Why Strict Religion-State Separation is Neither Real Nor Ideal

by vaughn_admin  //  

June 28, 2016

This blog conversation explores the relationship between religious freedom and political systems. Respondents discuss how citizens and governments benefit from robust religious freedom or, alternatively, suffer under religious restrictions. Additionally, they explore the unique contours of state-church relations, particularly in the United States.

By: Ani Sarkissian

A common conception of religious freedom is that it is predicated upon the principle of “strict separation of church and state.” Debates around this issue in the United States often reference the First Amendment prohibition of any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” and many understand the legal subject of this constitutional protection to be the individual. Religious beliefs and practices, the thinking goes, are private matters entitled to protection from state interference. 

This perspective ignores the fact in most parts of the world—including the United States—the state has a close relationship with religion. In varying degrees as regulator and subsidizer, the state in most democracies is deeply intertwined with everyday religious practice. This does not mean that religious freedom suffers. In fact, in many countries, it means that people actually have greater positive and practical abilities to exercise their rights to religious freedom. 

Understanding this seeming contradiction between American and global conceptions of religious freedom involves understanding the myriad forms of state interactions with religious groups in civil society. To understand religious freedom in its variety and complexity, we must think of it as encompassing not just the protection of the individual right to religious belief, worship, and practice from state repression or state-mandated religion, but instead as encompassing policies promoting group rights to engage with and contribute to public life. Around the world, the promotion of religious freedom comes not because of protection from the state, but because of actions by the state. 

Shifting the focus away from religious freedom as following from religion-state separation highlights the important role that religious groups play in different societies. In democracies around the world, governments support and subsidize religious organizations and groups that provide education, healthcare, and other public services to citizens. In many cases, these are material and social services to populations in need. For example, in the United Kingdom, the government funds both secular and religious schools. Like all interactions with government, this funding is accompanied by regulations, but both sides acknowledge the benefit in having groups close to the population minister to its needs. At the encouragement of the state, religious groups around the world play instrumental and valuable roles as institutions of civil society. 

Examining religious freedom through the lens of civil society not only helps us better understand democracies in comparative perspective, but also the variety of non-democratic regimes around the world as well. While democratic governments often support religious groups as a way of strengthening civil society and democracy, authoritarian regimes fear a strong, independent, and engaged citizenry, and ruling interests focus their efforts on weakening and eradicating forms of social organization, including those religious groups. Therefore, we see high levels of restrictions against civil society generally and religious groups specifically in states with the most closed political systems, such as China and North Korea. 

Other authoritarian leaders take a two-pronged approach to suppressing civil society by offering subsidies to some groups while imposing restrictions on others. For example, in Russia the state provides material and other benefits to the Russian Orthodox Church while restricting (primarily foreign-based) groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In these cases, subsidies or constraints on religious groups are aimed at restricting the array of organizations operating in civil society. This focuses repression on those groups that pose a threat to the political status quo and showers favors on those that help to prop it up.

It is through this perspective that we might try to understand the importance of international attempts to promote religious freedom such as the Office for International Religious Freedom in the U.S. State Department and its newly established Canadian counterpart, the Office of Religious Freedom. These efforts should be viewed not as government endorsements of religion or a desire to export an American version of religious freedom. Instead, they should be seen as part of a commitment to pluralistic civil society part of a commitment to pluralistic civil society for the purposes of promoting greater democracy, both at home and abroad. 

Ani Sarkissian is an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University (MSU) and an associate scholar with the Berkley Center’s Religious Freedom Project.

This piece was originally authored on April 21, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.