Church and State, Revisited
In today’s Boston Globe, David Mednicoff points out that secular governments in the Middle East seem to have a tough time of it compared to Islamic states, both in terms of stability, but also, he argues, openness.
This rising tide of mass protests against Arab secular strongmen urges us to think again about the role of Islam and government. Decades of Western policy have pushed Middle Eastern governments toward secular reforms. But a more nuanced view of the region — one that values authenticity as much as Western dogma — suggests something different. If we are concerned about stability, balance, even openness, it may be Arab Islamic governments that offer a better route to those goals.
Yes, caveats and exceptions abound. (Consider, e.g., the role of women in conservative monarchies like Saudi Arabia. Stable, OK, but good?) But he raises an intriguing question.
I am reminded also of the ringing “The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church,” condemned as an error by Pope Pius IX in his famous Syllabus. Indeed, the notion of religious freedom as basic to human dignity is a recent idea in Catholicism. Toleration of other religions had been advised by Aquinas, but only if some good comes from permitting them, (he advised toleration of Judaism because he thought it foreshadowed Christianity,) or if a greater harm might ensue by quashing them.
And the ominous presence of Islamist extremists waiting in the wings in the destabilized countries raises the same question: should the US be supporting moderate Islamists rather than Western-style secular states? And what would the religious right in the US say?