The question posed in the title of this post is pretty fundamental. There are vast differences even inside Christianity about how to answer it. It delineates one of the bigger divides between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants. I am not going to pretend to provide any sort of serious theological answer to it here. However, I am currently reading “Democratic Religion from Locke to Obama: Faith and the Civic Life of Democracy” by Giorgi Areshidze, a work of political philosophy, and needless to say it has a lot of discussion about the role of church in our democracy. I am not far enough into it to render any sort of discussion of the book itself, but it was on my mind when I drove past the single most liberal church in my neighborhood this Saturday past and it occurred to me that as fundamental are the differences between Catholics and Protestant on the title question, the differences are even more fundamental between the Left and the Right.
Stated directly, and of course generally for there is a spectrum here, the Left views church as a place to do good – or at least what they think is good. The Right views church as a place to learn what is good, and for many to be made good. Put another way, the Left assume we are good and views church as an instrument to exercise that good. The Right, by contrast, assumes at a minimum we do not really know what is good, or better that we simply are not good, and that the church is the place where we learn good. The Left subjects the Church to its will; the Right subjects its will to the Church, or in the Protestant view to the deity the Church represents.
It is this last restatement of the basic division where the rub lies politically, for it is the subjugation of the will that the Left contends is both unreasonable and unfree. But that is only true if one assume the will is good. If the will is not good, then it must be subject to something to find good. The Left believes the will of the people adequate to define good. But that strikes this person of the Right as wholly inadequate. If our will is not good, how can it of its own accord define good? Further, the will of people generally cannot possibly be good – there is simply too much evidence to the contrary around us. From the person that ignores traffic laws to almost run me over to the various genocides of history it is a priori evident that good is not the natural state of human will.
Our democracy has traditionally accommodated a vast array of viewpoints, behaviors, and beliefs based on a common agreement of what is good. We have permitted great diversity in the discovery and execution of good, but we have always generally agree on what is good. That is increasingly no longer the case. Slippery slope will take over at some point. I am reminded of the scene in Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov rationalizes his way to murder. Once we believe we have the power to define good and evil anything is possible. No man, even the most evil man you can imagine or encounter believes they are committing evil.
Moreover, we cast many arguments about how to execute good in terms of good and not good. For example, in the debate about redistribution of wealth, no one I know does not believe that we are to take care of the poor – the debate is about how best to do so. Yet I grow weary of being accused of being uncaring (not good) because I do not think forcible redistribution of wealth by governmental means is the best way to accomplish that care. This springs largely from the fact that we no longer know what is good and what is not good. Therefore we tend to cast that which is merely not the best of ideas as actual evil for our own rhetorical advantage. And thus we end up in a self-perpetuating cycle of ever more dogmatic and less reasonable debate. The elimination of religion from our civic discourse, something the Left seeks in an effort to reduce dogmatism in civic discourse, has precisely the opposite effect.
The wisdom of the Founders lies not just in the checks and balances of our constitution, but also in the fact that that constitution allows for checks and balances between the major sources of societal and cultural influence – government, education and religion. Just like the Constitution has become unbalanced in the dictatorial powers the Supreme Court have assumed, so the elimination of religion from our civic discourse threatens to unbalance our society.
What I find most striking is that checks and balances on any level deeply reflects the actual functioning of our universe. The Earth orbits the Sun in a delicate check and balance between the gravity of the Sun and the velocity of the Earth. The tides wax and wane in a delicate check and balance between the gravity of the Earth and that of the Moon. We manufacture things like the device you are viewing this on in the delicate equilibrium (check and balance) of chemical interactions that make a semiconductor. Checks and balances are the created nature of things.
In this state of check and balance chances are good we will never arrive at a definitive answer to the title question of this post for it will shift in check and balance with the other forces in our society and culture. But one thing is for certain – we need the Church regardless of how we define it.