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Over the span of the millennia of recorded history it is obvious to note that governments of old always either opposed or corrupted religious beliefs for their own benefit or to make religion conform to the politically correct ideas and norms of a time. In the ancient world, governments relied on paganism to strengthen their hold on the people and to create tyrannies.

The Roman emperors felt compelled to proclaim themselves gods to guarantee the obedience of the masses to their policies, laws and rules. The half mad Roman Emperor Caligula even had his horse proclaimed a god by the Roman Senate. It was the power of government in the Roman and Byzantine empires that Christianized Europe by force, having to use very little intellectual convincing on a mainly illiterate population.
Throughout the Middle Ages the contest always was between the authority of government and kings, at odds with the authority of religious beliefs and practices. In effect, it was the government that told its hapless subjects what to believe and how to believe and the unholy alliance between church and state became the norm in Western society as it was in the Moslem world as well.
As the Enlightenment took hold in Western Europe, the power of the church and religion generally was severely weakened, and government moved in to fill the vacuum. Ironically, governments such as France and even the United States declared themselves to be countries where church and state would be separated and where religion would have only moral sway but no temporal power to enforce its beliefs.
As Western civilization became more and more irreligious and as secularism became the dominant intellectual force, governments became increasingly less tolerant of religion itself. Governments felt, and until today feel a compulsion to oppose religious beliefs and practices, to legislate against them and to enforce decrees intended to make observance of religious practices more difficult.
All of this is naturally done in the name of progress, equality and other high- sounding words and phrases. But the bottom line is that it ends up being a dictatorship over what people can believe and practice. By enforcing rules – such as gender equality – and carrying these rules to an extreme – same-sex bathrooms and a refusal to identify a newborn infant as being male or female, the heavy hand of government stifles religious expression and beliefs.
The power of government is so enormous that it can and does govern every aspect of the life of its citizens and creates an atmosphere where it is difficult, in the extreme, to maintain religious beliefs and traditional practices. The Soviet Union enforced atheism as the early national belief of its millions of citizens and did so by actively and purposely destroying the infrastructure and leadership of religion in that country.
In the United States and in Israel the arbiters of what religious expression is to be allowed in society rests with the powers of the unelected members of the Supreme Court. Fierce debate regarding the existence of a constitutionally protected right to abort a living fetus rages without end for the last 70 years, as religious beliefs and governmental policies clash one with the other. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Despite their apparent power, history has taught us that governments come and go. What is accepted as social policy in one generation may be determined to be a criminal activity in another generation. Though religion also experiences change and social evolution it does so slowly and in a very conservative manner. As such, it provides stability to the social environment that would otherwise sway radically from one extreme to another.
If government would truly be neutral regarding religion, then it would not be viewed as an enemy of religion and religious practices. However, since governments in the Western world and at certain times here in Israel as well, are hardly neutral in religious matters, the tension between government and religion remains high and volatile. No one should advocate a theocracy, for history has shown us that this creates an unworkable situation and a dysfunctional nation, witness Iran, Saudi Arabia and other such states. However, governments should really stay out of advancing policies that diminish and weaken the religious beliefs and systems that function in their societies.
A great deal of wisdom is required to achieve the necessary balance between religion and government. But we all know that wisdom most times is at a shortage. Nevertheless, this problem should be realized and considered before governments adopt policies that are so inimical to religious beliefs and norms.
Shabbat shalom
Berel Wein

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