The Separation of Religion and State: Context and Meaning

By Chavura, Stephen | Nebula, December 2010 | Go to article overview

The Separation of Religion and State: Context and Meaning


Chavura, Stephen, Nebula


The term "church and state" is currently sharing space with similar terms such as "separation of religion and politics" and "separation of religion and state." (1) I can think of three possible reasons why this is occurring. First, the term "church" is monocultural, it is Christian, thus it is of limited use when referring to societies that fit what Rawls (1993, xviii) called "the fact of pluralism." Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists don"t have churches. Thus no comprehensive understanding of the boundaries separating religious institutions from the state is possible by reference to a doctrine of church and state. Second, with the rise of non-conformist, liberationist, and evangelical types of religion much of the most significant phenomena of interest to political scientists cannot be captured by the term "church and state," for such movements operate outside institutional--church--structures. Finally, there has been a legal and philosophical trend over the last 60 years to remove more and more religion from the public sphere, making "church and state" too narrow in terms of defining exactly what courts and philosophers wish to keep separate. For these three reasons the phrase "church and state" becomes too restrictive and misleading and, thus, inadequate as a linguistic reference for contemporary political science and philosophy. However, alternative terms such as "separation of religion and politics" and "separation of religion and state" on closer analysis fall short of analytical rigor. The idea of a separation of religion and politics is immediately useless for analysing the limits of interaction between two different entities, for it is simply impossible to separate religion and politics. Take the following:

1. Politicians and judges never being informed by their religious views when executing their office.

2. Citizens never being informed by religion when arguing or voting in the public sphere.

3. Prevailing laws, norms, and ideologies having no connexion, historical or otherwise, with religious dogma or philosophy, thus, in no way carrying on a religious tradition.

Both 1 and 2 are impossible unless we were to (unrealistically) grant public offices and citizenship only to people with no religious views and incapable of being swayed by arguments which, although non-religious, spring from religious motives. Furthermore, 3 is incredibly unlikely, at least in the West, given what we know about the history of ideals such as democracy, rights, toleration, sovereignty, consent, and equality. (2)

The term "religion and the state" is better at first glance, for it localizes the political into the institution of the state, but, arguably is still too broad. For if the state is meant to be influenced by its citizens and civil society in general, we are almost led back to the absurdities of scenarios 1 and 2. The advantage of the terminology of "church and state" was that it referred narrowly to institutions rather than the broad phenomena that goes to make up religion and politics or religion and the state. Church and state can be separated, religion and the state, strictly speaking, cannot. Thus, given the inadequacy of the best term we have--"separation of religion and state"--we need to be clear exactly what we mean by the expression. This introduces the need for a larger analytical framework by which we can understand it. To answer this I propose that it is best to place the analysis within the context of the liberal tradition out of which the debate first arose.

Separationism and the liberal tradition

Exactly what are we meant to be talking about when we speak of a necessary separation of religion and state? It makes sense partially to look to the historic liberal tradition as a heuristic method because the whole idea of a separation between these realms arose out of the liberal tradition. Indeed, it was the various models of church-state practiced in the medieval and early-modern periods against which Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson formulated their ideas. …

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