[Viewpoint] Church vs. state

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[Viewpoint] Church vs. state

Before the government’s bill to introduce Islamic bonds, or sukuk, caused a political uproar, a legislator consulted me about the issue. Not being an expert on financial issues, I couldn’t come up with a definitive solution. But I did give advice on some points to keep in mind. First of all, perspectives on an issue can differ greatly depending on what yardstick is employed.

The Christian community and the government have clashed on the function of Islamic bonds because they view the problem through different lenses - the former from the religious perspective and the latter from the financial aspect. Both are right if you look from their point of view.

Where can we find a universal yardstick to apply to the problem?

One cannot say funds from Wall Street are safer than petrodollars from the Middle East. Money, being secular, should be measured by a mundane yardstick. If some of the funds are funneled to terrorist groups, the U.S. government won’t tolerate it and if some are used to promulgate the Muslim faith, that’s a problem the religious sector must deal with.

The government need not rack its brain over what the Islamic community does with funds raised from selling sukuk to Korean companies. But I added that if the government bestows tax breaks on a particular kind of bond, it may draw criticism of unfairness.

History reminds us over and over that politics and religion are best kept separate. The workings of the heavens and the land are not the same. We endeavor to emulate heaven’s peaceful order on earth, of course, and democracy has proven to be the optimum way. But human workings often go wrong. Because democracy is moved by the tabulation of votes, secular power seduces the religious and religions also succumb to the temptation of power that can be gained through the votes of its believers.

This is one of many pitfalls of democracy. In theory, democracy does not concur with the Muslim notion that there is no separation between religion and politics. We can’t even imagine in our country a situation in which a religious population called for the application of religious idea not only in churches or temples but in courthouses too - in other words, a theocratic movement. Or what if a population demanded a community independent of national laws, ruling themselves through their own religious laws, as some Muslims do in Europe?

Western society has been under the influence of Christian beliefs that value human rights, equality and freedom of speech and thought. Koreans more easily accepted Christianity’s compassionate values in the process of going through colonization, liberation and modernization. Our nation prospered under the positive influences of Western-style openness and a democratic political order.

A free country should not exercise any discrimination against a particular religion. A democratic society should respect diversity and differentness. If I consider my beliefs valuable, I must admit that other people’s are too. The president has erred by letting himself be photographed deep in prayer on his knees at a congregation of Protestants.

Everyone knows the president is a devout Christian. The president, like any individual in this country, has the right to kneel and pray. But he also represents the state. Imagine the distance and resentment the non-Christian population must have felt seeing their president publicly immersed in his Christian faith. The host of the event is to be blamed most to force ritual on the president regardless of his public status.

A nation remains sane when politics and religion are kept in their separate realms. Religious sects should learn not to cross the line. The four rivers renovation project is a work of the land, not the heavens. But some Catholic priests have been opposing the plan saying it goes against the will of heaven.

Temple stay programs are subsidized by the government. The Buddhist community would be no different from any lobbying group if it threatens anti-government rallies to protest a cut in its budget. When we talk about the power of religion we refer to its secular influence. Our religious sectors are busy building up their secular power.

In the secular world, the people envied most are the powerful, wealthy, strong and successful. For those who believe in divinity, these secular riches should not matter. The weak and poor on earth seek comfort in religion because they are promised a different afterlife.

History has witnessed that the more a religion prospers in worldly terms, the more it loses its divine nature. Religions should not pursue the goals of the secular world.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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