Religion in government in Lebanon

Imagine this: Suppose the U.S. Constitution required that the president of the United States be a Presbyterian, the speaker of the House be a Catholic, and the president of the Senate be Jewish? Sounds preposterous, right?

Well, come to Lebanon! Here, the president of the country must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the Parliament must be a Shiite Muslim. It's part of what's called the National Pact. But that's just the beginning of religion/state intermingling in this fascinating country. (FYI: These three religious traditions are numerically the largest in this country.)

I am visiting Lebanon for a week to explore its "God and government" connections for the radio show I host, "Interfaith Voices."

I came here knowing about this National Pact, but as I talked to Lebanese citizens here, I began to realize just how intertwined religion and state are in this country. For example, if you want to find a government job, there is no neutral civil service exam. Instead, most people approach a cleric in their faith tradition and seek his help in finding employment. Why? Priests and imams have connections in the government here, and favors are often exchanged when needed.

This includes the Maronite Christian church, as well. (This church is Catholic and recognizes the pope.) The archbishop of Beirut, Paul Matar, whom I interviewed in his office, said he has helped people get government jobs at times. He did not mention any other favors he offered or received.

Another example: Suppose you want to get married civilly, not in a church or mosque. Until last year, that was utterly impossible unless you flew to Cyprus. But just recently, the first couple got married in a civil ceremony in modern Lebanon -- in 2013, to be exact. She is a Sunni Muslim; he is a Shiite Muslim. And since everything here is based on one's "sect," including your ID card (which is necessary here), they had to renounce their sect -- at least on the ID card -- to get married civilly. They did it, and about 70 other couples have followed suit. But it's still difficult in a country where just about everything is determined by religion.

Then there is the world of censorship. When a book or movie or play is about to go public, government censors examine it for "objectionable" content, but they routinely consult religious leaders in the process. And it's the religious view that counts.

But most amazing of all: Religion has even affected soccer matches to the point where fans are forbidden to attend national soccer matches! That's right: Teams play soccer with no one in the stands because the teams here are owned by political parties or political leaders, and these are affiliated with religious groups. Thus, in the past at least, soccer games became the sites for violent religious/political rioting.

Sometimes, Americans criticize attempts to separate religion and state in the U.S. Some Americans say that the U.S. is too irreligious, etc. Well, all I can say is this: Visit Lebanon and count your blessings.

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