Tag Archives: Separation of Church and State

The Connection of Separationism and Limited Government

In rereading a wonderful piece by Professor Michael McConnell about Edmund Burke’s view of the relationship between an established religion and a regime of toleration of religion, I came across this deeply insightful discussion of the close connection of a separationist idea of religion and government (as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, for example) and the idea that government itself had very limited functions in the first place:

There is a close, but generally unrecognized, connection between the idea of the “Wall of Separation” and the idea of a radically limited government. Once government shakes off its limited role and concerns itself with the general welfare of the people, including their cultural and intellectual lives, it has leapt the “Wall” and entered the traditional sphere of religion. In contrast to many of our Founders, Burke had a more modern conception of the jurisdiction of the state, which did not permit him the easy answer of a “Wall of Separation.” If the government is “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection,” then it necessarily will be conveying a collective teaching on science, art, virtue, and perfection (whether we label the teaching a “religion” or not). It follows not that an establishment is desirable, but that it is inescapable. Some sort of opinions will necessarily guide the state in its “superintending control over…the publicly propagated doctrines of men.” If the Jeffersonian-Madisonian ideal of the limited state is abandoned as naive or outmoded, then the serious questions become how to protect against arbitrary or tyrannical use of this power and how to respect the legitimate rights of those who disagree with the official orthodoxy.

Michael W. McConnell, Establishment and Toleration in Edmund Burke’s ‘Constitution of Freedom,’ 1995 Supreme Court Review 393, 444-45 (with citations to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and his Speech on the Petition of the Unitarians).

Was Madison Right? Shiffrin on DeGirolami on Roy

The eminent First Amendment scholar (and my friend) Steve Shiffrin has a smart post disagreeing with my own criticisms of Olivier Roy’s column a few days ago concerning the European political right and its nominal association, but substantive dissociation, with the major Christian churches of Europe. Actually there is not much to disagree with in Steve’s post: insofar as my post suggests that the problems that attend church state associations simply have no application in Europe, surely Steve is right to object. Here are just a few additional ruminations in response:

First, I take Steve’s post to be in some measure a friendly amendment to my own. The  principal point I wanted to make about Professor Roy’s column is that to the extent that church-state association or connection is a problem in Europe, that is nothing new and has little to do with today’s particular political trade winds. So that while the contemporary political right makes for a fat target, Professor Roy’s real objection is to the larger model of church-state relations that has predominated in Europe (for good and, as Madison had it, for ill) for the hundreds of years that preceded the last handful. Steve’s post is, I think, consistent with this criticism.

Second, Steve’s post is also a reminder to me that the strength or vigor of a religious tradition is itself a contested concept. A highly Protestant or Evangelical view of religion’s core or essence will see weakness in associational or public institutional characteristics and strength in individual commitment and the purity of interior zeal (I note that Steve cites Stanley Hauerwas!). Here’s some of what I wrote a few months ago (in response to George Will) about the claim that separationism must always and necessarily strengthen religion, much of which seems applicable here too:

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)…. 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 [of religious strength's source in separationism] rides. It isn’t just that the state is “likely to get it wrong”; that is an argument for disestablishment…. 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….

But is the claim true? In part, perhaps, but only with substantial qualifications of a kind that make it problematic. There is nothing inevitable….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.

I take all of these points to be consistent with Steve’s final paragraph, in which he writes: “The factors leading to religiosity or its decline are complicated and controversial, and the decline in European religiosity is palpable. I would not contend that the close ties between religion and the state are the only explanation. After all, those ties persisted for a long time without a decline as DeGirolami observes. I would add that those ties can be helpful.” Quite so.

Finally, a friend wrote to me indicating that he was dubious that “separationist” was a proper description of Professor Roy’s own views. That’s an interesting observation as well. I made the association because separationism has a long and rich history in this country. It is a view that proceeds in part from the position that the mingling of church and state is a corrupting force for both and it maintains that the cultural and identitarian features of religion which can permeate the political sphere are not a positive thing for either religion or government. I found this latter theme to be very much emphasized in Professor Roy’s piece; indeed, I found it to be crucial to the claims he makes. But separationism is an American phenomenon. And it may be difficult to transplant the flora of particular, culturally contingent church state arrangements to exotic soils and expect them to blossom in quite the same ways.

Olivier Roy on “The Closing of the Right’s Mind”

The distinguished sociologist of religion, Olivier Roy (author of a very fine book called Holy Ignorance), has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today entitled, “The Closing of the Right’s Mind” (no citation to Alan Bloom?). The large point in the piece has to do with the secularization of certain political parties in Europe that were formerly linked to the Christian churches of Europe, principally the Catholic Church. Here’s the opening:

The longstanding link between the political right and various Christian churches is breaking down across Europe. This is largely because the right, like much of European society, has become more secular. Yet this hardly indicates progress: Animated by an anti-Islamic sentiment, the right’s position is endangering freedom of religion, as well as secularism and basic democratic traditions.

Up to the 1950s, the cultural values endorsed by the right throughout much of Europe were not so different from the traditional religious values of Catholics and Protestants. Homosexuality was criminalized in many countries. Children born out of wedlock had fewer rights than “legitimate” children. The law in most countries protected family values, censored some forms of pornography and condemned what the French call mauvaises moeurs (roughly, loose morals).

The changes brought on by the decades that followed–in which rights and values of sexual autonomy came to dominate the scene–were initially the purview of the political left but eventually, Professor Roy notes, came to be adopted by the political right as well. And that has resulted in the fracturing of connections between the political right and the traditional European churches, which largely do not subscribe to those values.

The “twist,” however, is that the political right has assumed the mantle of Christianity without claiming any of its values. It has dissociated itself from Christianity; it has secularized. But it has simultaneously maintained that Western Europe is Christian. It has done this not because it is truly Christian–“spiritually” Christian–but for political reasons, principally for the purpose of resisting a growing Islam in Europe.

The piece is very interesting, as I say, but what principally interested me is how American it sounds. The claim that religion’s true value is its “spiritual” essence, rather than any number of other values, can be found in American separationist writings dating to Roger Williams. It has deep roots in a kind of Protestantism and Evangelicalism typical of the American experience. I would not have thought that the European experience, in which the political importance of religion was always far more prominent, was the same. And the notion that the association of politics and religion exerts a corrupting influence on religion may be traced in a direct line from James Madison all the way to David Souter’s church-state dissents. But, again, I take it that has not been the European historical experience. Indeed, Professor Roy himself notes in the fragment quoted above a period in which the political right and the European churches were plausibly connected. But if the separationist corruption argument is right, then this period of association was no less corrupt than the current condition of dissociation.

Indeed, in the view of the separationist, the previous period was just as corrupting for politics and religion as the present. This may be the reason that Professor Roy raises the Lautsi case, concerning the display of crucifixes in Italian public school classrooms, a practice which preceded by many years the current difficulties faced by European political parties. The European Court of Human Rights upheld the practice based in part on the religious culture and heritage of Italy. Professor Roy criticizes the ruling on the ground that “to defend a distinct cultural Christian identity is to secularize Christianity itself.”

Again, historically that has not been true in Europe; Christendom coexisted comfortably with Christianity for centuries, well before “secularization” in its contemporary form ever came on the scene. And even if the statement were true, its truth would have little to do with the current conditions of the political right in Europe. That statement reflects a larger vision of the nature of the relationship between church and state–a distinctively American conception of that relationship principally (though not exclusively) embraced today by the political left in this country–strict separationism. Its influence in American law, however, has been steadily declining–there are no more church-state separationists on the Supreme Court. It is striking that separationism of this sort should have such contemporary purchase for the very different historical conditions of Western Europe.

Dane on Legislative Prayer

Former CLR Forum guest Perry Dane has a typically thoughtful post about the legislative prayer decision. The post offers a distinctively Brennan-esque, separationist perspective, with two moving parts: legislative prayer should be unconstitutional for separationist reasons; but if it is to be constitutional, legislative prayer should not be policed by the Court for ecumenical sufficiency. A bit from the second half of the argument:

To forcefully strip legislative prayer of its rootedness in particular faith traditions or to demand a compulsive even-handedness in rotations of chaplains would only further trivialize and politicize the act.

That’s not to say that public prayers should be “sectarian.”  Quite the contrary.  Religious (and even sympathetic non-religious) folk can find ways to pray together. And the wisest religious traditions demand sensitivity to other faiths (and persons of no faith) in the public arena. But if the Constitution is to allow official public prayer (which, as I’ve said, it shouldn’t), then it has no business demanding such wisdom as the price of admission to the halls of government.

Richard Hooker and the “Wall of Separation”

Richard Hooker was a learned Anglican churchman and apologist writing in theRichard Hooker sixteenth century. His monumental work, “Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity,” is a wonderfully interesting but grossly neglected treatment of the relationship of church and state in England. Its subtle defense of both the distinctiveness and the non-separateness of church and state represents an early and elegant version of many of the arguments about the nature and scope of disestablishment that continue to circulate today.

In the following passage (from Book VIII), he defends the idea of the distinctiveness, but non-separateness, of the civil and religious spheres against the complaints of English dissenters. He resists what he calls the idea of “personal” separation. Note the particular phrase he uses!

We hold, that seeing there is not any man of the Church of England but the same man is also a member of the commonwealth; nor any man a member of the commonwealth, which is not also of the Church of England; therefore as in a figure triangular the base doth differ from the sides thereof, and yet one and the selfsame line is both a base and also a side; a side simply, a base if it chance to be the bottom and underlie the rest: so, albeit properties and actions of one kind do cause the name of a commonwealth, qualities and functions of another sort the name of a Church to be given unto a multitude, yet one and the selfsame multitude may in such sort be both, and is so with us, that no person appertaining to the one can be denied to be also of the other. Contrariwise, unless they against us should hold, that the Church and the commonwealth are two, both distinct and separate societies, of which two, the one comprehendeth always persons not belonging to the other; that which they do they could not conclude out of the difference between the Church and the commonwealth; namely, that bishops may not meddle with the affairs of the commonwealth, because they are governors of another corporation, which is the Church; nor kings with making laws for the Church, because they have government not of this corporation, but of another divided from it, the commonwealth; and the walls of separation between these two must for ever be upheld. They hold the necessity of personal separation, which clean excludeth the power of one man’s dealing in both; we of natural, which doth not hinder but that one and the same person may in both bear a principal sway.

Those with an interest in Hooker should check out this new review at the University Bookman by W. Bradford Littlejohn of a new edition of Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (in 3 volumes!), edited by Arthur Stephen McGrade. From Littlejohn’s review:

Here Hooker undertakes a systematic defense of the established polity of the English church against its puritan-presbyterian critics, laying broad and deep foundations in philosophy, theology, and political theory before meeting head-on the leading principles of the puritan platform and then refuting, point-by-point, their objections against each aspect of the English church’s worship and organization.

The Preface, in addition to expressing the purpose for the work, provides a keen analysis of the social circumstances that called it forth. Book I provides a theological and philosophical account of the different forms of law that govern human affairs. Book II critically examines the biblicist foundation of puritan epistemology, Book III the puritan assumption of a divine-law constitution for the church, and Book IV their first principle of liturgics: to depart as far as possible from Roman Catholicism. With these foundations laid, Hooker uses Book V to defend the disputed parts of the Book of Common Prayer, Book VI (unfinished) to critique the presbyterian doctrine of lay-elders, Book VII to defend episcopal jurisdiction, and the unfinished Book VIII to defend (and just as importantly, to define and delimit) the royal supremacy in the English church.

Wolterstorff’s “The Mighty and the Almighty”: What is Political Theology?

For an upcoming conference, I am reading Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent and The Mighty and the Almightyeminently readable book, The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology. In some future posts, I will get into his argument concerning the dual authority of the church and the state, as well as some important counterpoints to his view (he takes Augustine to be one such counterpoint, and this will also allow me to resume my Augustinian posting).

For this first post, though, I thought to explain a little bit about the subject itself. Political theology may be misinterpreted by those who are imbued with the spirit of post-20th-century American constitutionalism to be tantamount to ecclesiastical or clerical rule (or, perhaps, rule by theologians). But it is actually an account of the relationship of divine and human authority in matters of politics and governance. As Wolterstorff puts it: “[A]t the core of traditional political theology was the question of how God’s authority is related to the authority of the state.” (2) Political theology treats the question, for example, of how a person or a people can reconcile these different authorities and demands in their own lives. And it is Wolterstorff’s aim to articulate a distinctly Christian political theology in the book.

Even so, putting the problem of political theology in this fashion may sound unusual to modern ears. Even if God’s authority was once a political problem, have we not gotten past all of that? Mark Lilla, whom Wolterstorff cites early in the book, recently explained in his intellectual history of the subject that the God of political theology is actually a “stillborn God”–a God that ought not enter into the political calculations of modernity. Though I wonder whether Wolterstorff is exactly right that Lilla was offering a requiem for political theology (more like an admonition to be mindful of the dangerous endurance of political theology), Wolterstorff presents two cogent reasons for the salience of political theology today.

First, believers in God have reason to attend to political theology because the relationship of God’s law to the civil law is a perennial problem for them. And, indeed, there is a long Christian tradition stretching for more than 1000 years (from roughly 500 to 1600) that offered a compelling answer to the problem of political theology–what Wolterstorff calls the “two rules doctrine,” which he contests (more on this in future posts).

Second, political theology is not dead; rather, says Wolterstorff, it has been “flying under the radar.” (3) Wolterstorff’s primary focus here is on some of the writing of Augustine, Calvin, and John Howard Yoder (a twentieth century Christian ethicist), but I might put the point more broadly. Many accounts of political thought have buried within them a collection of assumptions–often not explicitly laid out–of the relationship between the state’s power and other powers (perhaps greater powers) that lie outside the state. Attending directly to the ways in which a political system conceives of the authority and power of different realms (including its own) helps to excavate and shine a light on its deepest commitments.

Prtichard, “Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology”

Here’s an interesting new book, Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology Religion in Public(Stanford University Press 2013) by Elizabeth A. Pritchard (Department of Religion, Bowdoin) that considers and challenges the view that John Locke sought to privatize religion and instead argues that Locke’s political theology aimed to secularize religion and make it public. John Locke’s views about religion and toleration, of course, are important as intellectual sources for the religion clauses of the US Constitution. The abstract follows.

John Locke’s theory of toleration is generally seen as advocating the privatization of religion. This interpretation has become conventional wisdom: secularization is widely understood as entailing the privatization of religion, and the separation of religion from power. This book turns that conventional wisdom on its head and argues that Locke secularizes religion, that is, makes it worldly, public, and political. In the name of diverse citizenship, Locke reconstructs religion as persuasion, speech, and fashion. He insists on a consensus that human rights are sacred insofar as humans are the creatures, and thus, the property of God. Drawing on a range of sources beyond Locke’s own writings, Pritchard portrays the secular not as religion’s separation from power, but rather as its affiliation with subtler, and sometimes insidious, forms of power. As a result, she captures the range of anxieties and conflicts attending religion’s secularization: denunciations of promiscuous bodies freed from patriarchal religious and political formations, correlations between secular religion and colonialist education and conversion efforts, and more recently, condemnations of the coercive and injurious force of unrestricted religious speech.

Radical Puritanism and Religious Vitality

In a previous post, I argued that there was no necessary connection between a policy of stringent church-state separation and the strength or vitality of religious life within the state. There have been many societies that enjoyed a flourishing religious life well before anybody got it into his head to talk about separation. And there are several modern societies that practice strict separation and whose religious life is seemingly moribund. Any correlation between separation and religious vitality, I argued, is situational and incidental. The strength of religious life within a society depends, I said, on other factors.

But suppose someone were to say: ‘No, that’s not correct. Religious strength does depend on strict separation. In today’s day and age, a strong religious life means exactly that the state is completely separated from religion. A person is most free to affirm true religious commitment just inasmuch as the state and religion are totally separate. In the modern world, the strength of a nation’s religious life depends upon that individual freedom.”

In fact, I think something like this view grounds the frequently-heard claims about the religious vitality that must arise in a strictly separated state. In my previous post, I noticed the puritanical and evangelical conception of religion that the view presupposes. I’ve been reading around in this volume on the Establishment Clause edited by T. Jeremy Gunn and John Witte, Jr., and David Little’s essay, “Roger Williams and the Puritan Background of the Establishment Clause,” offers further confirmation. Professor Little writes that it was the issue of establishment that most sharply divided Roger Williams from other New England Puritans. Disestablishment was thus in some sense the problem of an intramural dispute among puritan factions–the most radical of which was represented by Williams. Little and many others have recognized the mixture of religious and pragmatic arguments for strict separation.

It is the religious arguments that interest me here. Little writes:

Along with references to experience and reason, Williams adds extensive appeals to Christian scripture, doctrine, and history. . . . The decisive transgression took place

when Constantine broke the bounds of this his own and God’s edict, and [drew] the sword of civil power in suppressing other consciences for the [sake of] establishing the Christian [church]. [T]hen began the great mystery of the churches’ sleep, [by which] the gardens of Christ’s churches turned into the wilderness of National Religion, and the world (under Constantine’s dominion) into the most unchristian Christendom….There never was any National Religion good in this world but one [namely, ancient Israel], and since the desolation of that nation, there shall never be any National Religion good again.

No Establishment of Religion, 111-12 (quoting Williams, The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody). Little goes on to dispute Mark DeWolfe Howe’s claim that Williams was interested solely in the corruption of religion; Little believes that Williams was concerned about mutual corruption of church and state. But in either case, a theological argument against establishment of this kind can readily be inflated to serve the ends of strict separationism. And so it has been in the generations that followed, as arguments from mutual corruption have become ever more salient in the interpretation of the Establishment Clause, and have been held to require more and more separation.

Back to the initial issue though–the connection between separationism and religious vitality. The objection to my initial post, it seems to me, is a good one, but with one important proviso. Religious vitality does increase as religion and the state become more separate, provided that one adopts the radical puritan theology that Williams espoused. If one does not adopt that theology, then one is left with prudential arguments for strict separationism as conducive of religious vitality. Those prudential arguments, I believe, are entirely circumstantial and accidental; it simply is not the case, as a pragmatic matter, that strict separationism inevitably results in a strong religious life.

A committed policy of strict separationism that is not qualified by the accidents of circumstance and historical contingency depends for its support on the sort of radical puritanism in matters of religious vitality so ably articulated by Roger Williams. Might the need to adopt such theological premises occasion its own Establishment Clause problems? Something for a future post.

On the Claim that Separation Strengthens Religion

George Will has a long essay in National Affairs on religion and the American SeparationRepublic. 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.

Religion and the Yasukuni Shrine Controversy

At Via Meadia, Walter Russell Mead has been doing a great job covering the controversy surrounding visits last week by top Japanese officials to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine; in Shinto belief, it houses the souls of millions of people who died in the service of the Japanese Empire, including during World War II. Among the millions commemorated are approximately 1000 convicted war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

Japan’s neighbors, China and Korea, perceive official visits to the shrine as an outrageous insult and a sign that Japan has not fully repudiated the imperialism of its past. (In response to last week’s visits, China sent a fleet of patrol ships into Japanese territorial waters.) The latest controversy erupted when top officials in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, as well more than 150 parliamentarians, visited the shrine for the annual Shinto Spring Ceremony–the largest official delegation in decades. In response to Chinese and Korean complaints, Abe doubled down, declaring in a parliamentary debate, “It’s only natural to honor the spirits of those who gave their lives for the country. Our ministers will not cave in to any threats.” Abe doubtless feels buoyed by opinion polls showing that he has a 70% approval rating from the Japanese public.

Official participation in ceremonies at Yasukuni have been controversial inside Japan as well. The Japanese Constitution, adopted after the war, disestablished Shintoism and effected, in the words of the Japanese Supreme Court, the “separation of state and religion.” In fact, in 1997 the Supreme Court ruled that the government officials could not make financial contributions to Yasukuni for use in Shinto ceremonies. With respect to this month’s visits, the officials involved were careful to point out that they were participating only as private citizens, not government officials, but that explanation has not satisfied critics. “”It doesn’t matter how or in what role Japanese leaders visit the Yasukuni shrine,” a Chinese spokesman said. “We feel it is in essence a denial of Japan’s history of militarist invasion.” And Japanese legal scholar Keisuke Abe (no relation to the Prime Minister, I believe) argues in a symposium in the St. John’s Law Review that most Japanese wouldn’t recognize the distinction, either. “Whatever the purpose of” a visit to the shrine, he writes, “the general public is likely to consider it as the government giving special support to Shintoism, associated with ancestor worship.”