Note From Across The Pond: Church-State Separation Isn’t For Everyone

The State Department’s new initiative for an office of religious engagement is welcome. Over in the UK, I’ve been arguing for years that there needs to be better engagement between politics, religion, and religion research, and I founded the Westminster Faith Debates with former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, to advance this very aim. We bring researchers, religious spokespeople and policy makers into dialogue. A state department which talks of “religious engagement” warms my heart. 

So why, as I read the manifesto, do I also feel some stirrings of unease? The first thing to set alarm bells ringing is the stated aim of “institutionalizing an official U.S. commitment to globalize religious freedom.” Alarms are set off once again when I read of the stated intention to “advance American’s vision and values.”

I have no objection to religious freedom. Religion should be a matter of conscience not coercion; liberty is a watchword. What worries me are attempts to advance it which assume there’s only one possible model of religious freedom—the U.S. model—and that it necessarily pivots round a U.S.-style separation of church and state. This is one of the assumptions built into Pew’s global audit of religious freedom, the 2010 results of which produced some chortles over on this side of the pond. 

Clearly this model of church-state separation works well in the U.S. It’s part of the country’s history and tradition and has great integrity. But abstract it from its context and try to lay it down over other nations’ traditions, and it causes trouble. Worse, it threatens to disrupt the very religion-state engagement the State Department initiative seeks to promote. Let me illustrate in relation to Europe. 

Europe’s historical entanglement with religion is deep and ancient. In fact, the very idea of “Europe” is a product of Christianity’s attempt to bring unity to this region under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, the rise of European nation states in the early modern period is bound up with the contemporaneous creation of national churches. In other words, in the form in which we know them today European states and churches birthed one another. Only in combination did they have the economic, bureaucratic, and cultural capacity to create unified territorial polities. 

The result of this symbiotic relation is that it’s impossible for European countries to make religion purely private without engaging in some of the merciless coercion exercised by those communist countries which attempted—with only partial success—to achieve such an end. Imagine the actual costs and consequences of withdrawing state-support from Christian educational foundations given that in many countries they include a significant proportion of primary and secondary schools as well as universities and colleges—even in France, the EU country with the nearest to a state-church separation.

A similar point can be made about the longstanding partnerships of state and religion in the provision of welfare and healthcare, not to mention religion’s entwinement in the cultural fabric and built environment. Increasingly, that entwinement includes non-Christian as well as Christian forms of religion. 

Moreover, even if a genuine separation of religion and state were possible without tearing up the social and cultural fabric of Europe, it’s the last thing we need if we truly value our liberal and democratic institutions. Most religious people in Europe today are liberal, tolerant, and progressive. Their attitudes and values differ little from the general population (of which they are, after all, a large part). For example, a survey I designed this year to inform the Westminster Faith Debates found that in Great Britain the religious “moral minority” which is non-liberal on abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia constitutes a mere 8.5% of the adult population of Great Britain. 

Though difficult to prove, it’s highly likely that one of the reasons why most European countries have such a small moral minority and a relatively large liberal religious majority compared with the U.S. is that they do not have as clear a separation of state and church. When you make religion purely private, you remove it from the cultural mainstream. You remove religious education from state schools, faith-based organisations from statutory regulation, and religion in general from the moderating influence of debate and contestation. 

Of course strong supporters of U.S.-style religious freedom, even ones as subtle as Martha Nussbaum, argue that establishments of religion foster inequality amongst citizens, which they certainly used to. But it’s over a century since most European countries upheld restrictions on particular religious groups. Indeed European equality laws enacted at the start of the 21st century now enshrine even stronger legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief than is available under U.S. law (alongside protections relating to gender, disability, age, ethnicity, and sexuality).

And given that religious commitment is far less of an expected social norm in most European countries than in the U.S. (with exceptions like Northern Ireland and Poland), there is rarely a social or cultural penalty to not belonging to a religion either—often quite the opposite. 

Moreover, although the retention of an established church—as in the UK—is counted as a major blot on a country’s religious freedom index score, in practice it no longer has a negative bearing on religious freedom. To the contrary, Fetzer and Soper’s study of why some European countries—like the UK—have integrated Muslim minorities better than others finds that having an established religion can be a major plus. Muslims and other religious minorities do better here not only because they can find shelter from anti-Islamic secularism, but because they can claim the same rights as established forms of religion, such as state funding for faith schools and freedom for religious dress.

So if the new State Department initiative is serious about encouraging better engagement between state and religion, it makes no sense to take on an existing agenda for religious freedom which tries to impose an historically particular model of state-religion separation on countries with very different histories, institutions and constitutions (if they even have a written constitution, which the UK doesn’t).

The U.S. model works in the U.S. because it is a long-established part of the country’s culture, history, and constitution. Obviously, this is not the case in other countries. Here in the U.K., for example, religious freedom needs to be advanced by going with the grain of existing arrangements, rather than by attempting to start again. And what I’ve said about the dangers and difficulties of imposing religious freedom U.S.-style in Europe is true in spades for other parts of the world, including the Middle East. 

Socio-religious ecologies are just that. They are highly complex systems with path-dependent possibilities which have been laid down over centuries (many more centuries in most parts of the world than in the U.S.). When you look beyond the surface, what appears to be unfreedom on a crude index often turns out to work very differently in context and practice. Rash interventions almost always have unintended, often irreversible, consequences. 

In a globally-linked world, it seems like a good idea for the U.S. to set up an office which engages with religion not only in-country, but in the rest of the world as well. The U.S. has an excellent culture of religion research, a vibrant religious landscape, and many useful insights about the governance of religion. But just as religion-state relations should be a matter of genuine partnership, so should global work on religion. The imposition of a U.S. blueprint is not the way forward in relation to religion, not in the current world order. 

Is it conceivable that the U.S. might have things to learn about religion-state relations from other countries, as well as vice versa? After all, surely one of the great insights behind the modern ideal of religious freedom is that no one person, religion, or country can ever be completely sure that it is in sole possession of the truth scrolls. 

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l.woodhead@lancaster.ac.uk'

Linda Woodhead [@LindaWoodhead] is professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University and director of the Westminster Faith Debates. www.faithdebates.org.uk