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Religion and Human Rights (24): Why and How Do We Separate State and Church? And What Are the Consequences for Religious Liberty?

A bit more about the proper role of religion in a modern democracy (see here for the original post I’m building on). I know it’s making things more simple than they actually are, but one can see the history of modern democracy as a continuing and progressive effort of the law and government policy to escape from religion. The religious wars of 16th and 17th centuries convinced the states of Europe that they had no choice but to put themselves above the factions. Only by loosening their ties with a favored religion and guaranteeing a free space for every religion and for equal liberty of worship, were they able to channel religious competition away from violence. As religion had become a dangerous and dividing power, it became clear that the state had to separate itself from the church, not only to keep the peace, but also to maintain itself.

The U.S. constitution later followed, inspired by the characteristic religious diversity of the U.S., itself the result of imperfect religious liberty in Europe. In the U.S., the separation of church and state was instituted in the First Amendment, more specifically the part of the Amendment called the “establishment clause” (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”). Religious liberty and the equal respect for all religions was also instituted in the First Amendment (more specifically in the part called the “free exercise clause“: “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]“). Obviously, separation and religious liberty interact, but I’ll focus first on separation, and then later I’ll discuss how separation influences liberty.

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

Image via Wikipedia

So the effort of western democratic states to separate themselves from religion is not based on a negative value judgment about religion as such, but simply on the need for peaceful coexistence, tolerance and mutual respect between religions, and this tolerance and respect should promote the rights to equal liberty of all religions. Separation of church and state is therefore a means to protect religious liberty. By removing its ties to a favored religion, a state is no longer tempted to impose that religion and persecute other religions. It will also stop favoring the official religion and imposing a competitive disadvantage on non-official religions.

And this need for peaceful coexistence, tolerance and respect will only become more important in an age in which global mobility and globalization encourage coexistence of and hence competition between different religions. If a multicultural state today aligns itself with one particular religion, even in a very loose way, it will squander its authority as a neutral arbiter between religions and as a peacemaker, and it will undo equal religious liberty because its association with one religion will necessarily favor this religion and give it more power and hence more freedom.

The question whether there should be separation is settled in all modern democracies, precisely because of the salience of these reasons. Sure, other reasons for and justifications of separation are cited as well, and can be just as convincing to some: laws based on one religion should be rejected because they show disrespect to people adhering to other religions, or these people will fail to see the legitimacy of these laws; in the words of Rawls, laws should be grounded in reasons that are accessible to “common human reason”, i.e. secular reason; religiously inspired laws often imply violations of fundamental rights etc.

Whatever the reasons given, most democratic citizens accept that there has to be some kind of separation. The only dispute that remains is the degree or type of separation. Should religion be completely banned from public and political discussions? Should religious reasons for legislation be completely and always unacceptable? Or can they be accommodated when other, secular reasons are also available (i.e. the Lemon test) and when the law in question doesn’t harm fundamental rights? Those and other questions remain essentially controversial. Below I offer an admittedly crude typology of forms of separation that democracies can and do apply. But before that I want to make another point that is important to keep in mind when discussing separation of church and state.

And that point is the remarkable similarity between legal and religious modes of thought. It is this similarity that has led to the original and historical entanglement between religion and politics and that has therefore initiated the attempts to dislodge politics from religion. Both religion and politics are about the realization of morality. They both encourage people to engage in some forms of action and to disengage from other forms of action, and the distinction between forms of action is a moral one in both law and religion. Both law and religion differentiate between right and wrong actions, even if they may not always use the same adjectives (the law doesn’t talk about sinful behavior for example). Both use ritual and judgment. Of course, some religions – notably the Abrahamic religions – tend more towards the legal mode of thought than others. Confucianism, by contrast, sees the law negatively, as a impediment to the internalization of norms of conduct, and therefore an obstruction to virtue.

Let’s now return to the modes of separation. In an effort that’s clearly bordering on the simplistic, I count 6 types of relationship between politics/law and religion, in descending order of separateness, from complete separation to complete lack of separation:

1. Secularism or strict separation

According to this view, there should be an impregnable wall between church and state (Jefferson’s “wall of separation”), and the government should be essentially secular. The archetype is of course French laïcité (often translated as “secularism”), the product of centuries of nefarious involvement by Catholics in French public life. It entails the rejection of religious involvement in government affairs (as well as absence of government involvement in religious affairs, by the way). That includes rejection of religion in public education, for example. Secularism implies a restrictive understanding of “private life” where religion is supposed to belong. In “public” (which includes for example public schools) religious people should act as citizens (“citoyens”) and also appear as such (hence the controversy over Muslim dress in France, see here and here). Secularism produces a reasonable level of religious freedom in society and private life but often relatively harsh restrictions on religious activity in government, law, politics and public life.

Another problem is that it seems impossible to avoid that religious values and religious moral sensibilities influence the law. And even if it were possible, it would be undesirable, in my view. Religion can be a valuable source in public discourse (and I say this as an agnostic). And neither should one underestimate the power of religious argument to appeal across religious divides, or even across the divide between religion and non-belief.

2. Neutrality

Neutrality, compared to secularism, also separates church and state but imposes a less severe form of exclusion of religion from government, legislation and policy. It forbids governments from favoring or advancing a particular religion over other religions, but it also forbids favoring secularism over religion. Notwithstanding the words of Jefferson quoted above, neutrality rather than secularism is typical of the current interpretation of the U.S. constitution. Religion is allowed a far greater role in U.S. public life than in France. Elected politicians in the U.S. regularly invoke religion, and religious reasons are often used as justifications for legislation (as long as the Lemon test is respected, see above).

Yet, the U.S. government cannot provide tax money in support of religion, for example, or impose school prayer in public schools, not even if students can excuse themselves (of course, prayer while at school is not forbidden as such; on the contrary, it is protected by the free exercise clause).

3. Accommodation

Accommodation, compared to neutrality, is still a system in which church and state are separated, but to an even lesser degree. Accommodation permits a government to acknowledge that religion is an important force in society, and only prohibits laws that either coerce religious activity or fail to treat different religions equally. A state can favor a religion without coercing it. Examples of government interference with religion that accommodation would allow are: the use of public (i.e. government) school facilities by religious groups, government aid (financial or otherwise) to religious schools, or school prayer if students aren’t forced to attend or if different religions get equal prayer time.

Some say the U.S. is slowly moving from neutrality to accommodation (partly because of the influence of Justice Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court).

4. Establishment

An even lesser form of separation occurs when one church is the established church (e.g. the Church of England) but other religions are still tolerated and have a measure of freedom. Establishment can mean either a “state church” or a “state religion”. A “state church” is created by the state as in the cases of the Anglican Church or the Church of Sweden. An example of “state religion” is Catholicism in Argentina. In the case of the former, the state has absolute control over the state church, but in the case of the latter, in this example, the Vatican has control over the church.

The problem here is that non-established churches, although they may be tolerated and even enjoy a large measure of freedom, aren’t treated equally, perhaps not by the law but simply because of their lack of equal recruitment power. So they are disadvantaged and hence there’s no equal religious freedom. Even if non-official religions are not actively persecuted or discriminated against, they are worse off when one religion is established because they have less means to influence the public as the official state religion. They are not as free as the official religion.

5. Entanglement

This takes establishment a step further. The state’s favorite religion is no longer a “primus inter pares”. Other, non-official, non-established or non-favorite religions suffer not just a competitive disadvantage because of their non-official character, but also relatively severe restrictions of their religious liberty (of their recruitment efforts, their freedom of worship etc.).

6. Fusion/theocracy

Law and religion are the same, and separation is effectively and completely undone. The law is an instrument in the realization of religious law and morality. Rather than merely competitive disadvantage or restrictions on worship and recruiting, religions suffer outright prohibition and persecution. Of course, the same can occur when a state has adopted atheism as its official ideology, and actively persecutes religion as such, rather than some religions in particular. However, this has become the exception since the demise of communism, and only occurs in countries such as China, Cuba and North Korea.

Some claim that certain modern Islamic republics or countries that have implemented Shari’a law are examples of theocracy (see here). But is a pure theocracy possible? Not even the most totalitarian interpretations of a religion will unearth rules for everything. Hence, some laws are bound to be rooted in something else than religion. We see that theocracy, like the other extreme (secularism), finds it difficult to remain pure.

Separation and liberty

Now, if you agree that a separation between state and church is necessary for the protection of religious liberty, as I argued at the beginning of this post, then it may be useful to compare these 6 different types of separation (going from complete separation to complete absence of separation) with regard to the respective consequences for religious liberty of each type.

I propose the following model, which I would like to call the “Spagnoli Curve” (just kidding; “inverted Nike Curve” will be more catchy I think, just turn the graph upside down and you’ll see what I mean).

religious liberty and degrees of separation of church and state

religious liberty and degrees of separation of church and state

You see that secularism performs slightly less well with regard to religious liberty than neutrality or accommodation, but better than establishment, and obviously also better than entanglement and theocracy (the latter receiving a zero score). Difficult to say whether neutrality offers more religious liberty than accommodation or vice versa.

Some data

[T]wo-in-three people in the world today live in countries with high levels of restrictions on religion. The report gauges the level of restrictions due both to government actions and to acts of violence and intimidation by private individuals, organizations and social groups. … 64 nations, about one-third of the countries in the world, have high or very high restrictions on religion. The brunt of these restrictions are often felt most directly by religious minorities. … Among all world geographic regions, the Middle East and North Africa have the highest government and social restrictions on religion, while the Americas are the least restrictive region on both measures. … In 75 countries, or four-in-ten countries in the world, national or local governments limit efforts by religious groups or individuals to persuade others to join their faith. In 178 countries (90%), religious groups must register with the government for various purposes, and in 117 (59%) countries the registration requirements resulted in major problems for, or outright discrimination against, certain faiths. (source)

More on religious liberty here.

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6 thoughts on “Religion and Human Rights (24): Why and How Do We Separate State and Church? And What Are the Consequences for Religious Liberty?

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