George Will has a long essay in National Affairs on religion and the American Republic. It’s interesting in parts: as a self-professed “None,” Will reflects on the importance (but also the non-necessity) of religion as a support for American public and political life. Here’s a fragment:
[E]ven the founders who were unbelievers considered it a civic duty — a public service — to be observant unbelievers. For example, two days after Jefferson wrote his famous letter endorsing a “wall of separation” between church and state, he attended, as he and other government officials often would, church services held in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Services were also held in the Treasury building.
Jefferson and other founders made statesmanlike accommodation of the public’s strong preference, which then as now was for religion to enjoy ample space in the public square. They understood that Christianity, particularly in its post-Reformation ferments, fostered attitudes and aptitudes associated with, and useful to, popular government. Protestantism’s emphasis on the individual’s direct, unmediated relationship with God and the primacy of individual conscience and choice subverted conventions of hierarchical societies in which deference was expected from the many toward the few.
Beyond that, however, the American founding owed much more to John Locke than to Jesus. The founders created a distinctly modern regime, one respectful of pre-existing rights — rights that exist before government and so are natural in that they are not creations of the regime that exists to secure them. In 1786, the year before the Constitutional Convention, in the preamble to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson proclaimed: “[O]ur civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”
In fact, religion is central to the American polity precisely because religion is not central to American politics. That is, religion plays a large role in nurturing the virtue that republican government presupposes because of the modernity of America. Our nation assigns to politics and public policy the secondary and subsidiary role of encouraging, or at least not stunting, the flourishing of the infrastructure of institutions that have the primary responsibility for nurturing the sociology of virtue. American religion therefore coexists comfortably with, but is not itself a component of, American government.
Religion’s independence of politics has been part of its strength. There is a fascinating paradox at work in our nation’s history: America, the first and most relentlessly modern nation, is — to the consternation of social scientists — also the most religious modern nation. One important reason for this is that we have disentangled religion from public institutions.
One hears this kind of “fascinating paradox” claim frequently, but what’s much more fascinating is that one hears it from both conservative and progressive quarters. For conservatives it reinforces the myth of special American religious vigor that Americans like to tell themselves is a vital source of their collective civic health. For progressives it represents a distinctively American and putatively “pro-religion” argument for keeping religion as far away from politics as possible. American exceptionalism may be out of favor in elite circles, but this particular strain of it dies hard.
The claim is that religion is so vibrant in America only because (or uniquely because) it is so pure, so separate from public institutions. It’s an argument that Madison made famous in his “Memorial and Remonstrance” and that Justice Souter has made in his religion clause jurisprudence (see his dissent in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) and that now George Will makes. It reflects a distinctively evangelical ethic that one sees in full blossom in the writing of Roger Williams (as well as, before him, John Milton), for whom religion could never quite be pure enough–an ethic that hyper-emphasizes the unvarnished, utterly and uncomplicatedly sincere credos of what William James much later would call the gloomily intense “twice-born.”
Notice also the individualistic current on which the claim rides. It isn’t just that the state is “likely to get it wrong”; that is an argument for disestablishment (although one not available to secularists, since “it” is completely “wrong”). The deeper undercurrent of the separationist claim is that individuals, not entities, are the ones “likely to get it right”–that true-blue, healthfully zesty religiosity depends on a kind of inward exercise of discernment borne from fervent conviction that is always in peril of depurification by associational adulteration. It is a claim made primarily by those whose experience of “bad” religion was group religion– and traditional group religion at that. And the claim retains at least part of its power because of its still vital anti-clerical, anti-institutional foundations. (On Roger Williams’s views on this score, see Philip Hamburger’s extended discussion; the claim’s full-throated adoption by secular philosophers like Martha Nussbaum has seemed anachronistic to me, but it makes far more sense viewed from the perspective of an autonomous spiritual “seeker” peering through an anti-institutional lens. Andrew Koppelman has a long piece attempting to update it for modern times). Many have made the claim; surely many will continue to do so.
But is the claim true? In part, perhaps, but only with substantial qualifications of a kind that make it problematic. There is nothing inevitable (or “logical,” as George Will might put it) about religious strength that follows ineluctably from its complete separation from government. There is no iron law that says: the more we separate religion from government, the stronger religion must become. Such a claim would run headlong into many counterexamples, contemporary and ancient. The ancient examples make the claim appear patently absurd. One wants to ask: “Do you actually mean to tell me that no society which has not observed strict separation between church and state has had a flourishing religious life? So there was no flourishing religious life in any of countless pre-modern societies that existed before Milton or Locke or Roger Williams or whoever got busy?” And to take only one modern case, religion and the state have been strictly separated for some time in laic France and in other extremely secular European countries, and the strength of religious life in those countries is by all accounts much weaker than it was in prior historical periods when there was greater proximity and interpenetration of church and state.
I suppose one might argue that religious weakness in a country like France is the result of the long, noxious association of church and state that preceded separation, and that we just need some more time before a newly flourishing religiosity emerges. That seems highly dubious. Church and state have been separated in France for over a century (since 1905). How much longer is it supposed to take for this delicate flower to bloom in the desert? In fact, it seems much more likely that strict separation of church and state has either contributed to the weakening of religious life in a country like France or (even more plausibly) that it has occurred at a time when religiosity was weakening for reasons of its own–reasons unrelated to, or at least independent of, strict separationism.
If some notion of separation did in fact at one time contribute to a stronger collective religious life in the United States, the reason had little to do with any necessary connection in this respect, and more to do with the unique historical and cultural circumstances of the United States–circumstances in which the Puritan evangelicalism represented by Roger Williams’s particular style of fire-and-brimstone, garden-and-the-wilderness religiosity was much more powerful in the United States than it is today. Church-state separation may be a strategy that makes religion seem stronger, provided that one is beginning from the evangelical paradigm of the twice-born soul. But it is a different matter if religion is commonly perceived in wildly different terms and expected to perform entirely different functions.
At any rate, the action of separation on religion’s strength in America was situational and circumstantial; it was hardly causal or inevitable; and it is hardly inevitable that a policy of more stringent separationism at this juncture in the country’s history and cultural circumstances will result in a more vibrant religious life. Countries with other backgrounds and other histories who look to the United States as a model in this respect may well be misled. The pre-existing evangelical bulwark made church-state separation look like a real shot in the arm for religion, not the other way round.
It is a distinctively lawyerly foible to believe that the weakening or strengthening of broad and entrenched cultural phenomena is caused, or even substantially affected, by a government policy or a court-imposed legal rule. This is not to say that legal policies do not have social effects; of course they do. But the degree of influence often is neither unidirectional nor especially significant. There are signs that traditional forms of religiosity are weakening in the United States: the rise of the “Nones” of which George Will counts himself a member is only one such sign. The gathering strength of the Nones is occurring when religion is as a general matter more “disentangled from public institutions” than at any point in the country’s history. Perhaps the Nones and other religio-cultural movements augur new forms of religiosity in America, forms that will eventually supplant the traditional varieties of religious experience. On these matters, see several posts by my colleague Mark, who is studying this issue. But however these changes may go, government policies relating to church and state are likely to have nothing more than an unpredictable and largely incidental effect on these developments.