Which religions favor separation of church and state?

Which religions favor separation of church and state? June 9, 2014



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


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 until 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.”

* Second Vatican Council’s religious freedom decree.


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7 responses to “Which religions favor separation of church and state?”

  1. “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.”

    It would appear that religion is the worst possible way to organize a society, except for all the others. (With apologies to Churchill)

    • Well, a couple points on that.

      First off, a critical reason why Stalin and Mao were so murderous is because they could be – technologically. Modern agriculture supports more people, and modern technology makes it easier to kill more people. Look at, say, the Albigensian Crusade – it’s hard to say that either side would have hesitated to use a nuke if they’d been available.

      Secondly, even technologically, it’s not quite true that Stalin and Mao are “unmatched”. Hitler wasn’t a Christian, but he wasn’t an atheist either – he explicitly based his racism on the idea that human “races” had been created separately by a capital-C Creator.

      Thirdly, the atheist regimes the Guy refers to were communist atheist regimes. Not all atheists are communist, any more than all monotheists are Muslim.

      (Bonus point: The Communist states under Stalin and Mao also explicitly rejected neo-Darwinian evolution, embracing (and enforcing) Lysenkoism instead. The resulting crop failures when reality failed to match up to “worker’s science” killed a huge fraction – possibly the majority – of the millions who died under those regimes. The people under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao would have been better off if their leaders had accepted neo-Darwinian evolution.)

      • i have to respond to your points. While you make a valid point about technology, keep in mind that if you look at population percentages, Stalin, Mao, etc. still had a larger, proportional impact on the people that they ruled than earlier wars did. Keep also in mind that they, like the Khmer Rouge, often slaughtered their own people internally, as opposed to declaring war on other countries or entities (ie Crusades)
        Second, I would disagree with your assertion about Hitler not being an atheist. We both could legitimately argue this, keep in mind that Hitler’s henchmen were avowedly atheist, and that the Nazi regime murdered thousands of clergy and destroyed hundreds of churches.
        Third, it was not just communist atheist regimes who did this. The Jacobins of the French Revolution is a good example of that.

        • I would say that the “proportional impact” was due to technology. Compare things like the Thirty Years War in what’s now Germany – check out the sack of Magdeburg. The difference would seem to be a matter of means, not will.

          To reiterate: Hitler was not a Christian. That is simply not the same thing as “an atheist”. Yes, he did not understand ‘the Creator” in a Christian fashion, but he definitely referred to such over and over, even late in the war, after the clerical purges.

          And unless I’m greatly mistaken, the Jacobins were not active “in the 20th Century”.

          • You are definitely correct about the Jacobins; The point I was trying to make was that not all atheist regimes were communist. Sorry I was not clear.
            I would agree that Hitler was no Christian, but again keep in mind that the ruling hierarchy most definitely was atheist; to them religion was a crutch for the weak and it had no room in the building of a ‘super man.’
            I would still disagree with your point about means vs will. Keep in mind that while Hitler used modern weapons during his own slaughters, Mao and Stalin did not. I would agree that the Magdeburg slaughter was horrific, but again the overall pattern of atheist repression is much worse than religious repression, and in my opinion cannot be just blamed on technology.
            I’ve said my piece on this topic, but since you have been very polite in this exchange I will let you have the last word if you wish.

          • Of course not all atheist regimes have been communist! Look at, say, the Chinese dynasties after about 400BC – Confucian regimes with varying levels of Legalist elements. Not markedly worse with regard to atrocities than other contemporaries, and better than some. The ones in the 20th century – the ones Mr. Ostling referred to specifically – were definitely communist, though.

            I’d also dispute that even “the ruling hierarchy” of Hitler’s regime was “atheist”. Not fans of Christianity, true, but there was a strong occult/neo-pagan current that had been there since the beginning (c.f. the Thule society).

            As to Stalin and Mao not using modern weapons – automatic weapons make controlling large groups of people far easier. Oftentimes prisoners of war were executed in older times simply because it would have taken a comparable number of soldiers to guard them. It’s much more logistically feasible to pen up a population for starvation if you’ve got machine guns available.

  2. There were times when governments forced Catholicism on its citizens. And times and places where Protestants forced adherence on their citizens. However, the bigger struggle has always been countries trying to control religion for its own purposes.

    The Church mostly struggled to be free of governments intending to control it. That was the major reason for maintaining the Papal States. The heads of the Holy Roman Empire continually insisted they had a right to control the church. A number of Popes were killed or abducted for political reasons. One example: Napoleon captured and imprisoned a Pope who died in captivity. Napoleon’s people hauled off the contents of the Pope’s library – much of it was used as fishwrapping. It took years to get the remaining documents back to Rome and it is still being sorted out today. The Papacy has had its own territory for over a thousand years and is the oldest country with a diplomatic corps. When diplomats are grouped together, the one for the Holy See usually has precedence due its ancient establishment.