Which religions favor separation of church and state?

LISA ASKS:

Do all religions teach separation between church and state? If not, which ones, and why?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Separation of church and state (the usual phrasing though “of religion and state” is often more accurate) is an achievement of modern politics and by no means a universal one. Among world religions, after long struggle Christianity helped create the concept and broadly favors aspects of it in most countries.  Islam stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, often considering it alien if not abhorrent. Interactions between religions and governments through history are too complex to summarize but The Guy will sketch some high points.

America’s latest church-and-state fuss (analyzed May 10 in “Religion Q and A”) involves Supreme Court allowance of prayers before local council meetings, even in a town where most of them were explicitly Christian. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is alarmed, asking in a headline whether this ruling is “putting the country on the path to church-state union.”

Well, no. There’s a vast gap between brief civic invocations and any “union,” and America to a remarkable degree has avoided situations common elsewhere, for instance:

Many European states, whether in Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant countries, subsidize churches or Christian education. Clergy are tax-supported civil servants in such religiously diverse lands as Egypt (Muslim), Germany (Protestant and Catholic), Greece (Orthodox) and Israel (Jewish). Britain’s prime minister chooses all bishops for pro forma appointment by the monarch who heads the Church of England, and 26 bishops sit in parliament’s upper house. India’s national government is officially non-sectarian but at the state level Hindus use anti-conversion laws to hobble competing faiths. Clergy are sometimes heads of state, including  two who were revered as divinities not long ago, Tibetan Buddhism’s Dalai Lama and Japan’s Shinto emperor.

With Islam, the founding Prophet Muhammad was a political and military ruler and his faith has been closely intertwined with civil affairs ever since. Although the Quran says “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256), some Muslim nations force religious law (Sharia) upon non-Muslims and in extreme cases threaten converts to other faiths with the death penalty. Iran is a dramatic example of “church-state union” that is oppressively theocratic.

In Jewish tradition, God deemed rule by autocrats to be problematic (see 1 Samuel 8) but biblical kings arose and combined religious with civil functions. Jews had no nation-state of their own through much of their history. Modern Israel’s successful democracy practices religious freedom with certain privileges for Orthodox Judaism.

Christianity starts from Jesus’s clever and cryptic saying “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (included in three of the four Gospels). Scholars say that rather that spelling out which “things” are which, Jesus left it to individuals to apply the principle. But he did imply a certain distinction, if not “separation,” between the two realms. That concept was later developed in St. Augustine’s masterwork “The City of God” and Martin Luther’s idea of the “two kingdoms.”

Though born as an oppressed minority under Roman rule, Christianity eventually became heavily involved with government, often to its detriment. Matters changed fundamentally during the 17th Century. The Thirty Years’ War between Catholic and Protestant regimes (1618-1648) devastated Europe and roused cynicism toward the church. The English Civil War (1642-1651) had similar effects. While the Enlightenment fostered individualism and religious skepticism, demands for free conscience emanated from Protestant dissenters in Britain and its American colonies.

James Madison’s 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance” attacked tax assessments for Virginia clergy and by 1791 he shaped the broader separation in the Bill of Rights.  This separation has two aspects, forbidding both government interference in citizens’ “free exercise” of religion and government “establishment of religion.” There are, of course, continual disputes about exactly what that second phrase outlaws.

For Madison and the other Founders, the devoutly Protestant English philosophers John Milton (1608-1674) and John Locke (1632-1704) were crucial. Milton’s “A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes” (1659) said “it is not lawful for any power on earth to compel in matters of religion.” Locke’s three “Letters Concerning Toleration” (1689-1692) advocated freedom of conscience because the state is not qualified to evaluate religious truth-claims and because authentic belief cannot be compelled.

Locke did not extend toleration to atheists or to Catholics. The latter view reflected long hostilities building from a 1570 papal decree that directed Catholics to be disloyal to the realm. England did not have regular Catholic bishops and dioceses again till 1850.

The pope who managed that restoration, Pius IX, denounced the idea that “the church ought to be separated from the state, and the state from the church” in his 1864 “Syllabus of Errors.” Pius and his predecessors were absolute rulers over a section of Italy. Well into the 20th Century, some Catholic nations limited the rights of non-Catholics. But in 1965, under strong American influence, the bishops of the Second Vatican Council proclaimed a turnabout and embraced Protestant-style freedom of religion without government coercion.

Lisa adds a related question: “Does the existence of Vatican City mean that Catholics still believe in separation of church and state?” In the Catholic view, certainly yes, though some few Protestants and separationists object. The sovereign Vatican City State is a tiny remnant of the old Papal States that provides church headquarters — yes — separation from political regimes.

A final factual note: When atheists seized governments in the 20th Century they fused their belief in unbelief with state power and enforced it with a cruel vengeance unmatched by the worst cross-and-crown tyrannies during Christendom’s bygone centuries.

– James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance”:  http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/madison_m&r_1785.html

– Second Vatican Council’s religious freedom decree: www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651207_dignitatis-humanae_en.html

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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