One of the main precepts of our freedom in this country is the belief that a national government should have its basis in secular law without being influenced by the convictions of any specific religion. To varying degrees this separation of church and state has been effective in preventing government from controlling both the body and spirit of its citizens. There are civilizations both past and present in which a specific religion has been merged with and become the ruling government of entire nations. There can be beneficial points made about this system as well as some very destructive ones.
A government should strive to regulate what is considered proper behavior within all its citizenry. To this end it must concern itself with only those things which can be applied equally to people regardless of what specific religious convictions they hold. Were a specific religion to take the reigns of power over an entire nation’s people it would make anyone’s spiritual beliefs that were different from the official religion instantly illegal.
The concept of “good” and “bad”, “proper” as opposed to “improper” behavior is a very arbitrary thing. It can change not only with location but also with the passage of time itself. The secular state has the ability through the representation of its people to change and modify what the society as a whole deems right and proper. Religions at their most basic level were intended to give a set of instructions on how to best keep a peaceful structure to people’s lives. Having human “interpreters” for what is ordered by an unseen and inaccessible “god” easily leads to all too human abuses of power and domination with no recourse for discussion or modification.
One of the greatest pros to the concept of keeping church and state separate is in giving society as a whole the right to their individual connection with any “divine” source they envision. They can pray as they will, eat what foods they want, and wear what they feel best pleases their god. There are many “gods” with widely varying “rules” for what is most spiritually pleasing. It is the role of the state to ensure that all these various and occasionally incompatible personal beliefs can coexist to the betterment of everyone’s life and lifestyle without civilization collapsing in a bloodbath of civil holy wars.
One example of the human suffering that can occur when the church and the state become one is that of the creation of the Holy Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Rome had absorbed many nations and people over the course of centuries of expansion. While they had their own gods, they were not overly concerned that their subjects kept their own beliefs so long as the peace was maintained and the tax trains ran. With the instatement of an official religion across the vast empire, the loss of the right to personal belief led to centuries of persecution and death for anyone who did not give up their beliefs in favor of the Empire’s Religion.
One of the worst cons of a state religion is in the stagnation of a people and society. Under the Roman system, the church maintained its power and glory with a “divinely created” Earth centric viewpoint that the universe revolved around Rome. Science was repressed and much knowledge was lost for centuries. A single example is the demonizing of the books of the Prophet Enoch. Contained in these volumes was much accurate data on the composition of the solar system, the orbits of the moon and the planets and their satellites; even the one’s not visible to the naked eye. Under the Roman Church, Galileo was criminalized and forced to recant the findings he made by looking through a simple telescope.
Under a religious state, it is easy to have a few people in a hierarchical position exert the power to dehumanize and strip away the very basic human rights of anyone. A modern example would be the Islamic nations where women are, by religious decree, considered to have only minimal rights and almost no personal freedoms. Even the national leaders of many of these Church/State governments must modify their decisions on world policy to accommodate religious dictates that were instituted in a more primitive age. They are often not allowed to make policies and decisions that would interact in their nation’s favor with a modern worldview and situations.
Admittedly, a government that controls both the secular and spiritual aspects of a person’s life has a greater control over their population. Dissent can quickly be suppressed by “eliminating” anyone who does not toe the line. There is, however, a great advantage for a civilization that allows a multitude of thought and belief and keeps the government concerned with merely mundane reality. They are more able to adjust to changing situations, have a greater ability to experiment and make scientific advancements and improve the lives and situations of all their citizens regardless of what “god” they may look to for spiritual direction.