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Islam and Christianity: The Problem of the Public Order

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Jul 06, 2007

In a recent blog entry, I commented on the efforts of the Malaysian government to financially reward those who convert to Islam, while penalizing those who abandon that faith. I suggested this was an insult to Islam as, were the shoe on the other foot, it would be an insult to Christ. The ramifications of this statement are considerable.

Social Pressure and the Common Good

In my brief Malaysian commentary, I asserted that “government should deliberately provide neither incentives nor disincentives to join a particular religious group.” But what about the benefits that might accrue to Christians in a social order and under a government animated by the spirit of Christ the King. What about a new Christendom?

Two distinctions are in order here. The first is indicated by the word “deliberately” in my preceding statement. By that word I have tried to convey a distinction between the formal actions of government and the inevitable advantages and drawbacks which may accrue to members of various groups by virtue of the dominant features of any given social order. No reasonable person can object to the inescapable fact that there are disadvantages to adopting beliefs, attitudes and customs which are in marked variance to those generally characteristic of the culture in which one lives. But this is very different from a government planning and implementing deliberate steps to reward some and punish others merely on the basis of religious affiliation.

Thus it is perfectly acceptable that, in an overwhelmingly Islamic society, a minority of Christians may find that they do not have as many opportunities for wealth, political influence and social status as their Islamic fellow-citizens. The same would be true, without legitimate complaint, of a small Islamic minority in an overwhelmingly Christian nation. And it is true of any sort of minority in any region where the majority has significantly different values, attitudes, lifestyles and group identities. This is a simple consequence of the social nature of man. Any given man or woman’s ideas, beliefs and behavior may well be influenced by such social realities, for better or for worse, but without legitimate political complaint.

But when it comes to government policy, the social predominance of any particular group ought to be significantly mitigated by a concern for the common good. The common good pertains precisely to those things which are good for all by virtue of their being human persons. General goods such as food, clothing shelter, education, opportunity for useful work, ownership of property, freedom of inquiry and expression, and scope for personal initiative pertain to the common good.

In contrast, the common good is undermined either by the political application of specific goods to favored groups or the political insistence that all persons embrace the same specific goods. The former is presumably obvious, but consider the latter. Forcing all men to be plumbers or all women to live in one-story houses harms the common good, as does limiting each family to one child or forcing all children to be trained as Anabaptists. Such things undermine the common good by coercing the human person into embracing choices which are supposed to arise from personal interest or interior commitment. The freedom to act on such interests and commitments is a critical feature of human dignity, which those responsible for the common good must take seriously if their object is to be worthy of its name.

Natural and Supernatural

As we have seen, the first distinction in this discussion is between what we might call the general and the particular: the general pressures of social life set against the particular enactments of government, and the general good set against the political application of particular goods. The second distinction is between the natural and supernatural—or temporal and spiritual—orders.

I might be tempted to argue that the common good would be well served if all persons were devout Catholics. But it is the nature of the spiritual order that it is above the temporal order and cannot be constrained by it. The virtue of religion arises from, and only from, the interior commitment of the believer, his thirst for meaning and his determination to know his purpose, his origins and his God. Therefore, whatever benefits might accrue to a society full of committed Christians, it necessarily violates the common good for people to be forced or even politically pressured to affiliate themselves with the Church or to adopt the outward trappings of Catholicism, or of any other religion. (I might add that wherever this has occurred, it has been—and must be logically—very bad for the Church as well. And, as I have already said, it is an insult to Christ.)

In making this distinction between the two orders, and in emphasizing the scope and freedom proper to each, the Catholic tradition on which I have drawn has been immensely aided by two convictions. The first conviction is that the Kingdom served by the Church is not of this world. The Church may bind the supernatural destiny of man, but she does not seek to order his secular affairs. By her own theory of the “two swords”, or the separation of the spiritual and temporal powers, the Church can play an important role in discerning the legitimate ends of human government and the means that are moral for it, while leaving entirely to secular government the task of ordering the temporal realm, including all the many prudential decisions which must be made and implemented in the ordinary course of human affairs.

The second conviction is that nature is good, and that the fundamental moral values which are to govern human life are both written in the hearts of men and accessible to human reflection in what we commonly call the natural law. Thus it is the business of natural human associations, including secular governments, to conserve and extend these discernible natural goods, which are common to all, including freedom of religious inquiry and worship. All men, though some may be aided greatly by Revelation, are capable of discerning these goods and their related evils, and just as it is the province of secular government to promote these natural goods, it is also its province to discourage, restrict and even punish whatever threatens them.

It is precisely these convictions which permit a constructive dialogue between Church and State, and which allow to the State a legitimate sphere of secularity for the ordering of human affairs. Within this legitimate sphere, a reasonable government will, for example, promote economic opportunity as pertaining to the natural law and the common good, while keeping clear of clerical promotions and Church governance, which pertain to the supernatural order. Similarly, a rational government will punish murder, which pertains to the natural law and the common good, while legally ignoring apostasy, which necessarily relates primarily to the supernatural order.

A Question for Islam

All of these distinctions and traditions, which are rooted in reason but have been developed in light of Revelation, make the Christian political experiment something very special. These distinctions, convictions and traditions cannot guarantee that any given government, even doing its best to operate according to these principles, will get everything right. There is much uncertainty in human affairs, many human decisions have both natural and supernatural consequences, and within our broad distinctions there can be considerable differences of opinion. For example, is it wrong to give tax incentives for families to have more children? Is this a form of deliberate government interference in a decision which should arise from interior conviction?

The importance of the distinctions presented here is that such an important political question would be answered in a dialogue among interested parties, who would attempt to discern whether the question pertains to the common good, whether it is relevant to the natural order, and whether it will impact in a positive way that set of goods which lie within the province of the State, without violating the independence of the spiritual order or compromising the proper freedom and dignity of the human person. What should not happen is either of the following: This question will not be settled on the basis of an ecclesiastical teaching concerning the ideal number of children a family should have. And this question, which does not seek to address crimes against the common good, will not be settled in a coercive or punitive manner.

Even granted that the Christian understanding of government is highly attenuated in our own time, there is a remarkable resilience in these ideas which continue to distinguish our understanding of sound government from what many others have experienced under other traditions elsewhere in the world (or even in the West whenever this understanding has been deliberately abandoned). At any rate, in the West, for all its faults, exactly this sort of discussion and debate is ongoing. Unfortunately, it may be more difficult to find the grounds for this sort of careful consideration of distinctive goods in Islam, which has most often taken political form in theocracy. From the theocratic point of view, the distinction between natural and supernatural fades, as does the distinction between divine revelation, which necessarily requires interior assent, and that broader common good which is naturally the property of all by virtue of their humanity.

I am not enough of a student of Islam to speak with any authority on Islamic politics. It is said, for example, that Turkey is a secular state in an Islamic culture. It is clear that Pope Benedict XVI has tried to draw out of his own dialogue with Islamic political leaders and scholars a rational ground for the kinds of distinctions presented here, to see if, within Islam itself, it is possible for these questions to be raised and answered in a manner consonant with what we would recognize as human dignity and the common good.

Although it is a topic for an entirely separate column, it would seem to be Benedict’s specific goal to stimulate within Islam precisely the sort of conversation which has been going on within Christianity since its founding. The Pope has stressed, for example, that it was no accident that Christianity was born in the fullness of time by a sort of fusion of the revelatory tradition of Israel with the rational tradition of the Greco-Roman world. Philosophy and theology are allies for the Christian, and the insights of both are to be highly prized. It is precisely this relationship of mind and spirit which undergirds the Western understanding of the public order. It remains to be seen whether there is a similar rational core on which Islam can draw, and around which our disparate cultures can unite without violating the dignity of man.

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