Separation of Church and State

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 25, 2009 in General Atheism

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.

Thomas Jefferson

In 2006, Gabriel and Joshua Rakoski asked to distribute fliers for their church’s bible classes through their public school’s “backpack mail” system. School officials denied the request because it would violate the Constitutional separation of church and state. But soon, a Christian legal group had pressured the school officials to change their minds.

Now the Rakoskis could distribute their fliers for Bible study, and they were happy. Until, that is, another religious group started distributing fliers, too: a group of pagans! Christian parents immediately complained. They wanted the school to let their religion be preached but nobody else’s.

Good for all

See, the separation of church and state protects all of us. One reason Europeans came to the United States in the first place was to escape governments that forced a particular religion on them. So, the very first right guaranteed us by the Bill of Rights is the freedom of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Perhaps the only people who think this separation is a bad idea are those whose religion claims a majority, and therefore political power. If you’re a Christian, move to a Muslim country or a Hindu country and then tell me the separation of church and state is a bad idea.

Not just for atheists

Separation of church and state isn’t just supported by atheists. It’s supported by religious minorities in many countries. It’s even supported by many Christians in America.

For example, pastor Greg Boyd and theologian John Howard Yoder have argued that forcing Christian ways on people through the government is opposed to the way of Jesus. Government comes over people in coercion. In contrast, Jesus came under people as a servant, and alongside them as a friend. Jesus shunned political power.

Some Christians want a theocracy – a government ruled by religious principles. They need look no further than Iran to see what that is like. Remember, Europeans formed the USA to escape theocracy.

Consider this, Christian. Let’s say we repeal the church-state separation in America. What if a different sect than your own takes power? What if Catholics take power and mandate their sacraments? What if Mormons take power? Lutherans? Evangelicals? Charismatics? I bet you’ll support separation of church and state then.

That’s no joke. Look at Muslim countries. Trust me, you do not want to be a Sunni Muslim in Iran or Bahrain. You do not want to be a Shia Muslim in Sudan or Saudi Arabia.

The separation of church and state protects all of us.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

mikespeir July 25, 2009 at 3:34 pm

I lived in Turkey for a year or so.  I was a Christian at the time and was introduced to a group of Christians who met in secret there.  They had to.  While Turkey is ostensibly a secular country with a secular constitution, Islam controls the way people think.  Police would raid these gatherings of Christians and throw them in jail.  Getting out was easy.  The constitution forbade religious discrimination, so all that was required was to have a lawyer show up and point that out to the police.  (Who, of course, knew it already.)  The Christians would be released only to be re-arrested when caught again.  Theocracy doesn’t have to be codified.  It only takes a group of believers big enough to be able to bully everyone else.

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Haukur July 25, 2009 at 4:29 pm

The Christians complaining about the pagan flier actually seem to be in favor of separation of church and state. This Christian blog post seems to get quoted out of context in coverage of these events.
 
Theocracy gets a bad rep but integration of state and religion actually has a number of advantages. The Icelandic Commonwealth was quite possibly the least oppressive state in medieval Europe but it had tight integration of state and religion. During the pagan era the leaders were priests (theocracy!) and during much of the Christian era the leaders pretty much owned the priests and definitely owned the churches. It was when the church managed to establish itself as an entity independent from the state that things started heading south.

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Lorkas July 25, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Haukur: It was when the church managed to establish itself as an entity independent from the state that things started heading south.

Well, moving south can’t be all bad for Iceland.

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Haukur July 25, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Lorkas: Well, moving south can’t be all bad for Iceland.

It’s been a lovely summer so far, this global warming thing is working out great!

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EvanT July 26, 2009 at 2:52 am

@mikespeir
Wow… just wow… I had no idea. I visited Constantinople a few years back and I didn’t get the impression that anything of the sort happened at the few Orthodox churches remaining (and, boy, do Greeks have problems with the Turks -at least on a political level). Are the police there raiding legitimate temples or informal gatherings at houses? Or do they prefer to target the non-Orthodox denomination?
Turkey, however, is one of the strangest muslim countries. The Turks were forcibly secularized by Kemal Ataturk in the early 1900s and honestly I believe that the only reason they remain a semi-secular society is the extreme reverence they have for him, coupled with the split political control between the government and the military (which intervenes just enough so it cannot be called a junta).
Needless to say that the islamic party that controls the government is in constant friction with the military. Last year they were on the verge of having the Constitutional Court of outlawing them (the ruling party!) and having the Prime Minister (Tayyip Erdoğan) arrested (for treason, I think).
Obviously, sloppily imposed secularism can be just as a bad. I believe there are many parallels between the current religious situation in Turkey and the pre-Perestroika USSR. From what I gathered from the obviously biased Greek media, 20 years ago it was quite scandalous for a politician to be openly muslim.

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drj July 26, 2009 at 4:26 am

Haukur: Theocracy gets a bad rep but integration of state and religion actually has a number of advantages. The Icelandic Commonwealth was quite possibly the least oppressive state in medieval Europe but it had tight integration of state and religion. During the pagan era the leaders were priests (theocracy!) and during much of the Christian era the leaders pretty much owned the priests and definitely owned the churches. It was when the church managed to establish itself as an entity independent from the state that things started heading south.

It didn’t get a bad rep in a vacuum.  This information about the Icelandic Commonwealth is very interesting, though, I  hadnt heard about it before. It seems to be a very rare exception to the rule… but not something to risk modeling, nor something that goes any length towards making the case that church/state integration received a bad reputation, unfairly, or should ever be considered as a possibility again.
 

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Alden July 26, 2009 at 9:49 am

I would agree that separation of church and state is a good thing. However, it’s important to realize that freedom of religion is not the same as “state protection from religion.”

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Lorkas July 26, 2009 at 2:12 pm

 

Alden: I would agree that separation of church and state is a good thing. However, it’s important to realize that freedom of religion is not the same as “state protection from religion.”

Err… what do you mean by this?
 
If “state protection from religion” means that the state guarantees that you can’t be forced into a religion you don’t want to be in, then I would say that’s a good thing too. What exactly do you think that freedom of religion means?
 

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mikespeir July 27, 2009 at 2:42 am

EvanT:  Sorry, I’d completely forgotten I had even posted here.
It’s true that, much as the Communists tolerated the Russian Orthodox Church, the Turks make a show of toleration, too.  You can even buy Turkish New Testaments in bookstores.  I used to stock up and “accidentally” leave them in conspicuous places.
I’ll reveal more.  I had a friend over there who was an American Baptist minister.  They don’t allow Christian missionaries.  He was in the “import/export business.”  (Obviously a deception in itself, but that didn’t seem to bother me at the time.  He was promoting THE TRUTH, and that trumped any other consideration.)  He would hold clandestine services in his home.  I never even suspected until he got to where he trusted me enough to invite me to one.
It’s Christians like this who are not tolerated.  And not just because of the deception of people like this preacher.  I guess they don’t see the Greek Orthodox Church as any real challenge to Islam.  Fundamentalist Christianity is.

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EvanT July 27, 2009 at 5:22 am

@mikespeir
” I guess they don’t see the Greek Orthodox Church as any real challenge to Islam. Fundamentalist Christianity is.”
Not exactly tolerated; it’s more part of the Lausanne Treaty and the population exchange of 1921.  The Greek-Orthodox got it relatively easy since the Turkish government has to abide by that treaty.  The muslim population in Western Thrace in Greece and the christian population of Constantinople were the only ones excluded from the population exchange and have certain “priviledges”.
Of course the balance is shifting since the orthodox population in Constantinople is declining due to aging and the muslim population in Thrace is increasing (and I’m saddened to say that the Greek government did little to assimilate the muslims there OR improve their living conditions).
Thankfully we were lucky in that the immigrants from muslim countries like Albania and Pakistan (estimated around 700.000 in a greek population of 10.500.000) were moderates, but to be honest I fear that we might be starting to attract people like those that comprise the muslim council in Britain. The brief riot over a defacing of the Qur’an by a moronic police officer in Athens might be just the beginning; and I fear that the reinforcement of our far-right parties (as it appeared in the last Euro-Elections) will NOT help us deal with the situation with a cool head.

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Derek July 28, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Though I think the State, as was originally conceived, makes no allegiance to any specific “revealed religion” (e.g., protestant, purtian, catholic, muslim), the very idea of God as creator and man as created in His Image was and is fundamental to American Jurisprudence. The Declaration of Independence construes “Rights” as “that which man has been endowed with from his Creator”.  As such, though the State has no business allying itself with a specific sect, or specifically legislating a specific religious sect’s moral code, it allows for, and even implores its citizens to think theistically about the nature and foundation of rights, and to think theistically about what rights, in fact, man has in virtue of being created in the Creator’s image.  
The philosophical lineage of all this, of course, is John Locke, as well as the chorus of natural law theorists who preceded him.  This tradition thinks that Human reason, independent of a specific revelation, can consider nature in itself and find out, in civil contexts, what laws would reflect the nature and purpose of Man.   
All of this to say:  Though the American State is separate from any religious institution, the State has a fundamentally religious basis for its laws.  To say anything else is “un-American” by definition. 
 

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tdd July 28, 2009 at 5:54 pm

Everyone forgets this part of the quote.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”
Governments (i.e., the State) are instituted among men and derive their power from the people.  Just because Jefferson was a Deist and used creator as a rhetorical flourish to justify our declaration does not imply that the State has a religious basis.  In fact, the next sentence indicates that it doesn’t.  The declaration also says nothing about man being created in God’s image which is an attempt to slip in a little Abrahamic bias.
 
The actual law of the land and the basis for American jurisprudence is the Constitution which says nothing about a creator, was instituted by a vote among men to protect the rights of men.  The state has a fundamentally secular basis for its laws (the Constitution) and to say anything else is wishful thinking, unless you can find something about God or the creator the Constitution.
 
Trying to say that the United States has a religious basis from a few lines about a Creator in the Declaration of Independence is like claiming that Quantum Mechanics has a religious basis because Einstein said, “God does not play dice with the Universe.”

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Derek July 28, 2009 at 6:45 pm


“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
 
This is nothing but a paraphrase of Locke’s State of Nature theory from his 2nd Treatise. Notice the mention of “Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God”.  This is nothing but a wholesale invocation of Lockean natural law jurisprudence.
 
Do you deny that the members of the Continental Congress conceived of rights as God-given and inalienable, that a just government is one that protects them; an unjust one that disregards them; and, most importantly, that persons have rights independent of any established government? 
 
This is a very strong theistic (theistic in the sense of “grounded in the nature of man qua man’s relation to God”) jurisprudence. And we haven’t eradicated it from our vocabulary.  We all think, for instance, that African Americans had civil rights prior to our governments’ acknowledgement of them.  We don’t say, “AA’s didn’t have any rights until the laws were changed”; we instead say, “AA’s had rights all along, and the gov’t became more just when it recognized them.” 
 
This type of rhetoric we owe to Locke and the rest of the natural tradition, and it should be acknowledged.
 
Furthermore, without God’s existence, the whole idea of unalienable rights is impossible.  This is why consistent and honest atheists, like Luke, deny that we have rights, thus construed. 

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tdd July 28, 2009 at 7:40 pm

Derek: “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”   This is nothing but a paraphrase of Locke’s State of Nature theory from his 2nd Treatise. Notice the mention of “Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God”.  This is nothing but a wholesale invocation of Lockean natural law jurisprudence.   Do you deny that the members of the Continental Congress conceived of rights as God-given and inalienable, that a just government is one that protects them; an unjust one that disregards them; and, most importantly, that persons have rights independent of any established government?    This is a very strong theistic (theistic in the sense of “grounded in the nature of man qua man’s relation to God”) jurisprudence. And we haven’t eradicated it from our vocabulary.  We all think, for instance, that African Americans had civil rights prior to our governments’ acknowledgement of them.  We don’t say, “AA’s didn’t have any rights until the laws were changed”; we instead say, “AA’s had rights all along, and the gov’t became more just when it recognized them.”    This type of rhetoric we owe to Locke and the rest of the natural tradition, and it should be acknowledged.   Furthermore, without God’s existence, the whole idea of unalienable rights is impossible.  This is why consistent and honest atheists, like Luke, deny that we have rights, thus construed. 

 
I am aware of Locke’s influence on Jefferson,  I object to your claim that the Declaration of Independence is the basis of American jurisprudence.  I don’t deny that the continental congress thought that the rights of white landowning males were god-given and inalienable.  They were deists and christians.
 
I know for a fact that they did not believe that all persons have rights independent of established government because most of them were slaveowners.  We all think that African Americans have rights independent of established governments, but the people who signed the  Declaration of Independence and the Constitution did not.
 
I love the Declaration of Independence, it is a thing of beauty, a document to stir emotions, but it is not part of American law, only American history.  The person that wrote that all men have inalienable rights was using it as a propaganda piece.  If he believed it, he wouldn’t have denied the people he owned their inalienable rights. I credit Locke for the rhetoric of the Declaration, but not for the basis of American law.
 
The US government (instituted among men to protect the rights of Americans, not all men) does not hold to the doctrine of inalienable rights.  It is not even a reasonable legal doctrine.  Neither is natural law.

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toweltowel July 29, 2009 at 9:27 am

We all think, for instance, that African Americans had civil rights prior to our governments’ acknowledgement of them.  We don’t say, “AA’s didn’t have any rights until the laws were changed”; we instead say, “AA’s had rights all along, and the gov’t became more just when it recognized them.”

This doesn’t reveal any latent theism. It only reveals a latent commitment to basic human rights possessed independently of any government. And surely those two issues are completely independent. But then you say:

Furthermore, without God’s existence, the whole idea of unalienable rights is impossible.  This is why consistent and honest atheists, like Luke, deny that we have rights, thus construed.

For this to sustain your earlier claim, you’d have to think this is not only true, but so obvious that any latent commitment to basic human rights directly amounts to a latent theism. But why even think it’s true in the first place? I mean, surely the objectivity of morality and the existence of God are two completely independent issues. But then what makes rights different from the rest of morality? I don’t see it.

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