Sunday, April 09, 2006

The "Paul at the Areopagus" Test

Religious conservatives in the US and around the world have become very fond of exerting their explicitly religious interests in the public sphere. To some extent, there is nothing wrong with this. A healthy democracy must give air to all ideas, and if a majority decides that a particular action is warranted -- even if that action is based wholly or in part in a religious perspective -- then that action should be taken, provided, of course, that doing so would not violate certain basic principles of good governance, such as those outlined in the US Constitution or the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR).

But all too often, religious conservatives have chosen to go a step further. Believing, for instance, that homosexuality is as sin, they turn that argument toward the public sphere, arguing that children should not be raised by gay parents because it would harm their children. Or worse, they argue that the threat of homosexuality is so great that even speech on its behalf should be barred.

When does simple advocacy become domination of others? When do religious conservatives start to expand their denunciation of homosexuality to those outside their Church or Mosque? I don't exactly know where the boundary is, but I do know that the initiative's boldness is tied to majority status. The domination of the political landscape by one religion makes the enactment of explicitly religious policy as easy as pie. It is for this reason that we have a Bill of Rights -- sometimes the majority is wrong.

So how do we decide when a religious group, which may or may not be in the majority, is beginning to overstep the bounds of good governance? When, in the course of exercising their basic right to express their grave and resolute concerns over issues of good social policy have they gone too far?

Religious groups express these concerns all the time, and in different ways. The Institute on Religion and Democracy, in their Mission Statement, says this:

History suggests that widespread movements of church reform typically bring social revitalization as well. To the extent that the IRD is successful, we would anticipate beneficial results not only in U.S. churches, but also in the larger society and around the world.

We look toward churches that will re-center themselves on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These churches will proclaim biblical and confessional teachings with authority, holding their leaders accountable to those teachings. At the same time, these churches will recognize that many difficult political questions do not have an authoritative answer. On such matters, our churches should be open to a diversity of Christian views. They should keep any conclusions tentative and open to correction.

Churches re-rooted in the Gospel will bring to bear the great Christian teachings that shape public life. They will fortify civil society against the trends that are eroding it. Such churches will contest all attempts to relegate religious and moral truths to the realm of the purely personal and private. They will teach and demonstrate personal and social responsibility. They will offer their own contributions to addressing social problems, rather than demanding that the state act alone. In particular, such churches will find practical ways to strengthen the vital institution of marriage.

Pope Benedict XVI, on March 30, attended a meeting of the center-right European Popular Party in Rome, where he declared his opposition to a number of social movements, but most importantly defended the Church's right to assert itself in those matters (this just 10 days prior to Italy's general elections, to be held tomorrow).

"Your support for Christian heritage more can contribute significantly to the defeat of a culture that is now fairly widespread in Europe, which relegates to the private and subjective sphere the manifestation of one's own religious convictions," said Pope Benedict.

Pope Benedict called on lawmakers to translate the values of Europe's Christian heritage into policies. By promoting its Christian roots, the pope said, Europe will be able to give a clear direction to the choices of its citizens and peoples, and this will reinforce the awareness of belonging to a common civilization.

Silvio Berluscone said, following Pope Benedicts speech:
"Those, who, in the European Union, refused to accept a reference to the continent's Christian roots in the European constitution did not do a wrong to Christianity and our fathers, but rather did a wrong to our children. ... We do not want them to grow up without a history, without values and without an identity."
Trying to curry favor with the electorate by shaking hands with the Pope, or with Jerry Falwell, is no suprise, but when does this democratically protected and healthy "speech" become unhealthy "policy"? When do our politics become too religious to still be considered unobtrusive on the civil liberties of everyone else?

I want to advance a "test" for that threshold. It's an obscure one, but one that will be familiar to religious conservatives and is interesting to the rest of us. It's exemplified by no greater study in contrasts than the Apostle Paul's visit to Athens. The visit is depicted in the 17th chapter of the Book of Acts, the book of the New Testament that details the actions of the disciples of Jesus after the promised arrival of the Holy Spirit.

Paul was essentially "dropped off" in Athens by his friends, and while he waited there to be joined by others, he preached the Gospel. Overheard by a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, he was asked to join them at a meeting of the Areopagus (anciently a council of Athenian nobles who met on a hill dedicated to Ares).

The curious onlookers asked him to speak about this "foreign god" he preached. Luke notes in verse 21 that "all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas." I quote the relevant passage from the NIV translation (verses 22-34, emphasis mine):
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'

"Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject." At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
Here, Paul makes a clear and unabashed declaration of his faith, a faith that depends on an astounding event (the resurrection of Jesus), and that outlines the way to God to the exclusion of all others. He makes this declaration at the epicenter of ancient democracy, to a crowd accustomed to hearing an endless string of ideas but sticking to none.

But Paul never imposes his beliefs on the Athenian polity. He never forces them to believe, or to enact laws that would require them to do so (it took some time yet for Christianity to become official). Of course, he was in a severe minority at the time, but had he attempted to force them to conform, I guarantee that none would have followed. Yet by their actions many of today's American Christian conservatives -- and their allies elsewhere -- are like Paul going to the Areopagus to perform citizen's arrests. What these conservatives don't realize is that their public calls for conformity are just as impotent among non-believers as Paul's would have been in the Areopagus.

An expression of faith intended to inform the actions of others is well justified, but an expression of faith intended to control the actions of other is neither welcome nor capable of changing hearts and minds.

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