State over Church -- Martin E. Marty

Sightings is so busy with its periscope, scanning the horizon for religious scenes and objects and events, that we cannot often stop to reply to email responses

By Martin E. Marty|April 17, 2001

Sightings is so busy with its periscope, scanning the horizon for religious scenes and objects and events, that we cannot often stop to reply to email responses. But now and then it is worth turning the periscope around to scan an already visited place on the horizon. This time it's worth taking another look at the concept of "the subordinate."


Through the years, if I wish to get lively and sometimes livid reactions, I remind readers of an obvious but sometimes chafing reality about church and state. I duck and take refuge in the fact that conservative constitutional scholars (like Walter Berns) -- not "radical secularist," ACLU types -- are the ones who discuss this situation.


What's at issue? Such scholars remind us that, because of the First Amendment, much legislation, and most Supreme Court decisions (the Smith case an obvious exception), American citizens experience "the free exercise of religion" in a scope unimaginable in most places. But in certain matters of law, "church" can and should be subordinate to "state."


When those in my field make this point, complaints invariably arise about how this unfairly makes the church "subservient" and "supine" in relation to the political authorities. These critics want to hear a less accommodating, more "prophetic" word on the matter -- even though the notion of tenured, well-pensioned academics being prophetic is nothing if not oxymoronic. But subordination need not mean subservience, and it is still an appropriate notion in many instances.


For example, a church has to be subordinate to the state in obeying civic ordinances -- fire codes, zoning laws, and the like. And during and after disputes, churches must obey the dictates of the police and the courts. Churches have to work to pass legislation allowing for conscientious objection; legislators don't come to the churches for permission to institute a military draft. Religious people are guaranteed the right to the "free exercise" of their faiths, but practices that harm or unfairly affect others are rightfully restricted.


Those who believe that religion always has and deserves a free ride, and that what its agents do is necessarily above the law, should follow the case of the House of Prayer, a nondenominational congregation near Atlanta. Reports two weeks ago spelled out the particulars. The Rev. Arthur Allen Jr. and his flock are not merely "alleged" to be abusing children; they "confess" to it and are very proud of it. The Bible, they say, tells them to use the whip on their children. They do not lack biblical texts and religious traditions as warrants, but claim that, like others throughout the centuries, they are obeying God.


It is hard to bear reading the descriptions of what they do to children. The list of horrors begins with lacerated skin on babies' bellies and goes on from there. Nonsubordination to the law, anyone?


Now I'll duck and dive again, having once again reported on the real world, a world of abused children, confusion over texts, and the rule of law. And the spirit remains free, subordinate to no human power.