Select Page



by William H. Benson

September 6, 2007

     In May of 2006 Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sent to President George Bush an open letter in which he began by listing the grievances he had against American foreign policy. But, then, he turned from political to religious issues, mentioning certain Biblical prophets—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, and Joseph. He then asked Bush a question: “if they were with us today, how would they have judged such behavior?”

     He further admonished Bush that “according to divine verses, we have all been called upon to worship one God and follow the teachings of divine Prophets.”

     He then finished his letter with a dire prophecy: “Liberalism and Western-style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today, these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems. . . . Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things.”

     Ahmadinejad’s letter appeared in a number of newspapers around the world.

     A week ago, The New York Times Magazine featured an article entitled “The Great Separation”, in which they reprinted portions of that letter and then pointed out the crucial difference between Western thinking and that of the Middle East. In the Islamic countries it is “political theology”; politics is within theology, and theology is bound up within politics. They are united. But in the West politics by law is separated from theology. Each are distinct spheres of influence, and neither intrudes upon the other.

     How was it that in Western Civilization certain thinkers chose to divorce religion from politics?

     The answer is that this Great Separation came out of the devastation resulting from the European Wars of Religion during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Catholic was pitted against Protestantism in all its forms: Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Quakers, etc. Each side fought viciously against the other.

     Bells rang in Paris on August 24, 1572, St. Bartholomew’s Day, as a signal to massacre all the leading Huguenots, the French Protestants. For three days and nights, the massacre went on, and some two thousand Protestants were killed. And, then, the killing extended into other cities. Protestantism ceased to be a viable alternative in France.

     Germany’s religious war was even more intense and frenzied. Called the Thirty Year War, 1618-1648, it laid waste to entire villages, towns, and cities. Thousands were killed. Many others starved or fled the country in terror. The fighting reduced the population of Germany from fifteen million to less than five million. The savage killing ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, a truce between Catholic and Protestant.

     In that same year the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, looked back over the previous century’s religious wars and asked why? He understood that religious convictions often lead to political conflicts, and that the potential for violence is always there. In his great work, The Leviathan, published in 1651, he dared to set aside questions of God and His commands and focused instead upon human beings and why they believed so strongly in their religion.      

      Hobbes further planted an idea that took hold in the West—“that it might be possible to build legitimate political institutions without grounding them on divine revelation. The new political thinking would no longer concern itself with God’s politics; instead it would try to keep men from harming one another.” Security and peace were what mattered most, not divine commands.

     There are those who want politics and religion united, such as Iran’s President. Such a view is comprehensive, magnificent, and thus powerfully attractive. God and man and nature are linked into a single all-encompassing cosmos. But in the West philosophers split religion away from politics. Such a view leaves God’s commands out of political decision-making, and instead concentrates upon the betterment of human beings— promoting peace, fostering justice, and diminishing fear and ignorance.

     Neither side is all right or all wrong. But if ever given a choice, I, and most others I am convinced, would choose the Great Separation over the Great Unification.