Was Madison Right? Shiffrin on DeGirolami on Roy

The eminent First Amendment scholar (and my friend) Steve Shiffrin has a smart post disagreeing with my own criticisms of Olivier Roy’s column a few days ago concerning the European political right and its nominal association, but substantive dissociation, with the major Christian churches of Europe. Actually there is not much to disagree with in Steve’s post: insofar as my post suggests that the problems that attend church state associations simply have no application in Europe, surely Steve is right to object. Here are just a few additional ruminations in response:

First, I take Steve’s post to be in some measure a friendly amendment to my own. The  principal point I wanted to make about Professor Roy’s column is that to the extent that church-state association or connection is a problem in Europe, that is nothing new and has little to do with today’s particular political trade winds. So that while the contemporary political right makes for a fat target, Professor Roy’s real objection is to the larger model of church-state relations that has predominated in Europe (for good and, as Madison had it, for ill) for the hundreds of years that preceded the last handful. Steve’s post is, I think, consistent with this criticism.

Second, Steve’s post is also a reminder to me that the strength or vigor of a religious tradition is itself a contested concept. A highly Protestant or Evangelical view of religion’s core or essence will see weakness in associational or public institutional characteristics and strength in individual commitment and the purity of interior zeal (I note that Steve cites Stanley Hauerwas!). Here’s some of what I wrote a few months ago (in response to George Will) about the claim that separationism must always and necessarily strengthen religion, much of which seems applicable here too:

The claim is that religion is so vibrant in America only because (or uniquely because) it is so pure, so separate from public institutions. It’s an argument that Madison made famous in his “Memorial and Remonstrance” and that Justice Souter has made in his religion clause jurisprudence (see his dissent in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris)…. It reflects a distinctively evangelical ethic that one sees in full blossom in the writing of Roger Williams (as well as, before him, John Milton), for whom religion could never quite be pure enough–an ethic that hyper-emphasizes the unvarnished, utterly and uncomplicatedly sincere credos of what William James much later would call the gloomily intense “twice-born.”

Notice also the individualistic current on which the claim [of religious strength’s source in separationism] rides. It isn’t just that the state is “likely to get it wrong”; that is an argument for disestablishment…. The deeper undercurrent of the separationist claim is that individuals, not entities, are the ones “likely to get it right”–that true-blue, healthfully zesty religiosity depends on a kind of inward exercise of discernment borne from fervent conviction that is always in peril of depurification by associational adulteration. It is a claim made primarily by those whose experience of “bad” religion was group religion– and traditional group religion at that. And the claim retains at least part of its power because of its still vital anti-clerical, anti-institutional foundations….

But is the claim true? In part, perhaps, but only with substantial qualifications of a kind that make it problematic. There is nothing inevitable….about religious strength that follows ineluctably from its complete separation from government. There is no iron law that says: the more we separate religion from government, the stronger religion must become. Such a claim would run headlong into many counterexamples, contemporary and ancient. The ancient examples make the claim appear patently absurd. One wants to ask: “Do you actually mean to tell me that no society which has not observed strict separation between church and state has had a flourishing religious life? So there was no flourishing religious life in any of countless pre-modern societies that existed before Milton or Locke or Roger Williams or whoever got busy?” And to take only one modern case, religion and the state have been strictly separated for some time in laic France and in other extremely secular European countries, and the strength of religious life in those countries is by all accounts much weaker than it was in prior historical periods when there was greater proximity and interpenetration of church and state.

I suppose one might argue that religious weakness in a country like France is the result of the long, noxious association of church and state that preceded separation, and that we just need some more time before a newly flourishing religiosity emerges. That seems highly dubious. Church and state have been separated in France for over a century (since 1905). How much longer is it supposed to take for this delicate flower to bloom in the desert? In fact, it seems much more likely that strict separation of church and state has either contributed to the weakening of religious life in a country like France or (even more plausibly) that it has occurred at a time when religiosity was weakening for reasons of its own–reasons unrelated to, or at least independent of, strict separationism.

If some notion of separation did in fact at one time contribute to a stronger collective religious life in the United States, the reason had little to do with any necessary connection in this respect, and more to do with the unique historical and cultural circumstances of the United States–circumstances in which the Puritan evangelicalism represented by Roger Williams’s particular style of fire-and-brimstone, garden-and-the-wilderness religiosity was much more powerful in the United States than it is today. Church-state separation may be a strategy that makes religion seem stronger, provided that one is beginning from the evangelical paradigm of the twice-born soul. But it is a different matter if religion is commonly perceived in wildly different terms and expected to perform entirely different functions.

I take all of these points to be consistent with Steve’s final paragraph, in which he writes: “The factors leading to religiosity or its decline are complicated and controversial, and the decline in European religiosity is palpable. I would not contend that the close ties between religion and the state are the only explanation. After all, those ties persisted for a long time without a decline as DeGirolami observes. I would add that those ties can be helpful.” Quite so.

Finally, a friend wrote to me indicating that he was dubious that “separationist” was a proper description of Professor Roy’s own views. That’s an interesting observation as well. I made the association because separationism has a long and rich history in this country. It is a view that proceeds in part from the position that the mingling of church and state is a corrupting force for both and it maintains that the cultural and identitarian features of religion which can permeate the political sphere are not a positive thing for either religion or government. I found this latter theme to be very much emphasized in Professor Roy’s piece; indeed, I found it to be crucial to the claims he makes. But separationism is an American phenomenon. And it may be difficult to transplant the flora of particular, culturally contingent church state arrangements to exotic soils and expect them to blossom in quite the same ways.

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