Traditionally speaking states serve one purpose—to protect its subjects from internal and external threats. Without an existential threat from across the border or within it, for what purpose does the state exist? In order to protect its subjects the state must demonstrate that an “other” exists, whose values, religions, and perhaps skin colors are different from its subjects’. Or perhaps the “other” is a disease or some other real threat. Once an “other” has been defined we can institute policies of national security that reflect the variations between our values and those “other” values.
The church functions in a very similar fashion. The church’s role in our lives is to protect us from “spiritual” threats. Without a spiritual threat from a non-believer,* for what purpose does the church exist? If everyone agreed with that church’s teachings, the church would cease to exist. And in order to protect its subjects from spiritual threats, the church must demonstrate that an “other” exists, whose values contradict its own. Once this “other” has been defined the church institutes policies of doctrine that reflect the variations between their values and those “other” values.
*”Non-believer” here strictly means they who do not share the same religious beliefs.
I make a huge distinction here between my argument and the classical argument—that the church provides protection from death. If death were a compelling enough threat there would be no atheists.
The problem, which I’m certain many of you can see, is that spiritual threats are perceived precisely the same way that existential threats are perceived. The Islamic State and many Christian churches in Sub-Saharan Africa exemplify this. A common response to an existential threat is armed warfare. A common response to spiritual threat in the developing world is armed warfare. Indeed, the distinction between the two is often lost on Western governments. In the US in 1950 the Cold War was defined as a literal battle between god’s chosen people (the US) and god’s enemies (Communists). The NSC-68 was overtly sectarian and made numerous references to “godless” Soviet Union. In other words, few believers are able to distinguish between the state and the church when some form of threat arises.
But they should see these differences. When internal threats arise many states are good at dealing with those threats in secular ways. Small pox was eradicated not through prayer, but through modern medical science. Global warming is being combatted not through divine intervention, but through innovation, dialogue, and research.
Back to the small pox point; diseases are wiped out, cured, or mitigated regardless of religion. And diseases decimate and kill regardless of religion. The differences between humans of faith are socially constructed and serve no other purpose than to create an “other” so that the church can protect you from them and survive. The church cannot protect you from disease, no matter how hard you pray.
The main point of this post is to argue that whatever the church can do, the state can do it better, and the state has more of a compelling need to protect its subject from threats. If the church ceases to function, no big deal; nothing changes. If the state ceases to function, then all manners of existential threats overwhelm populations, and untold numbers of people die horrible deaths. Why the church continues to function despite this is telling of one unfortunate thing: People need to know there is an “other” because without the “other” for what purpose does the church exist? In this sense the church is the epitome of bigotry.