In rereading a wonderful piece by Professor Michael McConnell about Edmund Burke’s view of the relationship between an established religion and a regime of toleration of religion, I came across this deeply insightful discussion of the close connection of a separationist idea of religion and government (as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, for example) and the idea that government itself had very limited functions in the first place:
There is a close, but generally unrecognized, connection between the idea of the “Wall of Separation” and the idea of a radically limited government. Once government shakes off its limited role and concerns itself with the general welfare of the people, including their cultural and intellectual lives, it has leapt the “Wall” and entered the traditional sphere of religion. In contrast to many of our Founders, Burke had a more modern conception of the jurisdiction of the state, which did not permit him the easy answer of a “Wall of Separation.” If the government is “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection,” then it necessarily will be conveying a collective teaching on science, art, virtue, and perfection (whether we label the teaching a “religion” or not). It follows not that an establishment is desirable, but that it is inescapable. Some sort of opinions will necessarily guide the state in its “superintending control over…the publicly propagated doctrines of men.” If the Jeffersonian-Madisonian ideal of the limited state is abandoned as naive or outmoded, then the serious questions become how to protect against arbitrary or tyrannical use of this power and how to respect the legitimate rights of those who disagree with the official orthodoxy.
Michael W. McConnell, Establishment and Toleration in Edmund Burke’s ‘Constitution of Freedom,’ 1995 Supreme Court Review 393, 444-45 (with citations to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and his Speech on the Petition of the Unitarians).