Radical Puritanism and Religious Vitality

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.

4 responses

  1. I would make four points:
    1. If the issue you raise is to be discussed properly, the “phrase separation of church and state” should be avoided as the way of stating what early American advocates of religious freedom wanted. If the word “separation” is to be used, one should speak of the separation of religion from government. In other words, the early advocates of religious freedom, starting with Williams, continuing with Locke, and on down to persons like Isaac Backus and James Madison, argued that government should have no jurisdiction over religious issues/questions or, as JM put it, no “cognizance” over religion.
    2. As David Little indicates, the main reason they took such a position was because they thought that government involvement in religion, especially laws associated with religious establishments, corrupted the integrity or authenticity of religion. Their assumption was that to be truly religious, beliefs/actions had to stem from an individual’s sincere, conscientious decisions–private judgment. For them, a fake or hypocritical Christian was no better, if not worse, than a conscientious atheist. Thus, what early American advocates of religious freedom championed was the free exercise of religion ACCORDING TO THE DICTATES OF CONSCIENCE (AND NOT THE DICTATES OF GOVERNMENT.)
    3. A few Americans, both then and now, may have argued that if religion (Christianity) was separated from government, it would flourish or grow numerically. If so, they deserve to be criticized as you have done. There are, as you say, too many factors involved for that kind of claim to be credible. On the other hand, do you want to criticize early Americans’ idea of authentic religion and their belief that religious establishments threaten its existence?
    4. If you do, then you should provide us your view of what constitutes vital or true religion.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Professor West. Here are my responses to the points you make:

    1. I’m happy to discuss separation in the terms that you suggest. I disagree that what “early American advocates of religious freedom wanted” was “separation” “of religion and government.” Some such advocates desired full separation of religion and government. Many advocates of religious freedom did not want that. They wanted the mutual interaction of religion and government but they did not want an established church. Some of the writers you list in your first point did not desire the separation of religion and government. Locke’s writing was friendly to establishment. I do agree that some advocates of religious liberty desired that the government have no “cognizance over religious questions.” To my mind, that is not the same as desiring that there be full separation between religion and government. Williams, so far as I can tell, did want a kind of complete separation of religion and government.

    2. In the essay that I discuss, David Little disputes Howe’s claim that Williams was exclusively interested in religious purity. Little claims that Williams was also interested in keeping the state to and within its proper functions and to protect it from religious encroachment. The page is 112.

    As to this statement: “Their assumption was that to be truly religious, beliefs/actions had to stem from an individual’s sincere, conscientious decisions–private judgment.” I agree that this is a puritan and evangelical notion of religion. That was precisely the point of the post. To believe this “assumption” one has also to believe in a particular sort of theology and ecclesiology–one which, historically, many people who have been committedly and devoutly religious have not accepted, or have accepted in a qualified way.

    3. The point of the post is not to criticize a particular theology or ecclesiology. The point of the post is to note it for what it is–a distinctively puritanical set of religious beliefs.

    4. I don’t think I need to do that. Many religious traditions have been vital without subscribing to the puritan ideal. Many have not. And the same is true of those that have subscribed to the puritan ideal.

    Indeed, part of the trouble is that church-state scholars who have accepted the ‘separation makes religion better/purer’ line as if it had no theological assumptions propping it up have tacitly endorsed a particular view about what vital or “true” religion consists in, and then superimposed it on the Establishment Clause. This is particularly problematic (in my view, but I understand that many people don’t share my view) for those scholars who argue simultaneously that the government ought to be neutral when it comes to declaring or adjudging religious truth. The ‘separation makes religion better’ line of argument and thought is not neutral at all. It is dripping with theological assumptions. In this post, I intended to note those, not to judge them.

    Thanks again for your comment, Professor West.


  3. Marc, if a reply is allowed, I would say this. We both appear to agree that the validity of the separation-leads-to-religious-vitality thesis depends on what is meant by religious vitality. We both appear to agree that most early American advocates of religious freedom advocated it for religious reasons that reflect a particular theology or view of what constitutes authentic religion. (As I suspect you know, more and more scholars are now making this point, e.g., Nicholas P. Miller, The Religious Roots of the First Amendment, 2012.) What was unclear in your post to which I was responding was whether you thought that such a grounding of religious freedom was problematic. I was writing, therefore, to get you to explain clearly if you thought it was problematic and, if so, why.
    Your reply has done that to some degree. You say that you do not want to criticize the theology behind the religion clauses, but only to point out that the clauses are based on certain theological assumptions and that this makes the clauses themselves inconsistent with the principle of neutrality that both scholars and the S. Court have said the clauses require on the part of government. Whether this is actually so or is a problem, however, you have yet to show. In the first place, there is a difference between a constitutional provision and an ordinary law. More importantly, there is a difference between the purpose or objective of a law, which must be secular in nature according to the Court, and its rationale or justification, which the Court has not said must also be secular in nature. The purpose or objective of the religion clauses is to deny government jurisdiction over religion, which has the effect of preventing it from favoring religion over non-religion (and vice versa), any religion over others, or persons/groups over other because of their religion. Does that purpose or effect violate the principle of neutrality? If not, shouldn’t that settle the matter, even if the rationale for the clauses is based on a particular theology? If you say, no, it shouldn’t, then aren’t you saying that there is no place for religious values or arguments in the public square? If the religion clauses are problematic because of their theological justification, then isn’t our government itself problematic, because its purpose is to protect the God-given rights of life, liberty, and property? In short, I contend that the principle of religious liberty requires the separation of “religion from government,” but not the separation of “government from religion.”
    My apologies for writing so much.

  4. Thanks, Professor West. You ask some good questions, and I’ll limit myself to a short reply, though the questions deserve much more.

    First, I agree that there is a difference between constitutional provisions and ordinary laws. But a widely endorsed theory of the Establishment Clause is that it requires government neutrality as to religion. To some extent, I am questioning that view when it is also tied to the theological position that separation makes religion purer, or more vital, or better. *If*, but only if, the Establishment Clause requires neutrality as to religion, and the very meaning of the Establishment Clause is based on a non-neutral theological and ecclesial understanding of vital or true or good religion, then that is a problem for the neutralist meaning.

    Second, I agree that there is a conceptual difference between overt purpose to advance a particular religious belief and the effect of advancing a particular religious belief. “That the Judaeo-Christian religions oppose stealing does not mean that a State or the Federal Government may not, consistent with the Establishment Clause, enact laws prohibiting larceny.” Harris v. McRae. But what I am trying to think through in the post is whether it is possible to hold simultaneously to the views (A) that separation is good for religion; and (B) that the Establishment Clause requires neutrality as to religion. If the Constitution requires (B), then (A) could only be true provisionally, incidentally, or circumstantially (as I said in my first post on this subject), not always and everywhere. Sometimes–many times–(A) will not be true, and (A) should not be taken as a constitutional given by church-state scholars (as it is by many). In order for (A) to be true all of the time, one would have to adopt the sort of theology that undergirds (A) historically–a theology of radical puritanism. And that would compromise (B).

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