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Church and State

During my long life, I have felt good with my Uruguayan citizenship. I was born and went to my first grades in school in Montevideo. Uruguay had by then established a democratic and progressive system of government. Its educational system was a copy of the French, and its civic culture had been strongly influenced by the Enlightenment. The national budget allocated more to education than to the armed forces. Every Uruguayan with intellectual ambitions dreamed of studying in Paris at the Sorbonne. Uruguayan society was openly secular and liberal, and it included an energetic middle class.

Separation of church and state was well established. This, of course, was not what the Vatican considered desirable. To remedy the situation, it organized a great Eucharistic Congress in Montevideo. The city had the Centennial Stadium, a temple to soccer built in 1930 that could seat one hundred thousand people. It was then that I saw for the first time a priest with a cassock. In a crowded streetcar, I embarrassed my parents shouting: “Daddy, look, a man with skirts!”

The hopes that the Congress would convert Uruguay into a devout Catholic country proved vain. In my home, we often commented on the good fortune of living there. At that time, the decade from 1934 to 1944, Uruguay was classified among the nations with the highest standard of living. To a significant degree, this was credited to the cultural and social environment that separation of church and state made possible.

When I was ten, my parents returned to Argentina, where the constitution establishes the Roman Catholic Church as the official church of the state, and it requires that the president of the country be a Catholic. All patriotic celebrations begin with a high mass, and the curriculum of the secondary schools includes courses in Catholic doctrine taught by a priest. The Ministry of Foreign Relations includes the Bureau of Worship, which is in charge of the National Registry of Religions. It authorizes the functioning of all religions except the Roman Catholic Church, sees that all of them except that church observe standing regulations, and supervises all government transactions regarding religion. Under these conditions, there is no religious liberty, only religious tolerance, and those who are tolerated know very well that their “registration” can be revoked at any time.

In Argentina, we were always conscious that we had at all costs to avoid entering the radar screen of the National Registry of Religion. Once under investigation, the results could be unpredictable and serious. The situation was made worse by the fact that Adventists were not registered as a religion, but as a sect. On this basis, the functions that the Registry allowed were further limited. Among others activities, for example, it was difficult to sign a contract to rent a hall for evangelistic meetings. This limited evangelism to church buildings, but it is difficult to break the psychological barriers that prevent a non-Adventist from entering a non-Catholic church. One of the objectives of the National Register of Religions, without a doubt, was to make proselytizing as difficult as possible.

In 1954, when I arrived at Southern Missionary College in Tennessee, I was happy to hear frequent references, both in the pulpit and in the classroom, to the importance of holding firm the separation of church and state. There were reasons for this. In the Bible Belt, there was no lack of Blue Laws, laws that prohibited merchants from opening their shops on Sunday. As such, they were Sunday laws. Within the Adventist apocalyptic framework these municipal, county, and state laws were the harbingers of the National Sunday Law.

Needles to say, for Adventists the ultimate sign of the Second Coming is not some political event in far away Jerusalem, as the fundamentalist religious right has been popularizing for decades. The Great Sign that the Second Coming is near is the union of the religious powers that brings about the passage of the National Sunday Law. Of course, in the American South to which I arrived fifty-five years ago there already were Sunday laws that prohibited buying and to selling on the Lord’s Day.

One of the Southern professors who had an influence on me was Leif Kr. Tobiassen, a Norwegian man of the world who specialized on the then-incipient United Nations organization. He frequently referred to another organization of which he was also a proud member: Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Tobiassen lamented that Adventists were not giving this voluntary organization more support. To this day, it is at the forefront in the struggle to keep church and state separate.

I was very happy when I learned that the director of this organization was the special speaker at the last Annual Conference of Spectrum and AAF. It was about time. But the issue church/state has radically changed lately, and there is no question that the determination to hold firm separation has been weakening, now that the threat of a National Sunday Law seems to be fading to a nebulous horizon. The Blue Laws of the Bible Belt have by and large disappeared. Commercialism has enjoyed a smashing victory over religion. One may even say that commercialism has silently penetrated it, and that religion has become one more manifestation of commercialism and the entertainment culture that it sustains.

Adventism, it is to be lamented, continues to cultivate a persecution complex, and many have high expectations for the imposition of the National Sunday Law. However, although in popular culture intolerance and violence manifest themselves every day in different aspects of life, the official policies of the United States have consistently progressed toward a society ever freer of prejudices and abuses. As a result, the anti-Catholic phobia that permeated public attitudes in the nineteenth century is no longer a major factor in the life of the nation.

The World Council of Churches, which Adventists fifty years ago viewed as the tool of Satan for passage of a national Sunday law, now functions unnoticed in a multicultural and multireligious environment. The state, which in the classic Adventist scenario was represented by the apostate Protestantism that in the nineteenth century (one could argue) had its hands on the wheel of the ship of state, these days is in the hands of nonbelievers, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, Catholics, Pentecostals, and Mainstream Protestants. As a result, visions of apostate Protestantism extending a hand to the Catholic Church to impose the National Sunday Law appear only in the minds of those with a predilection for conspiracy theories. They do not appear in the minds of those who posses a little understanding of our historical reality.

The issue that these days has awakened the interest of Adventists on the relationship between church and state has been determination of whether or not the church, as a religious body, should or should not declare itself in favor of a proposed law in a referendum. It seems clear that, like many other religious bodies that once struggled to maintain separation of church and state, the Adventist Church lately also wishes to be involved in the decisions taken by the state. Of course, given the heavy messianic complex that informs the identity of the American people, this is to be expected. Although the U.S. Constitution prevents the establishment of an official church and prohibits regulation of the religious activities of its citizens, churches have had a strong influence in the laws of this country for some time.

In 1967, I was awarded citizenship in the United States. As a citizen, I cherish the privileges and assume the responsibilities. When I travel outside the country, I strongly defend its values and correct the negative judgments of others, which most often are based on misunderstandings or false information. Still, everywhere I continue to be proud of my Uruguayan citizenship, which I have never renounced. It is comforting to be the citizen of a state without a religious identity and messianic illusions.

Herold Weiss is a professor emeritus at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. For twenty years, he was an affiliate professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, in a western Chicago suburb. He is the author of A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity.

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