February 19, 2001
The Subordination of Church to State
-- Martin E. Marty
Few citizens, we imagine and hope, enjoy seeing pictures of pastors being carted away from their church buildings by U.S. marshals. Yetthey did see such images last week on screen or in print of the ReverendGreg J. Dixon being removed on wheels from his Indianapolis Baptist Temple. This came after a long legal battle over the church's unwillingness tocooperate in any way with taxing authorities.
"Welcome to communism, America!" Dixon shouted. His supporters -- mainly the militia sorts -- had abandoned him because he counseled onlynonviolent resistance and they, liking violence, thought they had a championin him.
The Dixon incident was a textbook study in one feature of life in a republic about which many do not like to think: legally there arerestrictions on what religious forces can do. The First Amendmentto the U.S. Constitution assures so much protection for the "free exercise"of religion that some can picture no legitimate boundaries or limits. But such there are.
Conservative constitutional scholar Walter Berns, in *The First Amendmentand the Future of American Democracy* (1976), put the case baldly: "The origin of free government in the modern sense coincides with, andcan *only* coincide with, the solution of the religious problem, and thesolution of the religious problem consists in the subordination of religion." Think about that in simplest terms: the state does not come to thechurch and ask for exemption from the stewardship drive or service in theushers' corps. The church and its people must go to the state forlegal exemption from certain taxes and the military draft. The churchmust obey the state's safety laws. And on and on...
Mention the word "subordinate" and you will hear critiques from the ranks of prophets and dissenters who confuse the word with others suchas "subservient" or "submissive" in any theological sense. But beingborn into a world of governments and constitutions does not mean that onesuppresses one's religious beliefs. It does not mean that one maybe exempt from ever acting on those convictions -- as Martin Luther KingJr. and a host of predecessors and contemporaries did in the name of a"higher law" and in readiness to face worldly legal consequences.
The recognition that a republic -- or any state other than a theocracy or hierocracy of the sorts we have seen in, say, Iran -- will leave religionin legally subordinate roles comes hard and does not sit well with all,but it comes and sits. Religious groups of all sorts defend eachother, even when the "other" is unpleasant, when government intrusion isobtrusive. But Dixon stood pretty much alone by defining rules ofa game no one gets to play, a game most civic-minded believers would notwant play or have others do so.