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Nov 6 2007
editorial on church/state in Economist

The Economist has a special issue on religion this month. I think they have an interesting viewpoint on many issues because they are religiously conservative when it comes to financial matters, but generally liberal when it comes to religious matters. (In other words, they are not conservatives in the American sense at all.) And, in regards to religion, they have a very different viewpoint than the US as they have an official state religion, and have also suffered religious terrorism for hundreds of years. (For example, consider Guy Fawkes, who the editors of Economist describe as "a Catholic jihadist".)

Here's a sample of their leading editorial:

For politicians doomed to deal with religion, two lessons stand out—one principled, the other pragmatic. The principle is that church and state are best kept separate. Subsidised religion has seldom made sense for either state or church: witness Europe's empty pews. In some cases, separating the two is easy. In private, people can choose to believe that the world was created exactly 6,003 years ago, but teachers should not be allowed to teach children creationism as science. The state should not tell people whether they can wear headscarves, let alone ban “unauthorised” reincarnation (as China did recently in Tibet). But the line is not always easy to draw: this paper disapproves of publicly financed faith schools, especially ones that discriminate against non-believers, but it also believes in giving poor parents more choice—and in American cities the main alternative to public schools is Catholic ones.

The religion that invades the public square most overtly is Islam: it affords secular power the least respect, teaching that the primary unit of society is the umma, the international brotherhood of believers. At its most theocratic, it forces people to follow sharia laws, sometimes with barbaric penalties. Yet Islam can clearly co-exist with a modern liberal state. For all its failures in the Arab world, democracy has taken root in Malaysia and Indonesia. America's Muslims worship freely and respect its secular constitution—a success the United States should make more of in its foreign policy. But the test case will be Turkey, a secular state currently ruled by Islamists whose progress is being watched with nervous attention.

The pragmatic lesson concerns those wars of religion. Partly because of their obsession with keeping church and state separate, Western powers (and religious leaders) have been too reluctant to look for faith-driven solutions to religious conflicts. Many of those struggles, notably the Middle East, began as secular tribal disputes. Now that they have a religious component they are much harder to solve: if God granted you the West Bank, you are less likely to trade it. “Inter-faith dialogue” may sound a wishy-washy concept; but it is a more realistic idea than presenting a secular peace to competing faiths without the backing of religious leaders. Priests and pastors condemned violence from both sides in Northern Ireland; that has not really happened in the Holy Land.

Atheists and agnostics hate the fact, but these days religion is an inescapable part of politics. Although it is not the state's business “to make windows into men's souls”, it is part of the government's job to prevent grievances from stirring into bloodshed, and fanatics from guiding policy. But it isn't easy. Catholics did not get back into Parliament for 224 years after the Gunpowder Plot. Unless politicians learn to take account of religious feelings and to draw a firm line between church and state, the new wars of religion may prove as intractable.

Nov 8 2007
an economist poll

I was looking around the Economist's website after reading your post and I found a survey that might be of interest to people here. It asked Americans the usual questions, like "would you vote for an atheist?" but breaks the answers down into Republicans and Democrats.

You can see the whole thing here in the form of a graph, but I'll just tell you about the ones I thought you'd want to know:

Is sex between unmarried people immoral?

20% of Dems said "yes" vs 50% of Republicans

Do you oppose gay marriage?

25% of Dems said "yes" vs 80% of Republicans

Would you consider voting for an atheist?

50% of Dems said "yes" vs about 18% of Republicans

(I should say, all of these figures are estimates from me just trying to read the bar charts)

Should creationism be taught in schools?

55% of Dems said "yes" vs over 80% of Republicans

Finally, one that is not so religious:

Was it a mistake to invade Iraq?

over 80% of Dems said "yes" vs less than 20% of Republicans

I'm surprised by some of these figures. I was under the impression that there was greater agreement about the stupidity of our decision to invade Iraq. I had no idea that SO many Americans want to see creationism taught in school, or that even 25% of Democrats have trouble with the idea of gay marriage. We're a crazier country than I thought!

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