seem logical to me.

  10. Believe All Things
    June 11, 2012 at 10:17 pm #

    Statecraft as priestcraft…

  11. Gary
    June 11, 2012 at 11:58 pm #


    If government didn’t advocate a particular definition of marriage, then you’re right that marriage would continue to have legal consequences. In such a system, marriage would be a private agreement or contract between two (or more) people and so people would be wise to spell out the particularities of their agreement in a formal contract before getting married. When disputes and ambiguities arise regarding the contract, State courts would have to settle these contractual disputes just like they do any other kind of contract when the parties can’t work them out themselves. I would imagine several standard marriage contractual templates would emerge which people could then modify according to their particular wants and needs. People could debate which of these contractual arrangements were superior, but none of them would be state promoted.

    Regarding your next points, you haven’t given me any reasons to back up your claims. Please provide them. If government went from the current state of advocating a particular definition of marriage (the present state) to being neutral toward competing definitions of marriage (what I propose) how would that redefine marriage for everyone, and how would that give same-sex marriage advocates more than they could have ever hoped for?

    Regarding your last point, please look carefully at what I was saying and not saying. I try to use words precisely. I didn’t say “homosexuality” was a religion. I said the “gay rights movement” was “like unto” (in other words it shares characteristics worthy of comparison) a religion. Homosexuality, which I wasn’t talking about, and the gay rights movement, which I was talking about, are very different things. The gay rights movement is like unto a religion in some regards in that it is a belief system based on principles which people adhere to and which usually comprise a very significant part of these people’s identity. My point is that it is not the role of government to promote such belief systems (whether religions or other similar non-religious systems) through its compulsive power, and these should have to promote themselves through persuasion.

  12. MuchoBrento
    June 12, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Gary… you’re spot on, IMO. I liked your comparison of the gay rights movement to state sponsored religion.

  13. jimz
    June 12, 2012 at 3:00 pm #

    Thank you for the clarification, your post #4 sounded like you didn’t want any government supported marriage. The contract idea with different templates for needs and desires sort of already exists, especially with prenuptial agreements.

    Marriage has evolved and developed through its history, everyone seems to think that its been static, and thats not the case. Peoples understanding of it has changed over time. Its been redefined several times. The contract idea is good, and would qualify as ‘equality’ as long as there is not two or more ‘levels’ of marriage. Or actual marriage and an approximation of marriage.

    The phrase ‘like unto’ is a very commonly used phrase in LDS scripture, and its use could be very easily misunderstood. Its almost like saying something IS something else, very very close. Your explanation didn’t really clarify any distinction. You mention belief system, identity, adherence and principles. Sounds like religion or something very close to it. I don’t see that. I don’t see what the belief system is for the gay rights movement. I don’t really see any of that around hetrosexuality either, but maybe a comparison could be made. It could be an identity, there can be a belief system around it, principles and adherence? those two I don’t get, but thats possible. Still I don’t understand the comparison.

  14. jimz
    June 12, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    I think you have it backwards. The government isn’t in your religious sacrament, but perhaps your religion is in the instiution of marriage, and wants to keep its hand and influence in it via the goverment. But its blind to one aspect of marriage as it currently exists, an atheist can legally marry as long as its between a man and a woman. So its not necessarily a religious sacrament. Not every church or religion has the intent that the lds do for temple marriages either.

  15. Andrea
    June 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    For me, it was a religious sacrament. And, yes, I had to get permission from the state of Illinois before I could participate in this religious sacrament in the temple. I agree that for many people marriage has nothing to do with religion or sacraments, or even contracts (in which case I don’t really see why they bother, but that’s their life and their decision), but I’m not sure I’m understanding your point.

  16. Gary
    June 12, 2012 at 10:08 pm #


    I agree, “like unto” was bad word choice on my part. What I was trying to convey was simply that I think the gay-rights movement shares some important characteristics with a religion, but at the same time it certainly lacks others.

    I’ll make one more attempt to explain why I think the gay rights movement shares some similar characteristics with a religion. Take the point that I think the two share a belief system. Underlying the gay rights movement, in general, are a great many beliefs. There are beliefs about the dignity of people, beliefs about the nature of love, beliefs about the nature of equality, morality, sexuality and other things. Religions tend to have their own set of beliefs about these same topics.

    Regarding identity, most religious people see their religious faith as comprising a core part of who they are as people. For example, ask any member of the LDS church the question, “who are you”, and you’re likely to hear “I’m a Mormon,” somewhere near the beginning of their answer. I see the same thing in many members of the gay-rights movement, especially if they are also gay. Especially for the gay members of the movement, being gay is much more than a different kind of sexual attraction. I find they often see it as comprising perhaps the most important part of who they are. Their belief and participation in the movement similarly comprises a core part of their identity.

    By adherence, what I perhaps meant most was “dedication.” People devote great amounts of time, money, and resources into both religions and the gay-rights movement, usually with no explicit compensation.

    With regard to principles, on second glance I guess I was pretty much alluding to the same thing as belief system.

  17. Gary
    June 12, 2012 at 10:13 pm #

    Sorry jimz, one more clarification, and then I’ll be done. I said in my most recent post that I think religion and the gay rights movement “share a belief system.” That’s not what I mean to say. I meant to say they are similar in that they both have belief systems, but I want to be clear that I don’t think they share the same systems. Ok I’m done.

  18. outside the corridor
    June 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

    I never did understand how any government could have any right to control or regulate marriage.

    State sponsored religions ‘taxed’ marriages, which made common-law marriage (cohabitation) extremely common in many European countries from the 1700s to the 1800s–

    in fact, often only those with money could marry, because the ‘peasants’ couldn’t afford to pay for the church/state-regulated process.

    Often those who legally married considered themselves free (male and female) to engage in extra-marital relationships–

    and the peasants who ‘married’ by simple agreement outside of the government-sanctioned church or church-sanctioned government office–

    were much more conservative in their ideas of fidelity–

    civil marriages were usually just a means of connecting families and providing ‘legality’ for children; they had very little to do with morality.

  19. Jean Piere Peralta
    June 13, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    It’s because they opposed polygamy.

    Since the people of the U.S. gave the power to the government to abolish polygamy (man-multiple women of marriage), the government now is using that power to abolish marriage (man-women marriage; what the people accepted as marriage, and imposed upon the Latter-Day Saints.) Now, the governments, or rather the small minority within government (Mosiah 29:26), is seeking to destroy what we currently accept as marriage into something completely different and false to Christian core beliefs (same-sex marriage.)
    One should have never gave that power to the government, the power to define marriage, for it can be abused by men (Mosiah 29:12.) If this keeps up, there will be consequences (Mosiah 29:27)

  20. AV
    June 13, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Polygamy has always been unconstitutional, and abusive of women’s equal rights in marriage.

    It was right that the government have power to protect traditional ‘God sanctioned marriage’ and protect society from polygamy, which true prophets like Joseph Smith called a ‘whoredom’.

    We have to study and believe Joseph’s own testimony & scriptures he left us about polygamy, not the vile hearsay of others, especially those who like polygamy, that accuses him of the very thing he fought and warned so hard against his whole life.

    The Constitution gives the government the power to uphold God’s laws and see that they are respected.

    Ancient Prophets taught and along with Joseph Smith, that polygamy is a vile evil and God has never allowed it in any form and never will.

    Women should be protected from polygamy by the government.

    So the government does have a right and role in protecting ‘marriage’ according the the laws of God.

  21. Jimz
    June 13, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    Thank you for your thoughful response. I will have to read it a few more times. Something to reflect upon.

  22. jimz
    June 13, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    Jean Piere Peralta,
    Marriage equality is about expanding marriage to make it more inclusive. Its kind of sad if you think its about destroying something for someone else. Why did the government ever endorse a christian concept of marriage in the first place? (if that is what it ever was?)

    There are a few other points around marriage which might have been missed if marriage is just between a man and a woman. Most of these are cultural, and may or may not be supported by scripture of various religions.

    These are changes which are more accepted than what used to be. It used to be much more taboo to mix races in marriage. Most religions forbid the marriage between a believer and a non-believer. Marriage between closely related people, in some places this is illegal, and some places it is not. There is also age of consent. For some cultures children may be technically married off with litle or perhaps without any consent whatsoever, and certainly under age by western standards.

    I find that kind of strange that same sex marriage is singled out, whereas these other issues may have just as much bias, and be less than ideal for marriage in some peoples eyes.

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