The separation of church and state (hereafter “the separation”) is one of the pieties of classical liberalism, and for good reason. It makes the necessary room for the expansion and protection of religious liberty.
But I find the concept troubling, not because I don’t love religious liberty, but rather because I do, and the separation seems like a somewhat flimsy foundation for supporting so important a value.
The separation itself is a value that belongs to one “church” and not others. It is probably rooted in the Christian gospel, where Jesus wasn’t a political revolutionary and told his followers to give to Caesar what was Caesar’s. But considering the world at large and even America itself, the separation of church and state appears to be a tenuous concept. Not only do many people reject it outright, but even valuing separation may be a subtle form of non-separation. Let me explain.
The State and the Church
At bottom, the state is a collection of people who are organized in a particular way within a given society. The structure of the state reflects a culture’s ideas about how people should live among each other. For example, the Americans of the founding generation declared independence from England on the grounds that their ideas about human nature conflicted with being ruled by a king, or with the state structure of monarchy.
The state thus tends to follow from ideas that people have about the nature of reality. This is why the Declaration of Independence begins with a clarion religious statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” The American state was thus supposed to be organized in a way that reflected this conviction, which led the founders to develop the state structure of a republic.
But what if someone fundamentally did not believe in the notion that people are created equal and have inherent rights? What if someone believed that it is the prerogative of the strong to run roughshod over the weak? In that case, basic notions of freedom and equality would no longer even make any sense. If the metaphysical idea is removed, there is nothing left to hold up the political idea. In other words, the political idea can’t stand on its own, and it needs the metaphysical idea for justification.
From the conservative standpoint, politics is downstream from ethics, and ethics is downstream from metaphysics. We develop beliefs about the structure of reality (metaphysics), then we draw implications from that structure for how we’re supposed to conduct our lives (ethics), and then we draw further implications for how we’re supposed to live together (politics). This means it is downright impossible to have a politics without a metaphysics.
Our ideas about how we’re supposed to live are always based on our ideas about what reality is and what humans are. Our answers to political questions will most often depend on our answers to metaphysical ones—and one of the main purposes of the religion is to address the latter. So, if religion is the “church” and politics is the “state,” but politics is always driven by metaphysical and thus religious notions, then this means it would be impossible to altogether separate state from church. It is impossible even at the level of concept, let alone at the level of practice.
The Notion of Separation Is Historically Rare
It becomes clear that the separation is a fiction if we turn attention to cultural groups who just don’t believe in the idea of separation at all. For example, there is the Islamic world. Pew Research Center found that 91 percent of all Iraqis and 74 percent of all Egyptians support the implementation of sharia law within their nations. Sharia is a legal code that is explicitly rooted in the religion of Islam. So, if sharia is the law of the land, then that’s pretty much the definition of having no separation.
This is fine with traditional Islam. Indeed, from the perspective of that creed, the very idea of separation is blasphemy, because it would mean that the society was not organized along the lines of the will of Allah. What the Western world has considered an ideal, then, is anathema within the Islamic world. This shows that the separation is itself a specific idea that has grown up within a particular cultural vision of how life is supposed to be.
Likewise, the progressives in America also seem to reject the separation. This claim makes sense if we bear in mind that progressivism involves an essentially religious mindset, and if we understand “church” in the broad sense of powerful metaphysical ideology. From the progressive standpoint, the government exists in order to further their vision of how society should be.
This can be seen in their support for judicial activism: progressives understand justice not in terms of fairness, due process, or the like, but in terms of the specific outcomes that would change the world in the way that they want. Likewise, the fact that progressives want to enforce metaphysical claims through the force of law—in particular regarding gender ideology—makes it clear that they do not want a state that mediates between competing visions of reality, but rather a state that takes a clear side and works toward realizing one metaphysical vision at the expense of others.
Intellectual honesty, however, demands that we acknowledge that conservatives also do the same thing, if only because the full separation of church and state is just plain impossible. Again, the very idea that the separation is a good thing is itself the view of one particular church and not others, given that it is shared by neither Islam nor progressivism. But even within this context, the state is always obliged to get at least somewhat involved in matters of metaphysics.
For example, the state used to uphold the idea that marriage is between a man and a woman, whereas now the state instead backs the notion that it is a relationship between any two consenting adults. The truth is that the one view is just as metaphysical as the other—and as long as the state is in the marriage business, it is obliged to take a position. (Even if the state ignored marriage altogether, that would be yet another metaphysical position to take.)
Something similar is true of the abortion debate as well, insofar as the issue has a metaphysical side to it. In short, there’s just no getting out of this problem.
The Dilemma of Liberalism
Many writers have been addressing the crisis of liberalism as of late, but I find Patrick Deneen’s account to be the most persuasive. The main idea here is that liberalism is in fact an ideology (or “church”) of its own, and that it is in the process of unraveling due to its own internal contradictions. In particular, liberalism encourages a maximum of individual liberty, but in doing so, it generates a huge centrifugal force, with no corresponding mechanism for making sure the center holds.
In principle, the endpoint would be a cultural breakdown in which everyone exercises religious liberty in the degraded form of withdrawing into their own private realities. At that point, it would no longer be a rich culture and shared values that hold society together, but rather just the amoral churning of the globalized capitalist economy.
The now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy is infamous among conservatives for his declaration: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” But this is the definition of religious liberty, is it not? What’s the alternative? After all, most of us wouldn’t find it acceptable to have someone else define these things for us. This is fully congruent with the liberal creed.
The problem, however, is that when the guiding metaphysical principle is nothing but pure individual liberty, it becomes impossible to cohere a culture, because the state could do nothing to impose relevant norms. Liberalism is thus tragic: Icarus-like, its greatest promise appears to imply its self-destruction. That being said, I cherish my right to define my own concept of existence, and I definitely don’t like the idea of the state imposing norms on this front. I thus seem to be part of the problem, and the cultural way forward is unclear.