Church and State Rolls On

The past twelve months have seen a number of conflicts within the realm of what Americans often call “church-state issues.”  The contraception mandate argument in healthcare reform gave way to last summer’s “Fortnight for Freedom.” Last week, as I was writing this post, breaking news suggested the Obama administration has shifted course, providing an exemption from contraceptive coverage for religious non-profits.

Church and state seem to spend a lot of time interacting.  Why? And what does it mean for church, and state?

For many Americans, it might be a surprise to know that the familiar phrase, “separation of church and state,” is not in the Constitution. It comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Baptists. By the middle of the 20th Century, this phrase had become a powerful metaphor, shaping both the Supreme Court’s view and the mindsets of many, if not most, religious persons. Over 200 years, the pattern of interaction between church and state has drastically changed, with different phases along the way.

Catholics in the late 1800’s benefitted from the growing separation (exclusion) of religion from schooling, which had been dominated by Protestant views. JFK’s address to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston—worried about papal influence on the presidency—argued for a strong separation of personal faith and political decision-making. Today, the U.S. Catholic bishops argue for both more inclusion and more separation: inclusion in state-based funding for charitable efforts, but separation from policies related to adoption rights for gays and lesbians and contraception coverage for employees. (With co-authors, I have recently written about a new phase of church-state relations in which religious interest groups are seeking to increase church-state  interaction).

For sociologists, all of these topics relate to a pattern that has been traced for over a hundred years: secularization. Secularization involves changes in the type and amount of relationship between state (e.g. nations) and religion (e.g. churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as beliefs and rituals).

Before I go any further, I should say that social scientists have been both spectacularly wrong and incisively right on this topic. Until the 1970’s, most sociologists assumed that religious belief, rituals, and organizations would collapse in the modern world. In this argument, secularization meant the decline of religion. Religion was portrayed as pre-modern, irrational, and useless in a rationalizing world of scientific authority. On this point, sociologists were wrong. Religion does not necessarily clash with science nor does belief necessarily disappear in modernity.

What were social scientists right about?

José Casanova helpfully describes the concept of “institutional differentiation.” For nearly three hundred years, there has been a slow separation (differentiation) of political authority from religious authority. Kings, intellectuals, political associations, and rival religious groups carved out a space of separation. State decisions, like how much you owe in taxes or whether you should receive social security, are not based on religious criteria, like where you go to church and whether you believe in God. Also, most secular states, including those with an “official” church, do not coerce citizens’ consciences to believe in one religion or another.

Alongside this “institutional differentiation” is a transformation in our experience of religious authority, both personally and publicly.  If both state and religion co-exist, how does religion guide personal decisions? If both state and religion co-exist, how does religion shape our public life?

On a personal level, there is evidence that the scope and reach of religious authority has changed.  On some fronts—notably contraception for Catholics—religious authority has declined. Charles Taylor has recently argued that one outcome of secularization is that moral meaning, and thus authority, exists more in our inner selves and less in outside forces. This is not to say that individuals discard religious meanings from their lives, but that the connection between religious authority and personal decisions is not a straight line.

On a public level, especially in the United States, evidence abounds that religion engages and enriches our public life: through sermons, through marches, through social service provision, through hospitals, through cultural ideas, through philanthropic giving, and through social movements, to name just a few modes. The legal separation of “church and state” certainly does not lead to the separation of religion and state or religion and politics.

Even in an era of institutional differentiation and changes in religious authority, both the state and religion continue to exist. Religion and the state will constantly be navigating a boundary line—it is not prefabricated. Here are a two points to keep in mind as this happens.

First, there is an incredible amount of diversity across the globe in religion-state relations. Germany has an established church supported by tax dollars. For over a century, France has excluded religious elements from much of public life. India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Italy, and Mexico all have different arrangements—and are all democracies. Thus, democracy can flourish in many different ways. An American arrangement is not a European one, or one for a democracy in a majority Islamic country.

Second, the term “secularism” is overflowing with meanings. It can refer to the anti-religious ideology of the French Revolution. But it also refers to the enshrinement of religion-state separation in the U.S. Constitution. It could refer to the much-publicized opinions of the “New Atheists.” But it also refers to the idea of religious freedom found in the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis humanae.  When the U.S. Catholic bishops claimed last summer that anti-religious secularism was on the move in the United States, they were using one definition of the term that referred to suppression of religion. Secularism, in the sense of distance between religion and state activities, is overall a good. The contours and boundaries of that separation in the United States, ironically, requires engagement between religious organizations and the state. 

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