Separation of church and state

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Part of the 2019 Pride Parade in Dublin, Ireland
Oh no, they're talking about
Icon politics.svg
As usual
Country sections
United States politics British politics Canadian politics Chinese politics French politics Indian politics Iranian politics Israeli politics Japanese politics South Korean politics
For the philosophical underpinnings of separation of church and state, see our article on Secularism.
Warning icon orange.svg This page contains too many unsourced statements and needs to be improved.

Separation of church and state could use some help. Please research the article's assertions. Whatever is credible should be sourced, and what is not should be removed.

Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.
—Jamie Raskin[1]

Separation of church and state is the political position that the civil government should not have any involvement in religious matters, and vice versa. While not a universal trait of all Westernized governments, such a position is enshrined in the constitutions of a number of countries, including the United States (through its constitution's "no religious test"[2] clause and First Amendment), Turkey (though that probably won't last much longer), and France, and exists de facto in some countries.


The concept of separation sprang from the ecclesiastical abuses following the Middle Ages, where many European city-states were essentially vassals of an often-corrupt Roman Catholic theocracy. This arrangement carried over into the English colonies that later became the United States, where in some of the colonies the Church of England was the established church. Dissenters (non-Church of England Protestants such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, or Baptists) did live in the colonies but were subjected to varying degrees of toleration. During the American Revolution, many of these dissenter groups seized on the opportunity to seek disestablishment. Due to experiences with religious repression in both the Old World and the New World, many of the founders of the United States (along with many of their correspondents in the churches of the new country) felt that the best way to protect the country from the hegemony of any one religion was to word either the state or national constitutions to require the government to show no favoritism towards any church, first with the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, then in the national constitution with a clause in Article VI forbidding the government from requiring any employee to belong to any specific faith (the so called test-oath clause), later forbidding any civil involvement with religion at all with the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights and affirming the whole enterprise by the Jefferson-era Treaty of Tripoli.[3] Other governments, most notably that of revolutionary France, followed suit.

In Mexico, Catholicism was declared the official religion after Independence, since the Catholic Church was one of the few unifying features of the largely fragmented society. In 1858, a war broke out between the Liberal and the Conservative parties over the 1857 Constitution which established separation of church and state. Since the conservative defeat in 1867, no serious threats have been made to the principle, and both the right and the left uphold it as one of the fundamental principles of the modern Mexican state.

Christian democracy was originally a political group opposing this and managed to get success in some areas (such as the CVP/PSC (which is now the CD&V/CDH), in Belgium, which successfully opposed the purging of religious education in the scholar curriculum and the end of a religiously devoted monarchy). Nowadays, however, most of these groups have shifted towards more secular social conservatism and have purged the Bible-thumpers from their ranks.

The middle approach[edit]

Between those who would see religion purged from all public environs, and those who embrace it in all its forms, and more, judicial and political moderates favor some form of compromise under which certain religious expressions, by virtue of their distance from any particular sect, and continuous use over time, are seen as areligious cultural and historical landmarks, rather than sectarian expressions.

This approach has been embraced by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. During her tenure on the high Court, she evaluated first amendment challenges to public religious displays by examining the totality of the circumstances, and asking whether, in this context, the religious display appeared to have been placed with an exclusionary message. O'Connor, for example, distinguished between a Ten Commandments display placed within a courthouse in recent memory by a fundamentalist politician (unconstitutional; excessive entanglement of church and state) and one placed one hundred years ago and only recently challenged (permissive use of religious imagery, as a historical landmark).

There are more serious concerns; for example, people convicted of crimes where alcohol or drug abuse was a factor are sometimes forced to attend religion-based treatment programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. This is unconstitutional[4] and was successfully challenged in California.[5]


We live in an age where totalitarianism is masked as divine righteousness, theocrats legitimised, dissent vilified and victims blamed for their own murder. This is a time where “solidarity” is no longer an act of defending revolutionaries but fascists; where there is always support for Islamist projects like Sharia courts, the burqa, gender segregation, apostasy and blasphemy laws – whether de jure or de facto – but never for those who refuse to be silenced, erased and “disappeared”. It’s a time when “progressive” all too often means protecting regressive identity politics, which homogenises entire communities and societies, and deems theocrats as the sole legitimate arbiters and gatekeepers of “community” values. It’s a politics of betrayal – devoid of class struggle and political ideals – which sees any dissent through Islamist eyes and immediately labels it “Islamophobic” and blasphemous.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]