In a previous post, I argued that there was no necessary connection between a policy of stringent church-state separation and the strength or vitality of religious life within the state. There have been many societies that enjoyed a flourishing religious life well before anybody got it into his head to talk about separation. And there are several modern societies that practice strict separation and whose religious life is seemingly moribund. Any correlation between separation and religious vitality, I argued, is situational and incidental. The strength of religious life within a society depends, I said, on other factors.
But suppose someone were to say: ‘No, that’s not correct. Religious strength does depend on strict separation. In today’s day and age, a strong religious life means exactly that the state is completely separated from religion. A person is most free to affirm true religious commitment just inasmuch as the state and religion are totally separate. In the modern world, the strength of a nation’s religious life depends upon that individual freedom.”
In fact, I think something like this view grounds the frequently-heard claims about the religious vitality that must arise in a strictly separated state. In my previous post, I noticed the puritanical and evangelical conception of religion that the view presupposes. I’ve been reading around in this volume on the Establishment Clause edited by T. Jeremy Gunn and John Witte, Jr., and David Little’s essay, “Roger Williams and the Puritan Background of the Establishment Clause,” offers further confirmation. Professor Little writes that it was the issue of establishment that most sharply divided Roger Williams from other New England Puritans. Disestablishment was thus in some sense the problem of an intramural dispute among puritan factions–the most radical of which was represented by Williams. Little and many others have recognized the mixture of religious and pragmatic arguments for strict separation.
It is the religious arguments that interest me here. Little writes:
Along with references to experience and reason, Williams adds extensive appeals to Christian scripture, doctrine, and history. . . . The decisive transgression took place
when Constantine broke the bounds of this his own and God’s edict, and [drew] the sword of civil power in suppressing other consciences for the [sake of] establishing the Christian [church]. [T]hen began the great mystery of the churches’ sleep, [by which] the gardens of Christ’s churches turned into the wilderness of National Religion, and the world (under Constantine’s dominion) into the most unchristian Christendom….There never was any National Religion good in this world but one [namely, ancient Israel], and since the desolation of that nation, there shall never be any National Religion good again.
No Establishment of Religion, 111-12 (quoting Williams, The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody). Little goes on to dispute Mark DeWolfe Howe’s claim that Williams was interested solely in the corruption of religion; Little believes that Williams was concerned about mutual corruption of church and state. But in either case, a theological argument against establishment of this kind can readily be inflated to serve the ends of strict separationism. And so it has been in the generations that followed, as arguments from mutual corruption have become ever more salient in the interpretation of the Establishment Clause, and have been held to require more and more separation.
Back to the initial issue though–the connection between separationism and religious vitality. The objection to my initial post, it seems to me, is a good one, but with one important proviso. Religious vitality does increase as religion and the state become more separate, provided that one adopts the radical puritan theology that Williams espoused. If one does not adopt that theology, then one is left with prudential arguments for strict separationism as conducive of religious vitality. Those prudential arguments, I believe, are entirely circumstantial and accidental; it simply is not the case, as a pragmatic matter, that strict separationism inevitably results in a strong religious life.
A committed policy of strict separationism that is not qualified by the accidents of circumstance and historical contingency depends for its support on the sort of radical puritanism in matters of religious vitality so ably articulated by Roger Williams. Might the need to adopt such theological premises occasion its own Establishment Clause problems? Something for a future post.