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Misunderstanding Separation of Church and State October 11, 2007

Posted by Maddog in Catholicism, Politics and Law, Religion and Social Issues.
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The principle of separation of church and state is often cited by many persons in all sorts of situations. From traditional politicians trying to surreptitiously push a morally questionable population control program, to anti-clerics who want to monopolize debate in important issues, the principle of separation is employed whenever the Catholic Church, or any other religion, speaks out and steps on a few toes.

The separation of church and state is sometimes thought of as a “wall” separating the affairs of the two. Those who follow this thinking usually claim that religion should have nothing to do with the affairs of men. They would probably also say that religious belief should not influence the crafting of laws, affect the actions of public officials, or even be part of public debate. Instead, government should be neutral towards all religions and be totally secular in nature. Such secularism can therefore be seen as an embodiment of the separation principle.

Carlos Palad, in his essay, “Secularism: A Hidden Danger“, explains it thus:

Secularism is an attitude that takes away the public sphere from the rightful influence of religious belief. Secularism is an outlook, sometimes rising (as in contemporary France) to the level of a state-sponsored ideology, that insists on considering all public matters from a vantage point characterized by a reliance on human reason, and free of any reference to the sacred. This is because the individual conscience must be defended and freedom of discourse allowed, and (so secularists believe) this can be done only by allowing for common ground characterized by a “reasonableness” uninfluenced by “sectarian” considerations. For this reason, the secularist mentality insists on excluding religious views from the public square, often under the plea that Church and State must be considered separate.

Secularism does not necessarily judge religious beliefs to be “wrong” or even “irrational”; it simply considers them to be purely a matter of private judgment or opinion, that should be left at the doorsteps of any public institution. Secularists often profess respect for religious belief, as long as it is kept precisely that: a mere belief without bearing on public affairs. Behind this attitude towards religion is the presupposition that religion is a dangerous element once brought into the public sphere; religion is seen as productive (better word is product) of intolerance and bigotry, and as precluding all “common ground” between the various combatants in the sphere of public discourse. Classic examples of this indifference towards the importance of religious belief in public life are at present supplied by the so-called “Catholics” of the Democratic Party (John Kerry, Edward Kennedy) who say that they are “personally opposed” to abortion but that they are in favor of its continued legalization because “they don’t want to impose their private beliefs” on other people.

But is this “secularism”, this interpretation of the separation of church and state right? Does it have any legal basis?