Thursday, October 31, 2013

Two distinct views of secularism.

The way that Americans use the term secularism is typically very different from the way that Europeans or Turks use it.  

1. The American view of secularism is characterized by the principle of "separation." The government is protected from being ruled by religious institutions and religious institutions are protected from government interference. 

2. The European (and Turkish) view of secularism is characterized by the government control of religious life. The state defines and makes determinations about religion, presumably for the perceived benefit of the public and for the protection of the state.

The American view, which is usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson, is one of the unique contributions of America to the world. It ensures that religious expression can flourish without being a threat to, or being threatened by, the government. Together with the principle of religious freedom, this separates ethnicity and citizenship from religious identity. This makes it possible for people of any religious belief to count themselves citizens, and even more significantly, it makes it possible for people of any ethnicity to be free with regard to religious belief without feeling constrained by their ethnic identity. In Turkey, for example, there is a general conviction that being Muslim is part of what it means to be Turkish. And the Turkish state religious system is built on that identification. This is no different from the Ottoman system that preceded it.

This defense of separation shouldn't bother Christians who want to honor America's Christian heritage. As Lamin Sanneh would say, the American system is a tree with Christian roots, but the fruit is available to everyone. We should continue to sow into the roots and insist on protecting the principle that the fruit of religious freedom be available to everyone.

Sometimes American Christians downplay or disparage secularism and the principle of separation in their zeal to defend Christian truth. But the role of the state is necessarily different from the role of the church. Should Christians campaign for other religious beliefs to be illegal? Should citizens be legally required to confess faith in Christ? Should church attendance and Bible reading be enforced by the government? Thankfully I don't think I know any Christians who believe those things.

Historically, European countries have adopted the second kind of secularism. The Roman Empire gave this tradition of defining and controlling religion to the West.  The Enlightenment reinforced this view with its conviction that the role of religion in society would fade as education in the sciences increased. Aftet its revolution France built a system on those assumptions, and Turkey followed suit. However, the Enlightment assumption proved false and religion has continued to be as signifant as it ever was. 

Turkish citizens are born with an assigned religious identity. If they are born to ethnically Turkish parents their identity card reads "Islam." Public schools teach "religion" classes, but only Islam is allowed to be taught. Imams (religious leaders) in Turkish mosques are all employed by the government.

There are now 4,500 Turkish Christians in Turkey. They are just as Turkish as their Muslim neighbors and they are just as loyal to their country as citizens. But because of this tradition of government control of religion and the principle of identifying ethnicity with religious belief, the very existence of Turkish Christianity represents a reconfiguration of Turkish identity. 

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