(Edit: It occurs to me that some of what I wrote in this article could be misinterpreted as a whitewash of or ignoring the things in history that are appalling when viewed today. This was not my intent. I recommend seeing HERE for some of my reflections on the darker parts of Church history)
In the 5th century AD, St. Augustine wrote his classic City of God which dealt with the two perspectives on the world—pagan and Christian. He showed the superiority of the Christian view. I don’t pretend to have any of his talent of course, but it seems to me that there are two major world views in conflict today in the West—the view of respecting the importance of God and the view of rejecting the importance of God. Now there is a range of views within these two groups. Some approach these things passively. Others approach it more militantly. So we can’t speak in a way that “all members of group X will behave exactly this way.” But we can point out the problems of the consequences that lead from the ideas.
These two views of God lead to two arguments about how a nation needs to be in sync with reality: The view that asserts that the reality of God needs to be reflected in the laws, and the view that denies that God is a reality which needs to be reflected in the laws. As I presented them, these views seem to be opposites, but in fact, the two views have a great deal of influence on how they treat those who do not think like them.
The group that asserts the reality that God exists and has established the universe to work in a specific way and has done so for our benefit—where living in opposition to this design causes harm to the self and to others, even though we have the free will to do so. Under this view, laws exist to promote the public good established by God and restrict people that choose to use their free will to bring harm to others. For example, a law against murder does not restrict the freedom of good people, but does have repercussions for would-be murderers. This view does not compel people to do what they think is evil or forbid them from doing what they feel morally obliged to do. But when such groups practice beliefs that harm society, law does not permit this. In other words, the group of people who do not share the beliefs about the nature of God are not forced to accept them (even at its worst, the Spanish Inquisition did not force Jews and Muslims to convert—though the Spanish government of the time did exile those who did not).
So, under this world view, the Jew living in Christian society can refuse to eat pork or can choose to circumcise their sons—things the Jews believe themselves obligated to do. He can refuse to become Christian. The Christian and the Jew might disagree on the nature of God but that disagreement in itself is not forbidden under law. (I’m not saying that all was well for Jews in Medieval Europe—by 21st century standards, they were unjust. But they had freedoms in medieval Europe that some are trying to take away from them—see below).
However, to use a different example, the person who finds pregnancy inconvenient and wants an abortion would not be free to do so because such behavior is harmful to others (the unborn children). The fact that one group in the national population might have no problem with abortion is not a just excuse for allowing what is seen as murder to be permitted. Since nobody rational has a belief that says “I feel morally obligated to abort my child instead of put it up for adoption,” this law would not be forcing one to act in a way they thought was evil—despite the convoluted sophistry sometimes used to make people think this is a matter of conscience.
However, the world view that denies the existence of God and does not recognize belief in God has a bad habit of not allowing people to opt out. Even setting aside the obvious examples of the totalitarian regimes, a nation operating under the assumption that religion is of no value tends to have no respect for the people who hold it does. If a person who makes law believes that religion is a fantasy, they will not see any value in tolerating this “fantasy” when the people holding it want to opt out because their beliefs tell them they must do something they don’t want to do or tells them not to do things they feel they must do—not out of personal benefit, but out of the belief that loving God requires them do certain things and avoid other things.
This isn’t hypothetical. Look at the western cities and even countries trying to ban circumcision today—something Jews believe they are obligated to do to be faithful to their covenant. Or how about Christian business owners being targeted by lawsuits and ordinances when they are refuse to participate in “same sex marriage” by providing their services for something they believe is morally wrong? How about the attempts to coerce Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives or abortifacients as a part of their health care coverage? The point is, when the mindset of the law acts as if God does not exist and that religious beliefs should not be allowed to play a role when it comes to drafting laws, the result is religious obligations are written off as being without value, misattributed as being an act of hatred. In such cases, the state makes it the arbiter of what religious obligations and which ones are not. For example, courts seeking to force a priest could be forced to reveal what was said in the confessional. It’s gotten to the point that some feel the need to preempt the courts by passing a law to prevent ministers from being sued for refusing to take part in a same sex “marriage.” Think about that. Ten years ago, such a law would be unnecessary. Today? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was overturned as “unconstitutional."
So when you look at these things, it raises a question. Which worldview is the dangerous one? The one based on the existence of God, but does not coerce people to do what they think is morally evil? Or the group that denies God exists and refuses to consider what religious obligations people hold to be binding?
It does no good to point to another epoch in history and say that Christians are the worse offenders. That’s comparing 500 year old apples to modern oranges. Back then, what passed for government did not have the political and economic stability we have today, and violent punishments were exacted for crimes against the state. Looking at it from the safety of the 21st century, we can all (in that, we Christians are too) be appalled. But these actions were not exclusive to one geographic region, one religion or form of government (Ask Socrates about his experience with democracy, for example). None of us, regardless of our views, could say we would have thought like 21st century Americans hundreds of years ago, regardless of what our views happen to be.
It also does no good to point to modern extremism in Islam today from groups like ISIS and al-Quaeda and say that is the end result of religious views in government. Neither the sins of other religions nor the sins of people acting against their own religion are proof of the danger of religion. In the first case, we do not control what those who do not share our beliefs hold. In the second case, we don’t coerce people who reject their professed religion. We can only appeal to them to remember their endangered relationship to God—you know, the very thing people who reject religion having a place in the public square ignore when we say it?
I would recommend the reader consider this well. If a government is allowed to get away with claiming the authority to decide which religious obligations to decide is acceptable for the people to hold and which are not, that government can also decide on what parts of the freedom of speech, press, peaceable assembly and petitioning the government for grievances are acceptable and what are not. It’s only the government that recognizes the role of God and the obligations He gives us on how to behave that recognizes the restrictions on their governing, and those restrictions are much more of a guarantee than relying on the government which can reject as invalid whatever it disagrees with.