PATHEOS – December 2012
November 2012 was about as singular as any month could ever contrive to be. Most certainly it was as portentous as any should ever wish to be. In this country, it saw the election of our first Buddhist senator, our first Hindu congressperson, as well as of our first nontheist one.
Almost as thought-evoking is the knowledge that on post-election Saturday, after all the tallies were finally in, Al Mohler, Jr., the highly visible and outspoken president of Southern Baptist Seminary, told Laurie Goodstein in an interview published in The New York Times that,“It’s not that our message…didn’t get out. It did get out. It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed. An increasingly secularizedAmerica understands our positions, and has rejected them.” *
Little more than a fortnight later, Rick Warren, the famed pastor of Saddleback Church in California, was telling audiences in New York City that Obama was “absolutely” unfriendly to religion and that “his administration’s policies have ‘intentionally infringed upon religious liberties.’” ** And this from the cleric who happily gave the invocation at the President’s 2008 Inauguration???
Nor did November confine itself and its ecclesio-secular perambulations to the US. In the UK, and by a very tight vote, the Church of England rejected the notion of having women serve as bishops, despite the fact that women can—and many do–serve there as parish priests. While that decision may have seemed at first blush to be entirely ecclesial in its repercussions, it did not remain so for long. Within twenty-four hours, the question was being raised of whether or not the Church of England could continue…should be allowed to continue…as the nation’s established church, since British law forbids discrimination on the basis of gender. Prime Minister Cameron was publicly expressing concern almost immediately; and even the ever redoubtable Guardian was making copy out of the possibility.
This watershed November of ours spread its unsettling ways not only within our affairs and those of theUnited Kingdom, however, but even into those of more distant places. InEgypt, where being Christian has not been a secure or easy thing for a very long time, Coptic Christians elected a new pope, Pope Tawadros II. Upon his election. Pope Tawadros told reporters that “the youth-led uprising [i.e., causing the overthrow of President Mubarak] marked a turning point in the Church’s relations with younger generations.” It seems, the Associated Press reported, that, “The papal election comes during a shift in Christians’ attitudes about their relations with the state.” That is, AP said, the question really is about whether or not the Church can still serve as an intermediary between the state and Christians. The implication clearly was also about whether or not it even should.***
And as if that weren’t enough, more than half a world away, in the ultra-small Buddhist nation of Bhutan, the government chose November as its time for announcing that there would be a ban on all public religious activities from January 1, 2013 until after the country’s second parliamentary elections in June, 2013. Citing as the authority for such action Bhutan’s constitution, which holds that “religion shall remain above politics,” Election Commissioner Chogyel Dago Rigdzin was quoted as explaining “that the ban is a ‘preventive measure’ to avoid mixing of religion and politics” and that the edict has ‘unstinted support and cooperation from all quarters.’” ****
Thus my surmise that November of 2012 may well come to be remembered as a turning point…may come, in fact, to be remarked upon hereafter as that moment in time when the world, both in general and in particular, at last had to begin coming to grips with an awareness that has been quietly spreading among all of us for quite a while. In Christian terms that perception can be stated as simply being a recognition that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar are once more two separate domains and that, in a diverse world, neither can enslave nor compel the other. In more general and less doctrinaire terms, it is the realization–and acceptance–of the principle that civil affairs in a glocalized world must be fashioned in such a way as to provide peace and prosperity in the public square while at the same time providing safe and sheltered domain for the free exercise of faith and religious practice in the private one.
All religions, it seems to me, recognize, by virtue of the very definition of religions, the presence among us of the ineffable, of the extra-mundane, of the Is-ness beyond us. Likewise, by and large, all the world’s major faiths are remarkably similar in their wisdom teachings and their moral stances. It is in their mysteries and their imperatives that they differ. It is their mysteries that shape and inform their adherents; but it is their imperatives which find their due exercise, as often as not, in public space and public affairs. It is, in others words, their imperatives which must now be addressed…addressed not by the state or even, where it still exists, by a theocracy; but rather addressed by religion itself and within itself and among its many selves.
I don’t for one minute think that all religions are the same or that they all arrive, or will someday arrive, at the same point or fulfillment. I do think, in this post-November December of ours, that they and/or we must all find our way to a common set of imperatives: first, to the separation of secular governance and religious governance, one from another and, second, to the creation of an uncompromising civil and ecclesial respect for the sanctity of all religious traditions and, at the same time, for the safe and secure operation of each within its own realm of reference. Until every person who simultaneously lives both a religious and a civil life can dedicate himself or herself to that end, we have failed not only our children and their progeny, but also our respective deities.
I think as well that the onus of discovering and effecting this new way of being rests most squarely upon those of us who are Christian and who, thereby, constitute the largest grouping within the world’s religions; for after Advent, He comes, this Prince of Peace of ours; and to do less with this last November would, it seems to me, be to mock the Gift of December.
* “Christian Right Failed to Sway Voters on Issues,” November 10, 2012
** “Rick Warren, Saddleback Pastor: Obama Has ‘Infringed’ Upon Religious Liberties,” http://www. huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/28/rick-warren-obama-religious-liberty_n_2206…
*** Aya Batrawy, “Egypt’s Copts Choose New Pope for Uncertain Times, “ AP, November 4, 2012.
**** Vishal Arora, reporting for Religion News Service and as reprinted in Christian Century, “Bhutan Bans Faith Activity in Run-up to Elections,” November 14, 2012.