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On the Radical Separation of Church and State

Daniel J. Castellano (2003, revised 2006)

Modern discussions of the relationship between church and state usually assume the practical or moral necessity of a strict separation between the two institutions, as though the only alternative to this arrangement would be a form of theocracy. Even within this liberal framework, church-state issues are hotly contested, as both politics and religion speak to the heart of human reality. As Viktor Frankl observed in his concentration camp experiences, politics and religion are the last elements of culture to which a person clings, when all else is denied. It is therefore tragic that these two vital aspects of the human social psyche should ever be conceived as being essentially antagonistic, much less utterly irreconcilable. Recognizing that both politics and religion speak to matters of ethics and social justice, I will argue for the need to develop healthy relationships between churches and states, instead of the dysfunctional separation that exists in some countries. I will seriously examine arguments for radical church-state separation, and discuss the serious deficiencies of past arrangements between political and religious institutions. The historical origins of the realities and myths of church-state relations must be thoroughly explored, in order to distinguish valid arguments from misguided rhetoric.

First, we should distinguish the radical separation of church and state advocated by modern liberalism from “separation” in the ordinary sense of the term. Even in the Middle Ages, it was commonly recognized that Church and crown held separate, distinct roles. There was no true theocracy, yet this separation or distinction of powers did not imply that there could be no direct interaction between institutions. Clerics could also be feudal lords, but temporal power was not considered derivative of spiritual authority. The Pope, for example, wielded spiritual authority over all of Christendom, but held temporal authority only over several Italian states of which he was the lawful feudal lord.

The distinction between spiritual and temporal authority was recognized even by the most strenous advocate of ecclesiastical power, Pope Boniface VIII. Prior to becoming pope, Boniface had long been regarded as one of Christendom’s most eminent scholars in both canon and civil law. His bull Unam sanctam has been erroneously regarded as an attempt to subsume all civil authority under the papacy, but Boniface himself had vehemently denied this intention only months before issuing this decree. He indignantly protested that he was not so ignorant of the basic elements of law that he could not distinguish regal authority from spiritual authority. In fact, Unam sanctam borrows language from St. Thomas Aquinas (himself no advocate of theocracy), stating that, while the monarch has the full power to execute the laws, the Pope, as spiritual authority, has a right to determine whether the monarch has behaved morally in the execution of his political duties. The moral authority of the Pope would then serve as a safety valve against tyrants. The Pope did not have the temporal authority to depose a sovereign, but denouncing or excommunicating a king could diminish his authority in the eyes of his subjects.

In the medieval model, Church and state were distinct, yet permitted and even encouraged to interact with each other extensively. This constitutional arrangement was cooperative in theory, but in practice there was often conflict. Tension could arise from individual or factional political ambitions, similar to those that create conflict between modern legislatures and executives. Most famously, Philip the Fair and Pope Boniface accused each other of usurping authorities not proper to them, leading Philip to imprison Boniface. Remarkably, this notorious incident had little long-term consequences on the authority of the papacy, as subsequent popes refused to condemn Boniface or his position, and ecclesiastical authority remained largely independent of secular domination. With the possible exception of Pope Innocent III, the temporal sovereigns were usually the aggressors in conflicts between church and state, for the obvious reason that these possessed the military means of exerting power. The army of the papal states was never very powerful, and more than once failed to protect the Pope from capture. Nonetheless, the basic constitutional relationship between church and state remained largely unchanged throughout the Middle Ages, even though from time to time personal ambitions led certain princes to ignore the law and declare an inconvenient pope to be a usurper, simoniac, or heretic.

It is not our task here to defend or oppose the policies of the medieval Church, but we would be remiss if we did not frankly address the use of state power for the punishment of heretics. Today, this is commonly regarded as an abuse of state power, and an argument for the eradication of religion from government. In reality, medieval states were more aggressive in punishing heretics than most ecclesiastical institutions, and offered fewer legal protections than most inquisitional courts. Of the ecclesiastical courts, the most draconian was the Spanish Inquisition, which was largely subverted to the ends of the state. Spanish inquisitors sometimes confused nationality with religion, asserting that only those of Visigothic lineage could be true Christians. Elsewhere in Europe, heresy was regarded as a threat to social order, as alternative sects usually advocated a different arrangement of property and political power. Even if the Church had declined to punish heretics altogether, the states of Europe would have been in no way impeded. The establishment of inquisitional courts at least allowed the Church to determine whether the accused was indeed a heretic. The canonical standard was quite high, for a heresy needed to be Biblically based, publicly proclaimed, and obstinately held.

Identification between nationality and confession was feasible in a society that had a sacral character. The temporal ends of the state complemented the supernatural ends of the Church. Christianity was embedded in the very idea of what it meant to be French, or German, or English. National banners invariably displayed the sign of the cross, and the word “Christian” or “Catholic” was included in a monarch’s title. In an environment where religion and nationality are integrated, heresy amounted to revolution. If we are shocked by the ferocity with which medieval Christians persecuted heretics, we should consider how little mercy modern liberals show to political revolutionaries. In both cases, violence is legitimized by collective self-defense. We might question the presumed priority of the state’s right to exist over the individual’s right to radically alter society, but we cannot resolve this question by eliminating religion from politics, since this tension between the state and radical dissenters exists even in secular society.

In other words, the past persecutions of heretics are no argument for the elimination of religion from politics. Such events were merely special cases of a broader intolerance of social dissent. As a modern example, consider how Western nations persecuted socialist movements in the twentieth century, even when their constitutions did not forbid socialist government. Secularization of politics does nothing to guarantee a climate of political tolerance. What, then, is the objective of a radical separation of church and state?

The possibility of radically secular states in Europe became feasible in part because of the sectarianism engendered by the Protestant Reformation. This contribution should not be overstated, since, in the long run, even religiously homogeneous nations have become secular. Nonetheless, the rationale for a secular state attains its highest validity when there is no dominant confession in a particular nation. Let us overview some of the different ways Western nations attempted to resolve the church-state problem.

In Germany, the novelties of the Reformation were temporarily resolved by the ancient principle that the people ought to follow the religion of their prince. This solution was helped by the relative similarity of Lutheranism and Catholicism, which allowed the ignorant or indifferent to convert without difficulty. Also, the sheer multiplicity of German principalities enabled the devout sectarians to migrate to a state of their confession without too much difficulty. Despite these advantageous conditions, Germany was mired in religious upheavals for decades, due to displaced populations and political intrigues aimed at changing the confession of princes. Clearly, this was not a good solution to the problem of multiple sects, since it failed even in these favorable circumstances.

When Henry VIII forbade clerical subordination to the Roman pontiff, he made himself head of the English church, subordinating religion to the state. This arrangement had the advantage of stability, as it seemed to mirror the usually harmonious state-church relationship that obtained in Eastern Europe and Russia. Such a parallel was effectively undermined by Queen Elizabeth, who actively attempted to Protestantize the English church, abolishing local traditions and liturgies deemed too ‘Catholic.’ The Anglican church became an odd entity in which Catholics and Protestants shared the same hierarchy. Anglicans could be described by their tendencies toward traditional Catholicism or a more Protestant view of Christianity. Elizabeth used her role as head of the church to shape its religion in a way that favored subordination to her. She was motivated primarily by fears that a Catholicized English church would facilitate continental conspiracies to install a pro-papal monarch. The Tudor monarchy de-Catholicized the church liturgically in order to protect their dynasty against “papist” intrigues. Lutherans used similar arguments to persuade German princes to join their cause.

The English solution had two effects. First, it promoted a strong sense of nationalism, since it consciously rejected the globalism represented by the papacy. Catholic monarchies were all interconnected, and England wished to extricate herself from that web. The creation of a distinct national religion facilitated that aim, as it eliminated the need for papal approval of annulments and ecclesiastical appointments, making England answerable to no one outside of Europe. The supposed tyranny of the pontiffs was richly exaggerated by Protestant propaganda; the popes were militarily weak and exercised a strictly moral authority over monarchs in practice. Protestant Lutheran states also displayed a strong sense of national identity, crystallized by Luther’s fiery polemics exhalting the German people, their language, and their culture. The wave of anti-Semitism that accompanied the Reformation was not a mere artifact of religious fanaticism, but also a result of a deep mistrust and hatred of foreigners kindled by the revolt against Rome.

Elizabeth’s reform of the Anglican Church also had a unique solution to the problem of sectarianism. Rather than have a secular state with multiple churches, the one state-controlled church would encompass all sects. This aspect of the reform was far less successful, as devout Catholics would not submit to a Protestant hierarchy, and many Protestants found that any clerical hierarchy reeked of “papism.” To preserve monarchical claims, Elizabeth and her successors were forced to persecute the other sects, though ultimately without success. Similar problems arose in Lutheran states with substantial Anabaptist populations. Meanwhile, the Anglican Church itself increasingly came to stand for nothing, as its theology was diluted, and ultimately self-destructed as a moral force in the twentieth century. It may be credibly argued that Christianity, and religion in general, has a weaker hold on England than any nation in the world. The Anglican solution to sectarianism is ultimately detrimental to the cause of religion in general, as we should expect when its theology is shaped by secular politics.

England’s North American colonists were highly distrustful of the Church of England and other corporate entities that promoted political favoritism. Each of the thirteen colonies that formed the original United States of America had a different political solution to religious problems, depending on its sectarian composition. Some, like Massachusetts, had originally beeen theocracies, while others were purely secular. The union of states formed by the 1787 constitution was to be free of foreign influences. Just as England was wary of the pope, so were the Americans paranoid about the English church. Worried that the pernicious effects of a state church could lead to foreign intervention or civil strife, the framers of the constitution included an amendment that the government could establish no religion. In the twentieth century, this amendment was radically re-interpreted to mean that the state could not advocate Christianity or even theism in general. Considering the highly provincial attitudes of many colonials, plus the total absence of non-Christian religion in the colonies, it is highly unlikely that such a radical interpretation was considered by the framers. Such a law would never have been ratified by the deeply religious colonials.

Americans speak of a “separation of church and state” as though this were part of their constitution. In fact, it is a phrase used in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, reflecting his deist preferences. On religious matters, he was quite isolated, being much more progressive and republican than most of his compatriots. The First Amendment does not estabish a wall between church and state, but forbids the state from establishing a state religion. Modern misinterpretations of this principle would have us believe that a state official may not make statements reflecting any sort of religious beliefs. The result of such a view, if taken seriously, would be to abolish religious expression from political discourse and impose de facto state atheism.

Before we return to the American problem, we may look at how France dealt with the question of a state religion. France remained predominantly Catholic, with a substantial Huguenot population, after the Reformation. When the French Revolution came, little distinction was made between clerical and non-clerical feudal privilege. The revolutionaries presumed they had a mandate to reform society completely, and saw no moral difficulty in changing the relationship between Church and state. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy would have made the French Catholic Church a Rousseauian state religion, an ill-conceived fit if ever there was one. Clerics would be elected by laity, even those who were not Catholic. This is similar to the attempted English solution of placing all sects in one organization, but here the government was too weak to ever impose it. Instead, this miscalculation divided support of the revolutionary government, and rekindled the possibility of counterrevolution from abroad. Ultimately, long-term relations with the Roman Church would be decided by the Concordat signed by Napoleon. While recognizing the Church’s right to internal self-government, Napoleon would not grant the Church the privilege of being recognized as the “dominant” religion. It would receive no special status other than what it enjoyed de facto by being the religion of ninety percent of the population.

Other nations, particularly in Latin America, have accorded the Church the status of a dominant religion, giving it special privileges over other sects. Far from being antithetical to modern democracy, it is arguably essential to democracy that a view held by ninety percent of a population be endorsed by a state. Seventy-five percent is usually sufficient mandate to rewrite a constitution, and it is rare for ninety percent of the population to agree on any political matter. When the state endorses a religion, it does not thereby deny the rights of the minority, as long it allows the free expression of other religions. Thus the United States constitution identifies the non-establishment of religion and the free expression of religion as two distinct conditions.

The Italian Republic recognized the Catholic Church as the state religion in the 1920s, a sensible act when the nation was almost unanimously Catholic. In 1984, this special status was removed, and since then, a significant Muslim population has made a pluralistic attitude more practicable. This has already led to controversy about displaying religious symbols, similar to what is found in the U.S. Religious pluralism is falsely interpreted to imply the abolition of religious expression by the state. Before considering this controversy in detail, let us review one final example.

The Canadian government actually subsidizes religious schools of a minority sect, in this case the Catholic religion. This arrangement is a result of the original conditions of union between Quebec and Canada. The French Quebecois would agree to union only if the preservation of their culture was guaranteed, and this naturally included the French language and religion. Thus, throughout English-speaking Canada, state documents and public signs are bilingual. By a similar rationale, Catholic schools are subsidized so Quebecois are not forced to use secular schools. The Canadian example is illustrative of the fact that state favoritism toward a particular sect may be required to guarantee minority rights, not just the majority. A result equivalent to the Canadian model might be achieved through the school voucher system often proposed by U.S. conservatives. This proposal is usually shouted down as violating the ‘establishment’ clause of the First Amendment, or as undermining secular education, as though the latter were a necessity of democracy. Now it is time we seriously address the role of religion in modern democratic republics.

True separation of church and state is practically, if not metaphysically, impossible, since both religion and politics overlap in the domain of public ethics. In reality, when we pretend to separate church and state, we make one adopt some of the roles of the other: the state becomes more churchlike or the church becomes a state. A popular aphorism holds that it is impossible to legislate morality: on the contrary, it is impossible to legislate anything but morality. Any law, decree, or statute, whether it pertains to criminal law or dry economic regulation, is necessarily binding on the public conscience if it is to have the nature of law. When we say that a law binds the conscience, that means members of society feel obligated to obey the law even if they might get away with breaking it. If nothing but fear of punishment caused people to obey the law, we would live in a state of anarchy, as not even the most tyrannical state could control a universally disobedient populace. Indeed, those individuals who do live only by the rule of force are appropriately called ‘lawless’ or ‘outlaws,’ since they have not internalized the law in their conscience. If law is to have any effect in ordering a society, it must have a moral force; that is, it must bind the conscience. On the other hand, if people obey the state only out of fear of the police and the army, the law is superfluous and the rule of force is what really governs society. Law as law is necessarily moral in character.

Religions also make moral demands, since the practice of religion fulfills man’s duties to his God or gods. In fact, the only distinction between a church and a state is that a church is a society directed to a supernatural end, while a state is a society ordered to a natural end. In remote antiquity, both these roles were often contained in a single institution of kingship, which had both a political and religious leadership role. Medieval Europe was the first society to spend centuries fleshing out the distinctions between secular and temporal authority. This controversy was generally resolved through peaceful legal developments; sensational quarrels like that between Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII tended to have few long-term consequences.

The unravelling of this uneasy reconciliation was triggered by the Protestant Reformation and the accompanying rise of nationalist absolutism in the sixteenth century. During this period, thinkers such as Bodin, Grotius, and Hobbes propounded the idea that a nation has an absolute right of sovereignty which may not be infringed upon by any external power. This uncompromising attitude regarding sovereignty had no precedent in medieval political thought, and has served to undermine all future attempts to establish an international order and abolish the rule of ‘might makes right’ among nations. Grotius indeed spoke of a putative ‘right of conquest’, and a ‘right of first occupation’, principles which were often invoked in the subsequent age of European imperialism. It is no accident, then, that in all of the modern examples we have examined, the state has aggrandized itself at expense of the supranational Catholic Church. Democracy is not inherently anti-Catholic, but absolutist nationalism certainly is.

Nonetheless, the secularization of modern states appears to be based on broader principles than Gallicanism and its counterparts. We might say that society, even at its lower levels, is significantly less religious than in previous years, and therefore it is only fitting that the role of religion in public discourse should be weakened, since society is no longer ordered to supernatural ends. Of course, the secularization of a state tends to facilitate the dissipation of religious sentiment it claims to reflect, but for our purposes, let us regard the waning of religion in the West as a brute fact, and consider the practical implications of this fact.

In the modern era, society no longer has a sacral character as it did in the Middle Ages; to be a Christian is no longer built into the notion of what it means to be French. This is true even for those Frenchmen who happen to be Christian, however much they may wish it were otherwise. While political society itself is divorced from any specific supernatural end, the vast majority of individuals in modern societies do have religious beliefs, even if they are often fragmented by schism or lukewarm in their devotions. As members of a religion, whether that religion has a billion members or only one, humans necessarily have a dual citizenship: their nation-state and their religious society. Both make ethical claims on the individual, and when the state is unmindful of keeping its statutes in compliance with religious directives, the possibility for conflict abounds.

Rousseau abhorred this condition of divided loyalty, and sought to resolve it by keeping the state concerned strictly with natural ends, promoting a national civic religion. He was more charitable toward religion than most other philosophes, thinking it necessary to public order that citizens believe in the immortality of the soul and divine judgment. Rousseau’s modest religious concessions hint at the possibility embraced by medieval thinkers: that natural ends can be properly understood only in the broader context of the supernatural ends to which they are subordinate. In the absence of God, the injunction against murder is improperly understood as a merely practical measure. Human life, in a secular society, can at best be valuable, but never sacred. Recent legislation offensive to the sanctity of life, and contrary to the religious mores of the majority, has borne out this concern.

A radical separation of church and state ultimately undermines democracy, notwithstanding the fact that it originated in part from a concern for human liberty. Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion have existed even in societies with a state religion, so secularization is hardly necessary to secure these freedoms. A secular state is preferred by religious minorities and the non-religious, and is probably the most viable form of government when there is no demographically dominant religion. Even secular government does not require a radical expulsion of religion from the political sphere. The secularization model of modern France shows the folly of this extreme, forbidding students in public schools to wear any prominent religious symbols. Here, supposed concern for religious liberty has clearly yielded to a positive distaste for religion. It is no accident that the non-religious most stridently advocate this false freedom, which would actually banish religious expression from the public sphere.

Against this extreme, the American model is increasingly advocated as an ideal harmony of church-state relations, but this harmony is a plain myth. The non-establishment clause of the First Amendment has prevented any church from wielding substantial political influence in the United States, leaving all political power concentrated in the state. The Founding Fathers were highly distrustful of any corporate entities that might rival the power of the Republic, so they opposed guilds, trade unions, corporations, and any form of feudal privilege. By eviscerating the political power of the churches, they established the first emphatically non-Christian state in the Christian world and guaranteed a form of government that was unanswerable to any moral authority. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli explicitly stated that the government of the United States was not grounded in the principles of the Christian religion, or any other religion. The people of the United States remained mostly Christian, but no statesman would so much as mention the name of Jesus. The American model is a success only from the perspective of the state, as it represents the triumph of the state in wresting all public authority from the churches, rendering them essentially private clubs. They are even weaker than that, since they are forbidden to lobby or sponsor political candidates, yet businesses and other secular interests are permitted to do so. Is it any wonder that our politicians are driven by economic interests?

The current mode of American church-state relations is even more dysfunctional, as the last forty years have witnessed a series of increasingly broad judicial attacks against even the most innocuous expressions of religion in the public sphere. The non-establishment of religion, we are now told, entails an injunction not merely against favoring a particular church, but even espousing theism in general. This trend approaches the French model of practical state atheism, and needlessly antagonizes vast segments of the population. Should this trend prove definitive, the religious beliefs of the majority will be completely banished from public discourse.

People will not necessarily abandon their religion as the state becomes secularized, but they will adopt the dual citizenship that Rousseau abhorred and that the separation of church and state pretended to resolve. In this sense, the radical separation of church and state is a failure, for instead of establishing harmony, it papers over religious differences by vesting all political authority, and thus all public moral authority, into the state. Religious morality is relegated to the private sphere, and only the statutes of the state demand obedience and compel conscience. The separation of church and state ultimately means that the state is the only church that counts for anything. This contradiction with democracy is not lost on the religious majority, and will cause more than a few to reconsider the church-state question.

It is obviously impractical for a religiously pluralist society to impose a state religion or even an explicit sacral character to the mission of the state. A more feasible path would be to allow churches the same political voice that is permitted to every other special interest group. It is unclear why allowing a church to sponsor a political candidate is inherently more corrupt than allowing a business to do so. Furthermore, state and local governments should be permitted to use religious displays and religious language in places that are more or less culturally homogeneous. The use of such language or iconography does not impede non-believers from practicing their religion. The majority should not be forced to censor itself to appease an intransigent minority that claims to be offended by the mere sight of another religion's symbol. If this logic were upheld in earlier times, nearly all the architectural and artistic wonders of the world would have been banned. Before we can even consider these modest steps, there must begin a radical transformation of the current cultural assumptions regarding the public role of religion.


© 2006 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org

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