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Separation of God and politics

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 2 March 2005

There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Pope Gelasius I, 494.

A series of events have placed God firmly on the Australian political agenda: Peter Costello’s visit to Hillsong Church during the last election; the appearance of the abortion debate courtesy of Tony Abbott and others; and the contrast between Mark Latham’s atheistic libertarianism and Kevin Rudd’s Anglicanism. There has also been an outbreak of hysteria around the prospect of the importation of an American-style “Religious Right” in the form of the new Family First Party.

In our tradition the separation between church and state has always existed in one form or another. When Israel yearned for a King to rule over them “like the nations” the tradition of the priest or prophet was not abandoned but carried on with the monarchy. Thus the first King Saul had his Samuel and the second, David his Nathan. It was the prophet’s task to ensure that the King walked in the ways of the Lord. Nathan lived in David’s own household and confronted him with his murder of Uriah and his adultery with Bathsheba.


This tradition of two rules, one secular and one sacred, was carried down into the tradition of the West: Henry II had his Thomas Beckett and Henry VIII his Thomas Moore. Even though the relationship between King and priest was often troubled, the priest was never thought superfluous and the church never sought to take over government. So the West has never experienced a real theocracy. The Roman Church of the 11th century with its elaborate court structure, and Calvin’s Geneva are examples in which the boundary between sacred and secular rule were blurred but never erased.

The problem of dissolving the two arms of government into the sacred and therefore producing a theocracy is that we lose the conversation between the secular and the eternal. The secular is a justified realm: It is the realm of the present dealings with the world and should not be taken as a pejorative. The sacred, or the eternal, is that body of knowledge and practice about the nature of humanity and the world derived, in our case, from the experiences of Israel and the church. This is of a different order to that of secular expertise that is grounded in the present. Theocracies will find themselves at a distance from secular expertise, which is why they will tend to become dysfunctional be they communist theocracies or ones based on a world religion. On the other hand purely secular government will find itself distanced from the wisdom of the ages and will make entirely pragmatic decisions that will tend to dehumanise.

Alas, in our day, at least in Australia, the idea of the separation between church and state has been taken to mean that religion should be kept out of politics. There is the idea abroad that government should be neutral, that its role is entirely secular. “Secular” here is understood to be worldly, to do with the mechanics of running the country even though the government has to deal with issues that are obviously moral, like the treatment of refugees, the care of the poor and the sick, and the waging of war. There is no such thing as a morally neutral budget. There can be no neutral treatment of moral issues, each politician will bring his or her own religious ideas to an issue, atheism being just as much a religious stance as any other.

There are many putative reasons that some insist that politics must be separated from religion, perhaps the most obvious being that religion is seen to be irrational. Since public life should be based on the rational, religious persuasion must be kept in the private sphere where it can do the least harm. This argument has been left over from the time of the ascendancy of natural science and the subsequent critique of religious belief. We must admit that this critique was potent when applied to the existence of the supernatural, miracles and the afterlife. However, what we may call mainstream theology has seen past this critique to a substrate that does not rely on such ephemera and which exposes a reality not readily obtained by reason alone.  While dealing with the ancient texts of the Bible with due seriousness, modern scholarship does not let their context limit them. Just because the ancients believed in nature miracles does not mean that we should and does not empty the texts of their core meaning.

Unfortunately this understanding requires some careful consideration, as does our attitude to the past and present troubles of the church. To see the core meaning we have to look past the regrettable forms that the church has taken, violence that was fermented in the name of God, coercive practices that deny the nature of faith and minds closed by imposed authority. There has been too much “pray, pray and obey”. These are the things that spring to mind when many think of the involvement of religion in politics.

But there is another side that is rarely acknowledged, the whole structure of Western culture built on an egalitarianism that only Christianity was able to produce. Place alongside this our institutions that foster honesty in public work and service, a legal system that is not just founded on vengeance, protection of the marital bond and the care of the disadvantaged in society and we have a very sound argument for the positive outcomes of Christian society. But, we are told, all of this must be abandoned to some other way of deciding our fate which turns out to be the simplest pragmatism. We are invited to abandon the riches of a tradition that has brought us thus far to opt for a severely reduced view of the world.


It is the unashamed aim of the church to evangelise all people, including those in public life, and to look for the fruits of their faith. But this must never be built into a Christian coalition or a Christian lobby. For the role of the church is simply to proclaim the good news of the Gospel and allow the Spirit of God to do the rest. When we abstract what we think are Christian principles and promote them instead of the Gospel, we attempt to take the Kingdom by force. We use the powers of the world, pressure groups and political parties to establish something that can only be established by the Spirit. This is why we should be suspicious of the Australian Christian Lobby and the Family First Party which disingenuously describes itself as only being concerned about morality.

We must remind ourselves that Christianity is not primarily a system of morals but a revelation of the truth about human beings and the world they live in. It is the dawning of that truth that produces morality. When we dissociate morality from revelation we are in danger of creating yet another kind of tyranny, the kind of tyranny that led to the crucifixion of Christ. Politics in the name of morality or of Christianity may be the anti-Christ, that beast that masquerades as the servant of Christ but which is just a construct fed from our fear of social decay.

The irony of the Family First Party, a Christian pressure group, is that Jesus had little time for the family. The family was just another of the worldly powers that needed to be transformed by the Gospel, it had no authority of its own. There are no such things as family values, there is only the Gospel that transforms the family, which by itself is in danger of becoming the worst kind of tyranny because its members are so tightly bound into it.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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