March 9, 2008


The Advantage to Islam Of Mosque-State Separation: What the American Founders can teach (Alexander Benard, Spring 2008, Hoover Digest)

Mosque-state separation and religious freedom appear to have stalled in Muslim-majority countries, leading scholars, theologians, and policymakers to conclude that a theocratic model of governance is inevitable for the Islamic world. They argue that Islam is distinct from religions like Christianity because Islamic states have a duty to implement Shari’a, and therefore require a government with joint religious and civil authority.1 Muslim publics are presumed to be deeply attached to this belief, which is why they have rejected the notion of a secular-based rule of law.

An objective look at the facts, however, uncovers quite a different picture. Recent surveys indicate that the populations of many major Muslim-majority countries are almost evenly divided on such hot-button issues as whether Shari’a should serve as the primary foundation for laws and whether clerics should be involved in political questions. These new data challenge previously held assumptions about the values and attitudes of Muslim publics concerning mosque-state separation.

As important, history informs us that the current debate surrounding separation of religion and politics is not a historic anomaly; nor is it unique to Islam. In other parts of the world, including the West, it took great efforts to replace the “age-old assumption” that it is “right and justifiable to maintain religious uniformity by force.”2 The debate occurring in the Islamic world today should be viewed in the context of other countries’ transitions to separation of religion and politics, which offer valuable lessons that can help supporters of mosque-state separation become more effective.

Among the most interesting precedents for the Islamic world, and most surprising, is colonial America. To establish church-state separation and religious freedom in the United States, the Founders had to convince a devout and deeply skeptical populace that such a system posed no threat to religion. What today seems like a natural and obvious development was in fact a hard-won paradigm change with astonishing parallels to the issues dominating the debate in the Islamic world today. The Founders’ experience provides a template for those who seek to advance mosque-state separation in Muslim-majority countries. [...]

he united states supplies a model that is attractive for the Islamic world. At the time the Founders were drafting the U.S. Constitution, many colonists were extremely conservative, and feared that church-state separation would undermine religion’s role in American society. The Founders managed to assuage their concerns, crafting a system that ensured religious freedom while preserving high levels of religiosity. Indeed, the United States remains a religious society by global standards, particularly compared to similarly developed countries. The Founders’ approach is therefore highly apposite and offers valuable lessons.

The first constitution of the Massachusetts colony provides a sense of early American views on church-state separation and the challenges that faced the Founders. The constitution’s preamble declares that “God had set up political government among his people [and] gave them a body of laws for judgment both in civil and criminal causes.”7 It goes on to state explicitly that these laws were drafted with “the help of some of the Elders of [their] Churches to compose a model of the judicial laws of Moses.” This language is not unique to the preamble — the entire constitution is filled with references to scripture. One section, for example, proclaims that any person who commits blasphemy “by willful or obstinate denying [of] the true God” must, in accordance with principles derived from scripture, be put to death. The drafters of this constitution, who just a few decades later would support full religious freedom, evidently believed the Bible to be the only legitimate source of jurisprudence.

Constitutions in other American colonies expressed similar beliefs. Virginia, for example, was chartered as a Christian mission. In 1606, the king of England announced that the colony would bring glory to the British Empire by propagating “Christian religion to such people, as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.”8 The state’s legislature also passed laws against defaming ministers and involved both church and state institutions in punishing violators. Other laws made religious observance a civil duty. Under the Virginia Constitution, settlers were forbidden to “speak impiously or maliciously against the holy and blessed Trinit[y], or any of the three persons . . . or against the known articles of the Christian faith, upon pain of death.” The examples of Massachusetts and Virginia represent the prevailing viewpoint in the overwhelming majority of the colonies.

Thus, when the Founders introduced their arguments in favor of church-state separation, colonists were opposed for a number of reasons. One widely held belief, for example, was that separation would usher in an era of moral decline. Colonists believed that civil government “depended upon religion and upon the morality which it inculcated,” that church-state separation threatened the country’s “moral and political order.”9

Opposition, on these and other grounds, was often driven by conservative clergymen and their vocal followers. These preachers feared they would be financially unable to sustain their churches without funding from the state. Believing that religion was a necessary basis for the morality required of government, they argued that the preservation of religion required government financing. They and their followers supplied a constant stream of propaganda aimed at discrediting the supporters of church-state separation, whom they labeled “infidels” and “atheists.” Thomas Jefferson was derided specifically as a “French infidel.” Perhaps the most potent criticism came from Jonathan Edwards, who described several of the Founders as dangerous men who had “wholly cast off the Christian religion, and are professed infidels.”10

In all, public opinion on church-state separation in the colonies bore an uncanny resemblance to current views in the Islamic world. Islamic fundamentalists today argue that laws must be based on religious scripture. They label moderates as atheists and infidels and frighten conservatives by telling them that the separation of mosque and state will undermine public morality and lead to decreasing levels of religiosity. Whether in the context of Christianity or Islam, the arguments between those who support and those who oppose the separation of religion and politics tend to be similar.

The Founders, too, argued that they feared the influence of politics on religion, but they sought “not to establish freedom from religion but to establish freedom for religion.”11 By making this distinction, they set an entirely different tone for the disestablishment process, aligning themselves with the conservative elements of their society.

First, they argued that establishing a single national church would be dangerous because it would put control over each individual’s destiny in the hands of others. Allowing a government to interpret religion on behalf of an entire country, said Jefferson, would be like giving “fallible and uninspired men dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible.”12 In Christian theology, individuals ultimately answer God alone for their actions. Therefore, if the government’s interpretation were to prove wrong, individual worshippers could pay the price with their souls. The Founders argued that this risk was too great, that even “mainstream” Christians should therefore devote themselves to keeping religion “wholly exempt from [civil society’s] cognizance.”13

Second, joining church and state would pose a risk to religious denominations, since, as Madison argued, “the same authority which can establish Christianity . . . may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects.” There were already two dominant sects of Christianity in the Colonies — Anglicans and Puritans; the official establishment of one would come at the expense of the other. Similarly, many religious minorities, including Quakers and Baptists, worried that the free exercise of their faith would be threatened by the establishment of a national church. This argument resonated strongly with the colonists and mobilized significant support for church-state separation.

Third, the Founders argued vehemently that separating church and state would not undermine the viability and spread of religious faith in the United States. The belief that religion pre-existed and flourished before the institutions of government contradicted the assertion that to be successful Christianity needed the power of the state. Indeed, demanding the establishment of a national church would signal a lack of confidence in the innate excellence of the religion, and convey to those rejecting it a sense that its adherents lacked the confidence to trust it on its own merits. Followers should instead have faith that their ideas would be vindicated without the support of government laws or funding.

Finally, the Founders rebutted the notion that a government would conduct itself less morally without direct guidance from a particular church. Rather than acting as a force for spiritual purity, national churches had been vehicles for upholding the thrones of political tyranny, as Madison put it, and subverting the public liberty with the assistance of a complicit clergy. The Founders focused on examples from the colonists’ personal experiences in Europe, where tyrannical monarchies were catalysts for emigration to North America. These examples, still fresh in the memories of most colonists, helped to make this a powerful point.

With these arguments, the Founders convinced the most conservative elements of society, including clergymen, that church-state separation was not a threat to their faith. One, for example, conceded that while he had initially believed the damage done to religion was “irreparable,” he soon realized that “by voluntary efforts, societies, missions, and revivals,” ministers had come to exert a deeper influence than ever before.14 Other preachers echoed those sentiments, so that by the time Alexis de Tocqueville asked whether the support of civil power was useful to religion, he received replies such as “absolutely not.”15 Indeed, the number of ministers who became advocates for church-state separation serves as a good indicator of the Founders’ success.

At a point where the Pope recognizes the superiority of the American model to the establishment of Catholicism in Europe, the argument seems to be over.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 9, 2008 12:03 AM
Comments for this post are closed.