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Importance of separation of Church and state

LEUVEN (SE): “The frenzied part of the 20th century had nothing to do with religion,” Herman van Rompuy, a former president of the European Council, told a forum at the Verbiest Institute at the Leuven Catholic University in Belgium on September 6.

“Nationalism and ideology were responsible for wars, genocide and cruelty,” van Rompuy continued in explaining why the current formation of the European Union is so valuable.

Calling it the most successful peace initiative in history, he said, “It is based on the value of reconciliation, the most difficult virtue to practice.”

In this context he said he believes that religion has an important role to play, while at the same time noting that it can be either a divisive or a binding influence in any society.

“It is divisive when it claims truth,” he commented. “But aren’t we all seekers of the meaning of life, of happiness or of God?... And what is within our grasp we find with difficulty.”

However, he described the climate of the new evolutions in the Christian world and Western Europe as being one of tolerance and dialogue, of seeking truth, without the old antagonisms among denominations and religions.

He described the new concern as being the current climate in our societies saying that for organised religion to play its proper role in the development of societies, a fundamental prerequisite is the separation of Church and state.

He called this very separation the dynamic that allows both Churches and believers to have a strong hand in political and social issues, adding that he believes that it is even a natural process.

“Politics is intertwined with ethics,” van Rompuy notes. “People with high ethical standards enter the political debate. Even Churches do. It has nothing to do with power gap, but an acting according to their consciences. It is the logical consequence of their ethical beliefs.”

Although he says that the separation of Church and state is what makes it possible for the involvement of faith in the public square seems like a paradox, he explained that it allows the two to remain independent, but since they both have to deal with the same issues, there can be healthy interaction.

He points to what he calls the tragedy of Europe in the first half of the last century as being the non-separation of Church and state. “What they both had in common was seeking power… power for the sake of power,” he observes, which poisons the very meaning of the purpose of power.

He insists that Christians should not refrain from speaking their ethical insights, even if it disturbs politicians, as it is wrong to interpret the separation of Church and state as keeping mouths shut, a type of secular heresy.

He then cites the Russian Orthodox Church as an example of falling into this danger.

Van Rompuy notes that after the implosion of the Communist regime, the Orthodox Church shot from being the opium of the people to a sort of official Church, but because there is now no separation of Church and state, it has become a mouthpiece of the government and, consequently, a big supporter of nationalism and ideology, the dangerous dynamic that prompted so much violence in the first half of the last century.

Liu Peng, the founder of the Pu Shi Institute for Social Science in Beijing, reinforced van Rompuy’s claim, saying that there are three fundamental blocks in China to the Church playing a positive role in the development of society; the government’s officially incorrect concept of religion, lack of separation of Church and state, and no rule of law.

He quoted Zhao Puchu, the late chairperson of the Chinese Buddhist Association, as saying, “We are advocating the rule of law, but without a set of Law on Religion as the foundation passed by the National People’s Congress, no matter how many regulations and local rules there are, it cannot form a comprehensive legal system.”

Peng stressed that there will never be reform in the freedom of religion in China until the current administrative management of religion shifts its power base to a law on religion and until then, it will be extremely difficult for religion to make its proper contribution to the development of society.

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