The Anti-Separationism of Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

This is a very interesting column by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan which expresses succinctly her particular brand of anti-separationism with respect to the proper relationship of church and state.  The column is rich with insights and repays close reading, even though I am in substantial disagreement with at least some parts of it.  Specifically, I am far less skeptical than she is that certain (though not all) older understandings of separationism remain vitally important, and far less sanguine that doing away with those older understandings would be a healthy legal or political development, either for the sex abuse crisis that she describes or for many other controversies.

3 responses

  1. Marc, I’m curious who you respond to her rejection of both liberal state-sovereigntist and Catholic church-sovereigntist solutions to the abuse crisis. Is it because you disagree that sovereignty is a zero sum game? She seems to be trying to transcend the two; are you pointing to a position between the two but on the same continuum?

  2. Hi, Jeremy, thanks for the comment. Yes, that’s sort of it. I do not think that transcending the two positions is something that should striven for or desired. The tension between the sovereignty of the state and the sovereignty of the church is a deeply embedded cultural, historical, and political condition that has proved to be one of most enduring and vital forces of social stability across the centuries. In my view, this is true even as it has also been the cause of war and other disruptions. At any rate, it is not a tension that is in need of a solution or a dissolution. Whether or not sovereignty is a zero sum game, it is a game in which conflict and opposition is much more important than consilience and harmony. For me, that is the most important function of the metaphor of “separation” — the recognition of the different spheres of life as to which different institutions claim our divided allegiances. The prospect of a truly unified sovereignty over the allegiances of mankind is nothing to wish for.

  3. Strong arguments–I tend to agree. The division between sacred and profane (no matter what details we put on those large concepts: church, state, religion, government, etc.) is fundamental. While one can (and does) slip between the two spheres, the boundary cannot be erased with any certainty or permanence.

    But are there some specific situations where a best answer might lie between the spheres, or in a blurred boundary? I agree that a wholehearted effacement of the borders is not a good idea, but could Sullivan still argue that it presents the best answer for the particular problems surrounding clergy sexual abuse? Can one do that in a limited fashion?

    I’m not sure. These are definitely active, not rhetorical, questions.

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