A contradiction in Church/State separation.

There are two main elements in what has been called religion in the West for the last few hundred years: on the one hand it is private – the basic place of true religion is the heart and conscience where the individual communes with God. On the other hand, religion is seen as containing the threat of irrational violence. It deals with absolute values and is based on faith, and so gives warrant for extreme actions. From the Thirty Years War to 9-11, (so the argument goes) there is a reason to see religious disputes as particularly irrational, irresolvable, and extreme.

The necessary consequence of both these ideas is that the public as such must be irreligious and is charged with making sure that religion is kept private and away from the coercive tools of power. Thus the separation of Church and state is defended both by the religious, who are convinced that this is necessary to preserve the private, poor, and devotional character of true religion; and from those who are hostile to religion and see it as a source of fundamentalist extremism. Thus both sides work for the same mediate goal, but have completely opposite ultimate goals: the religious divide Church and state with the hope of making the Church more pure and more perfect; those hostile to religion divide Church from state as a half-measure to eliminating it altogether.

About these ads

4 Comments

  1. Crude said,

    January 4, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    Part of the reason is that state involvement in Church activities is seen as a corrupting influence – in fact, the Thirty Years war may well be a better example for the religious side of the argument than the irreligious side.

    As for the irreligion side – I always wonder how that argument can still be made given secular martyrdom and atrocities throughout history, but especially the 20th century. It seems to be an attempt to try and suggest that religious people, as opposed to irreligious, are prone to atrocities or extreme acts. Can anyone still really believe that?

    • January 4, 2013 at 12:56 pm

      Two Responses:

      1.) I think this is why it’s important that the defense of Church/State separation comes from two opposed fronts that between them capture most of the population: it’s defended both by those who think religion is violent and those who think it is ennobling, though this nobility is seen as essentially private and personal. This is why even when it becomes implausible to argue that religion should be forced out the public sphere because it is uniquely violent, there is still a strong desire to keep it out of the public sphere because it is essentially private and personal.

      2.) By itself, the idea that religion is a source of violence is not enough to marginalize it, but when we add to this the idea that religion is seen as essentially private it becomes a virtue to press it out of the public sphere. Stalinists were violent too, but there is no widespread idea that politics (or some political idea) should be kept private, and so the violence of Stalinism doesn’t lead us to thinking that political ideologies ought to be forced out of the public sphere. Violence in religion is viewed as proof that it needs to be kept in the walls of a church, or, as Solzhenitsyn tells us it comes to, within the walls of one’s own skull.

      As William Cavenaugh explains, the upshot of this is that “religion” ends up meaning “whatever belief I want to eliminate from the public sphere”.

      • Crude said,

        January 4, 2013 at 1:12 pm

        This is why even when it becomes implausible to argue that religion should be forced out the public sphere because it is uniquely violent, there is still a strong desire to keep it out of the public sphere because it is essentially private and personal.

        I agree with what you say about the reasoning that’s going on. I actually suspect part of the problem is that ‘the separation of Church and State’ was formulated as an idea back when there was far more of a homogeneous culture, and quite a lot of essentially religious ideas were treated as secular ideas because, hey – both the Catholic and the Protestant agree on these.

        Stalinists were violent too, but there is no widespread idea that politics (or some political idea) should be kept private, and so the violence of Stalinism doesn’t lead us to thinking that political ideologies ought to be forced out of the public sphere.

        Well, it does lead to people sometimes thinking particular political ideologies ought to be forced out of the public sphere. I’ve heard people condemn ‘nationalism’ on similar terms. Of course, I’ve also heard it treated as another form of religion on those terms too.

        The Cavenaugh quote does seem apt. I think it’s a sticky situation. I also think part of the problem is there’s a very selective use of the word ‘secular’. I’ve had some people blanch when I described some past/present state-sanctioned slavery as a ‘secular institution’. They seemed under the impression that if an act or institution was bad, maybe it was religious, maybe it was just plain wrong. But secular? No, secular only applies as a description of ‘nice’ things.

  2. JM said,

    January 5, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    This is interesting. I had never thought about it like this before.

    It seems to me that this might be more accurately characterized as a contradiction in contemporary motivations for the separation of Church and State.

    The way I always understood the motivations for separation was that it was necessary to protect religious liberty, and if the State gave official recognition to a particular Church, then that would make persecution of religious minorities more likely if not inevitable. State interests and Church interests would merge, and those churches which did not have the official favor of the State might be targeted, creating resentment among those disfavored churches toward the State.

    It was also my understanding that many in the Founding Generation believed that, even though separation of Church and State might be wise, religion was necessary to preserve liberty itself. Religion helped to inculcate the virtues citizens needed for a people capable of self-government. Anything that disrupted the religious health of the people — like the potential strife and disharmony that could come out of a State-sanctioned Church — would be wise to avoid.

    These are always how I understood the original motivations. Anyone who knows more about could correct me on my admittedly rough sketch above.

    Plus, on a related note, states come and go. But the Church must remain throughout the rise and fall of this or that nation. But if the State and the Church are one and the same, then when the State falls, the Church falls.

    But I agree there’s a contradiction in the contemporary motivations for separation; part of it may be because “separation” has been potentially stretched beyond its original meaning (there are contentious debates on this).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 146 other followers

%d bloggers like this: