Topical Studies

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What the Bible says about Separation of Church and State
(From Forerunner Commentary)

Genesis 9:27

Shem's tents have names. Here are a few of them.

1. Most prominent of all is the sovereign nation state, "a European innovation that replaced feudalism and established the rule of law." This tent took years to erect, but a good benchmark date is 1648, when the Treaty of Westphalia ended Europe's Thirty Years' War and created a state-centered international order, which very slowly grew in power and popularity.

The Treaty was the death knell of feudalism, an economic system where the king owns all the land. For a fee (or fief), he parcels out the land to vassals, who in return owe him a part of the land's wealth, as well as military muscle and loyalty if the king should be attacked. The vassals could subdivide their fiefdoms, giving land to lesser nobles, and those nobles to yet more inferior nobles, and so on. Feudalism is government by loyalty oath.

Europe's development of a nation-state system "contrasts sharply with Asia's." The great potential of Japheth remained untapped by her leaders for centuries because they refused to set feudalism aside. Consider that as early as the 13th century, the Mongol Genghis Khan could project enough power to threaten Eastern Europe. Even then, Japheth had a greater population than Europe and a greater economic potential by virtue of her large market. Asia, furthermore, enjoyed technological superiority over Europe, having "pioneered the development of clocks, the printing press, gunpowder, and iron." However, because of Asia's refusal to set aside her feudal system, her manpower and technology advantages were never able to serve her internationally. It was not until 1948, centuries after Europe put aside feudalism, that China followed suit. That happened when Mao Zedong consolidated his control over a number of Chinese warlords and proclaimed himself chairman of what later became the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). As we will see, in 1948 China stepped into one of Shem's tents—Marxism.

Japan, likewise, did not abandon her feudal system until the mid-19th century, after American Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Tokyo Bay, demonstrating to the Japanese leadership the extent to which she had fallen behind the rest of the world during three centuries of strict isolationist policy. Japan, as well, subsequently set about to step into Shem's tents.

2. A second tent of Shem is the institution of private property, which the nation states established gradually and with varied success. While some peoples in antiquity enjoyed private property (notably those in ancient Israel), such rights were virtually nonexistent under feudalism. The right of common individuals to own property spurs entrepreneurial activities by permitting people to keep the fruits of their labors. It also encourages the clearing of land which otherwise would remain unused. An important spin-off of private property is the creation of a universally valued asset that serves as collateral for loans. Private property provided the "grubstake" upon which modern credit banking is based.

3. Democracy, a system of government accountable to the people, is another tent of Shem. It received its European start in the parliaments that developed in the tenth century to "advise" kings, and it took a major, if somewhat abortive, step forward in the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, which limited the powers of the king.

European states developed the notion that the sovereign (whether a monarch or a parliament) had a duty to protect subject and property in return for taxes and service in the army. Rulers in the Qing, Mughal, and Ottoman Empires, in contrast, never recognized a comparable responsibility to their subjects.

4. The separation of church and state is yet another of Shem's tents. The same treaty that established an incipient nation-state system in Europe, the Peace of Westphalia, also prompted the idea that man's government works best when civil and "sacred" power structures remain separate. The Catholic Church's hegemony eclipsed soon thereafter.

5. Capitalism is yet another tent of Shem. It arose in the power vacuum that resulted from the eclipse of the Catholic Church. The "creative destruction" characterizing capitalism could never operate until "organized religion lost its power to execute as heretics those entrepreneurs who would upset the status quo."

Max Weber, focusing less on Catholicism, traced capitalism's rise to the "Protestant work ethic" that was an unintended consequence of the "reformed" theology peddled by John Calvin (1509-1564). More realistically, we can trace the roots of capitalism back to a nexus of a weakened church hierarchy, the cool climate of northern Europe, the rise of technology, and the opportunity of millions to emigrate to the New World in search of a better life. All these factors—and others—combined to facilitate capital markets and mercantilism.

Much later in history, neo-mercantilist "export-promotion regimes were adopted by Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. . . . Almost all of the East Asian success stories, China included, are modern versions of the export-oriented form of mercantilism." Another economist claims that the economic success of China is a result of "European economics, commercial law, science and technology." These "Western institutions" interplaying with certain Asian values, "brought about successful development."

6. Finally, some of Shem's tents are so undesirable as to be downright disgusting. Of such are Marxist-communism, fascism, and nazism. For all their differences, each of these three totalitarian systems deny democracy and the rule of law. They all—though fascism to a lesser extent—get their intellectual underpinnings from Karl Marx. It is interesting to note that China, when she finally cast aside feudalism in the late 1940s, adopted communism as a culturally acceptable substitute for authoritarianism. She is only slowly and fitfully moving from this tent of Shem into somewhat more respectable digs.

Charles Whitaker
Globalism (Part Two): The Tents of Shem


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