Religion & State got a Divorce (thank goodness)
by Olivia Pierson
The most profound gift to the modern world from The Enlightenment was the legal divorce of religion & state. It was an advanced and long overdue acknowledgement that religion was a common cause of unmatched strife between human beings, therefore a hindrance to the progress of a peaceful civilisation. Man's recorded history is about 8000 - 10,000 years old, secular democratic governments are only about 200. It is sometimes easy to forget that in the affairs of humankind this legal separation is still rather a recent development.
In classical antiquity, under the Golden Age of Athens where a fledgling democracy was in early bloom, Socrates was unusually put to death for not believing in the correct gods. It was given to a public vote where the philosophically-minded men of Athens decided that quarrelsome old Socrates was a detrimental influence on their young. Instead of fleeing the city as any condemned person might have done, he stayed and drank the fatal hemlock (perhaps believing that Reason was a cause worth being martyred for). The people of the city he loved had spoken. Some years later Aristotle would meet with a similar verdict for a similar reason, but flee the city he did, saying; “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.”
After Alexander the Great conquered the known world (323 BCE) leaving Hellenistic culture in his wake, religious tolerance became something close to a norm. (Perhaps that had something to do with his being privately tutored by the liberal minded Aristotle.)
The later Roman Republic also allowed for individual conscience to flourish, until the depravity of the Caesars, Caligula and Nero, started a horrific decline into the heavy persecution of Christians - and any others who believed their god was more worthy of worship than their Caesar. Eventually, after Emperor Constantine campaigned to end the persecution of Christians (330 AD), they gained ascendancy as the state religion of Rome to go on to become the steady persecutors of all other faiths, including different strains of their own.
Throughout the darkest age of medieval Europe where theocracy firmly held sway, religious tolerance was a deeply forgotten notion. Religion reigned supreme with Catholicism in the West and Islam in the East – any contradictions to the self-proclaimed wisdom of these monotheistic super-powers were swiftly met with persecution, torture and agonising deaths. In the 16th century during the Protestant Reformation, which, against Catholic tyranny, asserted that liberty of conscience was a fundamentally biblical precept, it is estimated that over 12 million people lost their lives – and that is just in the West. Untold millions were put to the sword under Ottoman conquests, a difference in religious practice being the - pardon the expression, sticking point.
It would take another 200 years, a whole New World and some very committed Founding Fathers before the official separation of religion and state would become fully institutionalised as law. They knew that the only way to have peace preside over so many different religions was to have a state that remained religiously neutral. Freedom of religion also meant freedom from religion. The result was an America founded on the virtue of religious tolerance (and free speech). It is enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Yet even this enlightened measure did not eliminate atrocities – the Mormons were expelled from Missouri in 1838, and Haun's Mill became the ominous landmark for a massacre. Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder, was not only subjected to being tarred and feathered by an angry religious mob, he was finally murdered within a jailhouse in Illinois. Catholics and Protestants suffered under each other’s biases in American life early in the 19th century, but nothing close to the scale of religious persecutions which had ravaged European and Ottoman lands. These events underscored the point of the Founding Fathers’ efforts and the sense of urgency they had felt when setting religious tolerance in the stone of federal law.
Today, almost all democratic governments have themselves a version of the First Amendment, including Israel, India, East Timor and the Philippines. But conspicuously missing this essential civilisational gem are the Islamic countries, along with the underdeveloped countries with authoritarian regimes like Congo, North Korea and Haiti. China too, although developed, and with strong trading ties to the West, still cannot shake off its authoritarian super-ego, showing little regard for religious tolerance within its own borders.
Complete separation of religion and state is a government’s concrete way of displaying respect for the free minds and individuality of its citizens. In the modern world where the path toward globalisation is now well paved, we ought to hold some measure of rational suspicion in our dealings with other nation states if they have not yet afforded this fundamental decency to their own people. It shows a startling lack of esteem for human development, to say nothing of human rights.
If you enjoyed this article, please buy my book "Western Values Defended: A Primer"