Friday, September 23, 2011

Is God above the Constitution?

That's the title of a very interesting article on Peter Berger's blog at The American Interest. Here's an excerpt.

Is fealty to God to be placed above fealty to the constitution? Every serious Christian, Jew, or for that matter Muslim, would answer with a resounding yes! To answer otherwise would be guilty of a terrible sin in all three Abrahamic religions—the sin of idolatry. The very first of the Ten Commandments reads: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods beside me.”

It seems quite clear that a democracy, which guarantees freedom of religion, will have to accept this answer and its open expression, unless it is used to legitimate actions (not just speech) which violate the law. And even then, democracy (at least in its American version) will be inclined to make concessions to religious beliefs that induce illegal actions. It is useful to recall that Martin Luther King was inspired by his Christian faith to violate what was then the law in Southern states. American democracy has accorded a right of conscientious objection to religiously inspired pacifists, and currently seems on the way to allowing Catholic hospitals an exemption from performing publicly funded abortions or other procedures deemed contrary to Catholic morality. King has become a democratic icon despite (and for many, because of) his advocacy of civil disobedience. It is even useful to recall that German democracy has made an icon of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was motivated by his Christian faith to join the conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi tyranny by violent means. Both King and Bonhoeffer died as martyrs to the belief that God is above human law.

. . .

Democracy in any pluralistic society (which means practically everywhere) means that the boundary between sacred and profane realms will be ever shifting, ever in need of re-interpretation and re-negotiation.

The implication for American democracy is very simple: The constitution is not a sacred text. It has proved to be an amazingly durable and supple artifact. But it is a human artifact. Its core values are in part (and only in part) derived from Biblical religion, but these have been embraced by adherents of other religions, as well as by agnostics and atheists. This constitution can be respected, admired, even loved. It should not be worshipped.

More at the link. Italic print is Mr. Berger's emphasis.

The author makes some very good points, and highlights an ongoing conflict in US politics. I don't agree with all he says, but he certainly provides enough food for thought to get an interesting debate under way. Recommended reading.



Unknown said...

The article drove me up a tree. It would probably be weeks before I sort out a coherent response, but in this case I'd rather forget it altogether. (After a few random points.)

Fealty? Who "worships" the Constitution? Sure it's man-made. So is religion. We all choose our personal priorities, and if we're smart, we are mindful of the consequences of acting on those priorities. King, Bonhoeffer and also Jesus, chose God over the law; they all knew the consequences and did it anyway.

What Berger fails to clarify is that the Constitution protects our right to honor God. When honoring a god means violating others' rights, we must each make a personal choice: disobey our god and go to Hell, or disobey the Constitution and go to jail. We cannot stop individuals from violating the rights of others (usually,) we can only punish them. We can, however, stop the laws from violating rights, BECAUSE of the Constitution.

"...the boundary between sacred and profane realms will be ever shifting..." Also, water is wet. Is it news to Berger that religion influences the decisions of religious people, politicians included? Is he aware that the U.S. is NOT a democracy, but a representative republic? With "checks and balances," which protect us from the oppression of pure majority rule?

I am a Christian, yet I despise most of what "Christianity" represents. I will give the church points on one issue: Christian churches that display flags, do so with the American flag above the Christian flag. This is not because they put the government above God, but because they're smart enough to understand that the U.S. Constitution guarantees them the right to fly the Christian flag at all.

You are correct in your statement that "he certainly provides enough food for thought to get an interesting debate under way." Sadly, I suspect it won't be much of a debate; it will most likely be a series of highly polarized emotional rants, as he avoids the logical facts surrounding most of his statements. Standard modern editorial "journalism" - toss out a bunch of inflammatory comments, don't outline the logic behind them, and watch the ensuing circus. I'm sure Washington is grateful for yet another red herring, drawing our attention away from real issues.

Anonymous said...

I choose to believe in God.

I swore an oath to defend and protect the Constitution.

God knows there is no conflict therein.


Jenny said...

"The Constitution isn't a sacred text."

So what's his point?

That there's tension between duty to God and civil law? Fascinating observation... tell it to Antigone.
(Or that crazy preaching carpenter from Bethlehem, for that matter)

So then again - what's his point? Why state the plainly obvious like it's some kind of revelation or profound political point?

My guess - 'cause he doesn't want the Constitution to mean what it says, or what the guys who *wrote* it said that it meant.

It doesn't have to be sacred to be a profound piece of work - and *certainly* the minds that made it were more disciplined and better educated that most of those that criticize it today.

Anonymous said...

I'm not quite sure I understand Mr. Berger's point either. To be honest, I think he really misses the point of the question "Does [candidate] put their religious beliefs above the constitution." The question has nothing to do with the personal actions of the candidate in question. If the president wants to forbid drinking in his house and pre-marital sex, or the president wants all his wives and daughters to wear coverings about their faces, that is as the saying goes, between him (or her) and God.

However, the moment the president wants to take those religious laws and make them legal laws, or the moment the president wants to elevate his own status as above the law on some religious claim, then we have an issue.

Mr. Berger discusses the civil advocacy of MLK, but it is very important to realize that MLK did not (in so far as I understand) see himself as above the law. Nor did he ask for concessions in his violations of the law based on their religious backing.

The law is the law, and people have an obligation to change it or even disobey it when it is wrong or immoral, but that does not give them a pass from the consequences of that violation.

If a candidate can not make that distinction, and hold apart their responsibilities and duties as a law maker and as a human being, then they have no business being in office. In fact, I would strongly argue that the blurring of that line is the precise reason we are in such a bad situation with out politics as we are. Too many politicians don't make the distinction between legal obligation and moral obligation, and where and how each should be applied.

The law must be executed as the law, and kept separate from the religious obligations you may also have. It is the only way to ensure that people will be free to exercise those religious obligations. I understand that there are always very complex grey areas here, but it is only in the most specific cases that we should ever allow religion to override the law.

Anonymous said...

"Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." Matthew 22:21
I think anyone who is a follower of the Abrahamic faiths and is a believer in democractic Republics or even non-theocratic monarchies has, or should have, considered this question. The hard thing is figuring out which is which, and accepting the consequences both positive and negative (as MLK did, he never protested getting arrested as far as I know). Following that commandment may lead to transgressions against both laws, that has to be accepted as well. To paraphrase another quote: 'This is what I am, this is what I have done; judge me as is your right, my right is to stand by what I have done.' (following which is where the whole thing plunges off into discussions of sin, mercy, forgiveness, and so forth ad infinitum)

Cormac said...

I was just about to quote the Caesar verse...
There is no conflict. Free will should dictate that you live and let live, rather than attempt to conquer, either physically or spiritually, those who disagree with you.

"Every serious Christian, Jew, or for that matter Muslim, would answer with a resounding 'Where's the conflict'?!"