Separation of church and state has always been good for religion

People pray outside the United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC on June 27, 2022. (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Dn the fall of 1831, when the United States was in the midst of fervent religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening, French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville attended a service at a Quaker meeting house in Philadelphia. Tocqueville was initially confused by the experience, writing in his classic 1835 account Democracy in America how he was disturbed by the silent gathering of women and men in a single church. He finally said to a devotee next to him: “I wanted to attend a divine service, but you seem to have led me to a deaf-mute assembly. He was then gently corrected by the Quaker, who replied, “Don’t you see that each one of us is waiting for the Holy Spirit to enlighten him? Learn to moderate your impatience in a holy place. Benevolently chastened, Tocqueville remained alone with himself and spirit, contemplating the man’s words, until there was an interruption. Another Quaker stood up and spoke of “the inexhaustible goodness of God and the obligation of all men to help each other, whatever their beliefs or the color of their skin”. After the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States in the past two weeks, it would be useful to return to this history.

Of aristocratic stock and theoretically Catholic, Tocqueville had never quite observed anything like this Quaker service. This denomination was periodically persecuted in Europe but had found a home in Pennsylvania since the founding of that colony in the 17th century. It had flourished alongside other nonconformist faiths since the new Republic had been founded as an officially dissolved state that recognized no official beliefs. Leo Damrosch writes in The discovery of America by Tocqueville that “Philadelphia had every conceivable shade of belief in view. A visitor counted thirty-two churches representing seventeen different sects, as well as two synagogues. It must have been dizzying for the Frenchman who came from the country – as his compatriots Voltaire had joked – with a thousand sauces and a single religion.

This month, the Supreme Court issued rulings to Carson v. Makin and Kennedy v Bremerton School District, the two 6-3 decisions that erupted among the judges along predictable ideological lines. In the first case, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state of Maine to deny parents taxpayer-funded education vouchers to pay for student tuition at schools with an explicitly sectarian curriculum. The second case decided in favor of a Washington State football coach, employed by a public high school, who formally ended each game with a Protestant prayer and berated students who refused to join. By setting this dangerous precedent, the Supreme Court is threatening a truly distinctive feature of American democracy. He breaks down the wall of separation between Church and State, betraying the ethos that so impressed Tocqueville.

In America, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” reads the First Amendment. But his piety was assured by what follows this comma, because the State will not defend “the free exercise” of it. This latitudinal tolerance in the combination of the establishment clause and the free exercise clause is responsible for transforming America into a true spiritual laboratory. Tocqueville understood that the greatest help for faith was to remove it from its position of direct political power, noting that “religion cannot share the material forces of rulers without suffering some of those animosities which the latter arouse”. It was a lesson well understood in Tocqueville’s America. When the French inquired into the reasons for such spiritual dynamism in the New World, the Americans “primarily attributed the peaceful dominance of religion in their country to the separation of church and state.”

The Establishment Clause is America’s unique and singular contribution to political theory. Yet it was the radical tenets of American secularism that strengthened the faith, and they are the reason the United States remains among the most religiously committed in the Western world. To observe that public displays of religiosity were common in civilian circles during de Tocqueville’s time is to miss the point. While it is true that compulsory prayer in public schools was not deemed unconstitutional until 1963 with Abington School District v. Schempp, the point is that the Establishment Clause implied an ever-increasing separation of church and state. In recent years, many of the victories in this regard have become more fragile, with the decisions of the current tribunal being particularly damning in this regard. More recently, the Court’s decisions were certainly out of step with the spirit of secularism present in the era of the Second Great Awakening.

Not only does mandatory, state-sanctioned belief harm the government and all those the state represents, but such decisions are also destructive to religion. Building on this vibrant religious tradition of nonconformity, exemplified by theologians like Rhode Island founder Roger Williams and Pennsylvania founder William Penn, Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase “separation from the Church and of State “. He reflects that if God wants “one day to restore his garden and his paradise, he must necessarily be walled up especially for himself from the world, and all who will be saved out of the world must be transplanted out of the desert of the World.” Jefferson, the anti-trinitarian deist, well understood the intrinsic religious decay value; in the intellectually separated stillness of unimposed religion there is a blossoming of the flowers of faith.

For Tocqueville, seeing such a variety of accepted religions was both shocking and thrilling. As he crossed the American border, a number of new religions were springing up in this officially secular land. Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism emerged during the Second Great Awakening. Methodism and Presbyterianism flourished. New religions would continue to be founded, from Christian Science and Spiritualism to Pentecostalism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. American soil would bear the fruits of new religions, more than almost any corner of the earth. Over the centuries, the United States has been the origin of the Longhouse and Ghost Dance religion, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and American Unitarianism, New Thought and Science of the Moorish Temple, Theosophy and Discordianism.

By comparison, in European nations with established churches, there were the extremes of the oft-ignored ritual of England, the authoritarianism of the Russian Orthodox Church, or the occasional anticlericalism of France. In America, however, secularism was the mother of faith. Not just a prerequisite for religion, secularism is itself a theology: the religion that assures independence from all others.

That there is a religious component to disestablishment seems to be a paradoxical assertion. Yet the tradition of American secularism arrived no sui generis, but rather outside the theologies of the radical Reformation. To argue that church and state can be separated is in itself a theological formulation, which theocrats in particular would oppose. But the only free exercise of faith that cannot be tolerated is that of the theocrat. David Sehat explains in This Earthly Framework: The Making of American Secularism that “In a society with a high degree of religious adherence, a secular democracy needs religious support to be successful and legitimate. In the United States, secularism had this support… Religious Jews, ecumenical Protestants, doomsday cults, and even Protestant missionaries joined heterodox and non-believing intellectuals in promoting public secularism. To this list we can add the American Catholics who established independent parochial schools so that their children could not be mandated in Protestant prayer as part of public education.

What these groups realized at one point was that secularism is distinct from both theocracy and the anticlerical state. These two elements are just mirror images of each other, upside down. Secularism quite carefully balances all theological positions in a divine agnosticism, circumscribed to the worldly reality of government. It allows all sorts of beliefs – and disbeliefs – to thrive on these matters of fundamental significance. So understood, extracting tax dollars to fund Christian education, requiring students to pray with an authority figure, all have nothing to do with the open flourishing of religion and everything to do with impositions of power.

Re Carson v. Makin, Chief Justice John Roberts argued in his majority opinion that Maine violated the “first amendment’s free exercise clause.” Kelly Shackelford, president and chief counsel of the conservative advocacy group First Liberty Institute, said the rulings represented a “great day for religious freedom in America.” In reality, it was the exact opposite. Neither this judgment nor that of kennedy was in the tradition of a vibrant American secularism; none of these decisions will encourage a rich agora of religious introspection and theological contemplation. Those attributes of American society that so impressed de Tocqueville would be further blunted, allowing agents of the state to give official sanction to their own personal faith to the detriment of all others. The decree of these six judges was not only anti-American, it was also anti-religious.

“Christian nationalism”, explains Katherine Stewart in The worshipers of power: inside the dangerous rise of religious nationalism, is “a political ideology. It promotes the myth that the American republic was founded as a Christian nation. He asserts that legitimate governments are not based on the consent of the governed but on adherence to the doctrines of a specific religious, ethnic and cultural heritage”, looking back “on a fictional history of the supposedly Christian founding of the America “. The goal of the Christian nationalist is not to nurture the conditions that allow the individual to derive his or her own meaning from transcendent meaning – quite the contrary. Secularism, on the contrary, is the faith that recognizes all beliefs, the first source of all our rights of conscience.

As I look back and contemplate Tocqueville’s visit to a quiet meeting house, what does the spirit prompt me to affirm? That the lines are already visible, that theocracy and secularism are fighting over the soul of a nation. The coming holy war is between Christian theocrats and the secularism that made America great in the first place.

Ed Simon is an editor at The Millions and contributing writer to belt charger. His most recent book is Binding the Ghost: Theology, Mystery, and Literary Transcendence.

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