Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

How Separate are Church and State?

by Jeff Polet, director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

Americans like to think they have solved the problem of the relationship between political life and religious life. Usually this takes the form of referring to “the separation of church and state” as a simple, elegant resolution of the difficulty. This phrase obscures more than it reveals, and whatever else is true about church/state relations in America, the complexity is not so easily captured.

There are a myriad of reasons for this. For one thing, both religion and politics make strong claims on a person’s allegiances. Early democratic thinkers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued against the inclusion of Catholics in democratic societies on the grounds Catholics would always have dual allegiances that would keep them from ever being good democratic citizens. Going back as far as the New Testament, Christians are warned against getting too comfortable with or dependent on the powers of this world. “To be in the world but not of the world” is a fundamental paradox of the Christian faith that puts the Christian always in tension with the sources and forms of public order.

At the same time, Christians believe that God created the world good, and placed us here with a mandate to form culture and its institutions. Christianity claims that government is a gift of God to maintain order and promote justice. From its very inception, Christian thinkers were forced to think through this tension, to figure out how they could exercise their worldly responsibilities without becoming too worldly. And for seventeen centuries before the first European foot set itself on American soil, the inherent difficulties of the position made themselves known in European experience; concluding, perhaps, with the Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, which so marked the consciousness of American settlers.

Aside from the deeply ingrained theological problems, Christian leaders had to deal with the institutional effects. Could ecclesial leaders exercise “secular” power without compromising their spiritual authority? Could secular princes exercise political power without reference to their status as religious subjects and believers? How should the “church,” as a divinely-ordained institution, balance its authority against the emergent “state” (which really didn’t exist until the 16th century), which itself responds not only to the call of reason but also to divine mandates? How would Christians react to the Biblical mandate that they obey governing authorities, for the latter were ordained by God? And how might the two institutions, both of which claim a peculiar kind of absolute authority for themselves, learn to get along with each other? For more than a millennium, popes and princes struggled with these questions and hammered out very imperfect practical arrangements.

American efforts to deal with church-state problems occurred within this historical context. The Americans might have given their own practical spin to the underlying issues, but they inherited a set of institutional arrangements and theoretical beliefs that operated as arenas within which their own struggles took place.

Essential to our considerations, then, is the acknowledgement that the Americans had not only inherited a set of institutional operations but also a mode of thinking, and that both these occurred within the context of Christianity. Whatever else is true of the development of Church-State relations in America, they take place in the context and as extensions of Christian reflection. Early disputes about Church-State relations were not about the role of faith per se, but dealt mainly with the problems of sectarianism; which is to say, with maintaining public order in the face of divisions within Christianity itself. Granted, some quarter might be given to other religions – especially Judaism and Islam – but it was a rare thinker who believed any sanction or sanctuary ought to be given to atheism.

When the early European settlers came to this country they were seeking religious freedom not for individuals but for their communities. Readers may be struck by how coercive and directive these early settlements were with regard to religious belief, and may regard the settlers as hypocrites for doing so in the name of religious freedom. But the early American saw no contradiction here. They were living as communities, in often difficult circumstances, and believed that the claims of religion were the most fundamental ones in a person’s life. If there is a God, and this God made us, and this God demands certain things of us, and our eternity is at stake, then why would we not make those demands absolutely central to every aspect of our lives in this world? What does it suggest about us if we don’t?

The beliefs many Americans held dear concerning disestablishment and free exercise of religion were expressions of Christian piety and not restrictions on it. Early Americans could solve the problem of sectarian strife by simply staying away from each other and creating independent communities. This solution had inherent limits, however, the most notable of which was the likelihood of running out of space. Westward expansion proved a useful pressure valve, but not a permanent solution.

But there was an even deeper problem caused by the sheer variety of religious belief in America. The very earliest political thinkers had commented on the impossibility of creating and maintaining political order without some underlying principle of unity. The word religion itself comes from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind together.” How might we bind human beings together in such a way that it serves both individual flourishing (freedom) and the common good (just order)? The ties that bound had to be the correct ones. The greek word for “right” or “straight” is orthos. This meant the only way to create sustainable unity was with regard to orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxy (right action). And this, early American thinkers noted, meant historic Christian teaching and practice, which alone could provide a sure basis for public order. But under the pressure of the proliferation of Christian sects, could such a principle of order be maintained?

More importantly, if indeed Christian faith, because of the sheer variety of claims to orthodoxy, and the potential and actual violence these claims produced, could no longer be the basis of public order, what might take its place as the principle of unity? Worse still, what if the acids of secularization corroded faith to the point where there was no principle of unity left? What might happen then? Would a substitute principle such as “historical development” have to be put in its place? Would power become the sole governing principle of public life?

Legal reflections on Church-state relations may be thought of as occurring within this dual context: on the one hand, Americans were largely a religious people whose institutional arrangements grew out of a religious context that was undergoing a process of secularization, one aspect of which was the “privatization” of faith; and on the other hand, the creation of a substitute religion that could co-exist alongside orthodox Christianity, but would require serious accommodation of traditional beliefs to the new dogma. I refer here to the development of “civil religion” in America, but also modes of progressive ideology that located ultimate meaning and purpose within the historical process.

In ancient Greece and Rome, the gods were always local. Ancient polytheism (many gods) and the immanent nature of the deities made it possible to connect the religious practices of a particular city to its political practices without passing judgment on the practices of different cities and their gods. Such a world is emphatically pluralistic. In emphasizing the oneness, transcendence, and universality of the True God, both Judaism and Christianity made religious diversity a serious problem. One possible solution was to de-emphasize the oneness, transcendence, universality, or truthfulness of God. This leads to forms of secularization. The other would be to figure out how to take those categories and relate them to the particularity of an historical political community. This is the solution of civil religion, and in the American context the tendency intensifies under the process of nationalization. As America developed from a series of largely independent republics to a single nation, the pressure to find principles of unity increased, particularly at moments where the consequences of disunity were most keenly felt. The obvious periods here are the events surrounding the Constitutional Convention and the American Civil War. This is why, whatever else may be true of him, Lincoln’s most important achievement was to be the great prophet of a uniquely American civil religion, one that has largely endured to this day (which is why we erected an enormous temple to him).

A serious problem can develop, however, if either the teachings and practices of the Civil Religion change over time, creating dispute over the meaning and nature of Civil Religion, or if the teachings and practices of Civil Religion begin to conflict with those of traditional Christianity (or other religions as well; for example, it is a question as to whether Islam, with its emphasis on Sharia Law, is able to coexist with American Civil Religion). The point is consequential, for without some principle of unity that can be shared and taught, politics will constantly threaten to devolve into chaos. Hyper-partisanship may be the best outcome. More likely, as many of the Framers argued, one group will substitute its particular view for a shared general view and use the coercive powers of government to enforce it. Understanding the legal battles over Church-State relations requires we be attentive to the assumptions judges make over what are acceptable dogmas and practices and what are not. Many times judges are unwittingly forced to engage questions concerning what counts as Civil Religion and what doesn’t, or how Civil Religion might relate to particular but intensely held expressions of Christian or other faiths.

All of which is to say that Americans have not resolved the problem of Church-State relations for a very simple reason: it is not a problem that can be solved. When dealing with two public realities that make strong claims on our allegiances and around which we organize our lives and loves, the best one can hope for in this world is a strategic counter-balancing of the claims that recognizes the appropriate limits of each. Americans can start by understanding the sheer complexity of the issues, to avoid simple “solutions,” and to seek arrangements that don’t involve coercion or violence. At its best, that’s the lesson of the American experiment in ordered liberty, and one that is worthy of continuation.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do Americans tend to think that reference to “the separation of church and state” is a tidy solution? How does its simplicity make it appealing?
  2. Why would early Americans regard the religion clauses of the first amendment as expressions of Christian piety and not restrictions on it? What argument might be made for the latter position? Why, for example, is God not mentioned in the Constitution?
  3. What are the main differences between civil religion and church religion?

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1 thought on “How Separate are Church and State?”

  1. Pamela Harman Daugavietis

    The last two sentences of this essay are brilliant and the answer to many of our problems today not only in American politics but around the world. The question is: can we humans “upgrade our level of consciousness” like we upgrade our iPhones, computers and iPads in order to safely, compassionately and maturely navigate the complex world we have created ourselves? Good question, if only it were this easy. But what my parents taught me and my sisters back in the 40s and 50s when we were growing up, anything worth having is worth working for! Freedom isn’t free!!!!

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