Theoretically, We Separate Church and State – But perhaps we need to know what each is first

We signal – academic style seems dowdy but members read its gestures; soccer fans treasure that moment of recognition. We note kinship, we signal we understand. We treasure that moment when we raise our eyes and see a surprised look, an – “I agree.” The academic style seems to troll obsessively for these moments – perhaps to still the cognitive dissonance.

John Barry’s Roger Williams inspired me – I had known little and he has led me to study farther. But if I’m grateful, I’m also a bit irritated. Why a concluding criticism of John Yoo and equation of George Bush with James I (whom he has treated with considerable contempt)? And it alienates – no understanding look would pass between us in conversation, at a dinner table. The relation between the Patriot Act and James’ highhandedness seems tenuous at best and certainly irrelevant. Barry’s LA Times’ piece argues Williams would be today’s “warrior against religion.” Well, maybe. He cites the suit brought by a Rhode Island girl, requesting the school remove a prayer mounted on the wall. He concludes – “Presidential candidates and evangelicals ignore American history and insist on injecting religion in to politics. They proclaim their belief in freedom – even while they violate it.” This simplifies; certainly, using Williams – exiled from each New England community – as touchstone might mean your “American history” is more limited than you imply.

Williams’ belief in an inclusive state and an exclusive church led him to separation, but the intensity, obsessive nature and even narrowness of his religiious beliefs were the driving force. An inclusive state allows all sects to grow as a theocratic doesn’t. And Williams’ Providence was inclusive. Most would choose his society – comfortable with numerous sects, not perturbed by their standards for admission – as long as we weren’t forced to conform. Still, his was a remarkably exclusive, remarkably narrow religion.

Theology interests Barry minimally. We are grateful to a well-done analysis of the elephant’s trunk, even if the blind man ignores the wall that is the body or the rope that is the tail. But I’m not sure we want to grant him expertise on the whole elephant – nor the herd. He implies more, convinced of his soundness by looking up to the approving, knowing smile across the table.

He might have been forewarned. Almost 60 years earlier, Perry Miller concluded the “Foreword” to his Roger Williams: “I have long been persuaded that accounts written within the last century created a figure admirable by the canons of modern secular liberalism, but only distantly related to the actual Williams” (vi). Clearly writing against interpretations like Barry’s, Miller that same year (1953) noted in his seminal The New England Mind: From Colony to Province:

Roger Williams is regarded today as a prophet, and I admire him inordinately; still, we need to remember that he repudiated the persecuting power of the civil arm not because, like Jefferson, he was religiously indifferent, but because he took Congregational purity with dreadful literalness. He was a perfectionist, saved from dogmatism by his realization that perfection is unattainable; nevertheless, the demand that saints become so holy as to render political regulation superfluous. He became so infatuated with justification by faith that he lost the concomitant sense of innate depravity.”(120)

In 1967, Edmund Morgan concluded his Roger Williams:

It does not follow that we should give Williams back to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberals who claimed him for their own. Williams belonged to the seventeenth century, to Puritanism and to Separatism. What he did share with a number of men, in his own century as well as before and since, was a quality that always seems to life a man above his time¨ intellectual courage, the willingness to go where the mind leads. If his mind told him there could be no church, he left the church, even though he wanted nothing more than to serve it. When his mind told him the state could do nothing but harm to religion, he said so, even thought it cost him everything he had” (142).

And, again, he offers a “correcting” frame. The soul of the moderation he prizes in Winthrop, opened his 2006 “Foreword” to his new edition, Williams’ “thinking on these subjects, too disturbing for seventeenth-century Massachusetts, still has the power to disturb twenty-first-century America. It poses a challenge to all those who would allow a church to meddle in politics and equally to those who would allow the state to meddle with the teachings of the church.” (xii)

Barry’s treatment of Coke and Morgan’s of separatism give us useful insights, for we still find our complex heritage useful. Williams has been lucky – Barry’s prose, less clean but more figurative & broadly historical, gives a different pleasure than the always welcome, remarkable purity and depth of Morgan. Both, like Williams, think. But the purely secular, as a half century ago, is likely to miss much about the elephant.

10 thoughts on “Theoretically, We Separate Church and State – But perhaps we need to know what each is first”

  1. Ginny,

    You need to make the point sharper on this…it’s an election year.


    I could for instance say that for the governing class the State is the Church. I’d be right.

    The Left is the State at Prayer. To itself. It is a jealous God, and will have only Castrati gods following as vassals.

  2. Modern “Liberals” and “Progressives” are simply European socialists. They have no, none, zip, zero connection to Roger Williams, James Winthrop, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison. The “progressive” doctrine of church and state derived from Marx) is that there is no God and all religions are false and fraudulent. The state should tolerate religion among the untermenchen, but only if they are quiet about it in public. It is completely unacceptable for the untermenchen to claim divine sanction for any of their beliefs or actions because it is completely unacceptable, so shut up.

    I read Perry Miller many years ago. He was terrific. If he were alive today, he would have to teach at Hillsdale College, because that kind of talk is racist, homophobic, sexist, and completely unacceptable, so shut up.

  3. What, exactly, makes a belief system a “religion”? If someone believes in astrology, in the efficacy of magical crystals, in homeopathy, in the blanket badness of genetically-modified crops (because they are “not natural”)…and I would submit that a substantial % of “progressives” subscribe to at least several of these beliefs…then are they not subscribing to a particular religious worldview?

    Today’s Left seems to represent a strange alliance of the followers of this religion with individuals who are strictly secular materialists. Though I think many of the former actually convince themselves that they are the latter.

  4. Williams refused to impose on anyone his own beliefs – he carried that to a real extreme and a similar belief system seemed to govern several American writers. But David’s description is, unfortunately, not of people who are so careful about imposing their beliefs: genetically modified crops are not sent to places where they are needed. And the “badness” seems more the result of magical thinking than of science. But, maybe I’m wrong – someone out there may know more about these crops. My impression is also that secular materialists set up straw men – they argue against a fundamentalism and anthropomorphic God they derive from their own impoverished imaginations.

  5. We need a definition of religion. I suggest that religion requires believing in some thing that can neither be proved to exist or proved to not exist. This ‘thing that cannot be proved to exist or not exist’ then becomes the source of laws and teachings that govern society.

    Under this definition belief in God or even a pantheon of Gods is a religion if this belief produces teachings and laws that govern humans and their society.

    Under this definition atheism is a religion because atheists believe in a thing (the non-existence of God) that cannot be proved or disproved – and atheists derive teachings and laws from their system of beliefs. Usually atheist laws ban beliefs in 1 or more gods.

    Under this definition Global Warming is a religion because it believes in a Model that can accurately predict the weather at some date in the future. Because we cannot know the future until it arrives, and because we can never agree on why the future turned out the way it did, no one can ever prove the Model is accurate or not accurate. Global Warmingists derive teachings and laws based on interpretations of output from the Model.

    Socialism in all its forms is a religion.

    Free Enterprises is not a religion because nobody believes in it. Free Enterprise is like sex. It is something we do. Some do it better than others. But like sex, it is not a religion. Like sex, free enterprise is something religions try to control or even stamp out.

    Societies that successfully stamp out sex usually disappear unless there are back-sliders. Ditto for societies that ban free enterprise.

  6. Grey Eagle – I love your parallel. It can be developed as you observe. Free enterprise if it is truly free does encourage the practical virtues of social iinteraction: altruism, civility, moderation, honesty, etc. It doesn’t make man pure; it doesn’t offer a mystic union. But its more modest claim is that we become who we are more thoroughly and its practical discipline (a dishonest grocer is no likely to stay in business in a truly free market) is useful.

    Whether secular (say Franklin) or religious (say Edwards), I’ll take either over a Utopianist.

  7. @Grey Eagle

    “Under this definition atheism is a religion because atheists believe in a thing (the non-existence of God) that cannot be proved or disproved – and atheists derive teachings and laws from their system of beliefs. Usually atheist laws ban beliefs in 1 or more gods.”

    I’m an atheist, and I don’t derive teachings and laws from my system of belief. I simply don’t believe in a god or gods. Which “atheist law” banned belief in 1 or more gods? One might get the impression that atheism implies a moral and political ideology by attending a meeting of atheists. A conservative would normally stick out like a sore thumb at such a gathering, as I know from personal experience. However, the meeting-goers tend to be self-selected activists. There are many generic atheists among my fellow scientists, and as a rule they don’t derive any moral philosophy from their atheism that I can detect.

    Your definition of religion isn’t particularly helpful, because it implies there is no one who is not religious. For example, I don’t believe in the Great Green Grasshopper God, but I can’t prove he doesn’t exist. According to your definition, that would make me religious. I don’t believe that the cow jumped over the moon, and is now on the side invisible from earth, but I can’t prove that either.

    I think any definition of religion should certainly include socialism. I was, in fact, the greatest secular religion that ever existed. A Scottish thinker by the name of Sir James MacKintosh pointed out that it was a religion long before Marx, and also predicted its eventual demise because its “god,” the perfect utopian state of the future, was subject to fact-checking on earth, unlike the other-worldly gods of the traditional religions. Of course, socialism still exists, but no longer as the religion it once was. Eventually, it was fact-checked, just as MacKintosh predicted in the early 19th century. It’s interesting that George Orwell was one of the most pious socialists. He never suspected when he was writing “1984” that it would become one of the single greatest destroyers of socialism.

    It’s also interesting that the religious tend to be far more clear-sighted than many atheists when it comes to morality. They can see immediately that when atheists dismiss God, they also dismiss any objective basis for good and evil, whereas many of the “activist” atheists would furiously deny this rather obvious fact. Unfortunately, the religious are equally incapable of grasping that the fact that a super being wants it that way is no objective basis for the existence of good and evil, either.

  8. Helian:

    You have strong beliefs which you have developed based on the notion that no God exists who cares about what you do. And I suspect you are suspicious of those who claim to follow rules made by God. And I imagine you support people who want to limit the influence God believers have on your life.

    For legal reasons I argue that atheism is a religion. Further I argue because it is a religion that it must be separate from the state.

    I believe in God. My God invented the rules of Physics. Then God flooded the void with light. This event is called the big bang. Then God created Life. And he created evolution so that Life could adapt to an ever changing universe. Life, because it lives, is an ‘image’ of God. (remember the Bible was originally a set of stories told by cavemen to other cavemen – and none of them went to Harvard or even Oxford or Moscow Polytechnic).

    In the beginning God was bored. He had nothing to do. So now he watches life evolve in a googooplex of ways and places. And sometimes someone interesting evolves and God meets with that someone and they share ideas.

  9. I can’t find if I referred to Gottschall’s epigraph; if so, it bears repeating. Elie Wiesel: “God loved stories, that’s why he created man.” (can’t find book, so this may be approximate)

  10. “How to Separate Church & State: A Manual from the Trenches” is now available at all book outlets.

    “… a fine guide to action: it explains in considerable detail just how each of us can make a difference in correcting violations of real religious liberty … this work gives you plenty of avenues to make a real difference in your community and nation.” -Rev. Barry Lynn
    President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State

    “… does a great job showing the remarkable number and variety of ways in which Monotheistic religion has wended its way into our state and federal governments. Just a walk down the Table of Contents demonstrates how pervasive this constitutional infraction has been. … A more in-depth reading reveals some of the tools that can be used to redirect that power as the nation’s great charter requires.”
    -Mike Newdow
    Constitutional Law Attorney

    “…very useful and well-organized.”
    -Dale McGowan
    Editor of Parenting Beyond Belief and Co-author of Raising Freethinkers!/HowToSeparateChurchState

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