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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?

The Philippines is currently governed by the 1987 Constitution, which states in Article II, Section 6:

The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable.

In Article III, Section 5, the Constitution also states:

No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.

The Philippine Constitution therefore has some similarities to the U.S. Constitution in that it specifies two points governing the relationship between the state and religion. First there is an “establishment” provision which prohibits the establishment of an offical state religion or a state-favored religion. Then there is the guarantee of protection of the free exercise of religion.

There is no mention, however, of a “wall” separating religion and government. More importantly, there is nothing that mandates that religious belief cannot be a consideration in the crafting of laws and public policy, or that it be kept out of public debate, or that public officals must abandon religious beliefs in the performance of their duties. It can be argued then that the idea of a “wall” separating church and state really has has no constitutional basis.

The American Experience

It might be of interest to note that the U.S. Constitution says this, and only this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .

That is the only constitutional provision on the matter. There is no mention of a “wall” separating religion from public debate, or keeping religious belief out of government. The idea of a “wall” of separation does appear in other writings, for example in Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists (dated Jan. 1, 1802), wherein he writes:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

That “wall” in Jefferson’s letter, however, seems to be protecting religion from state interference, not keeping religion out of public life.

Another interpretation of the “separation” was in the the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted in 1786. This was also written by Thomas Jefferson and pushed by James Madison, and guaranteed that no one may be compelled to finance any religion or denomination. It reads, in part:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

The document itself speaks of keeping the state from adopting any religion or imposing the same through any coercive means. It does not, however, state that religion can have no role in public life.

The thinking of British philosopher John Locke, which deeply influenced the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, made use of the principle of a “social contract”. In the Wikipedia entry on Separation of Church and State, we find this:

According to his principle of the social contract, Locke argued that the government lacked authority in the realm of individual conscience, as this was something rational people could not cede to the government for it or others to control. For Locke, this created a natural right in the liberty of conscience, which he argued must therefore remain inviolable by any government authority. These views on religious tolerance and the importance of individual conscience, along with his social contract, became influential in the American colonies.

Locke’s view is again totally different from the preposterous idea that the “church should not interfere in the affairs of men”. If anything, it expressed an opposite view: that the state should not interfere in matters of conscience.

Even the US Supreme Court has begun to turn away from the position espoused by those who want to silence the Church using the “separation of church and state” argument. The same Wikipedia article notes this as follows:

The term was used and defended heavily by the Court until the early 1970s. Since that time, the Court has distanced itself from the metaphor, often suggesting the metaphor conveys hostility to religion in contrast to Jefferson’s original eaning “… in behalf of the rights of [religious] conscience.” In Wallace v. Jaffree, Justice Rehnquist presented the view that he establishment clause was intended to protect local establishments of religion from federal interference — a view which diminished the strong separation views of the Court. Justice Scalia has criticized the metaphor as a bulldozer removing religion from American public life.

Again, we see here that the purpose of separation of church and state is to defend religion from federal interference, not the other way around.

Public office

Some have even gone so far as to claim that separation of church and state means that religious leaders — including priests and ministers — cannot run for public office. This is plain religious discrimination and has no legal basis in the Philippines (or for that matter, in the U.S.).

The Catholic Church itself discourages priests from participating in partisan politics since such participation may divide the flock; but this is not a constitutional or legal prohibition, and the Church can also allow it in some cases. As far as the law goes, there is simply no provision whatsoever in either the U.S. or Philippine Constitutions that prohibits priests and ministers from holding public office.

Silencing the Church

The bottom line is that the principle of separation of church and state is to guarantee religious freedom by preventing oppression by the government. Yet it seems that there are those who would rather use it as a means to keep the Church from pointing out errors and exposing wrongdoing.

The dangers posed by such attempts to shut out religion are quite real and should concern us all, as Carlos Palad also pointed out:

Just as indifference towards religion often masks a latent hostility towards it, so the secularist mentality often ends up in outright persecution of religius belief. There is no way this slide can be averted, for if religious belief is something that is too dangerous to be displayed in public, then perhaps it is something that should eventually be extirpated for the public good. In our time, this creeping hostility often combines with a tendency to consider abortion, homosexuality and various forms of immorality to be “rights” against which no one should even speak out. This is the reason why Cardinal Ratzinger has spoken of an “intolerant” secularism that begins by excluding religion from the public sphere and ends up so extending that public sphere that the individual conscience is left with no room for religious belief.

. . .

The case against secularization can be summed up as follows: secularism is itself a dogma, a form of sectarianism that by definition should not be allowed to rule the public sphere to the detriment of other viewpoints. Secularism, far from guaranteeing freedom of conscience, endangers conscience because it progressively disallows religious consciences from speaking out, while non-religious or anti-religious people do not labor under any similar disability. Secularism implicitly denies any real importance to religious matters, turning it entirely into a private matter or a matter of mere opinion. The Church supports a genuine freedom of conscience that gives ample space in the public sphere for the expression of different beliefs; however, religious beliefs must also have this right to free expression, and in predominantly Christian countries this Christian character must be respected by the state as the basis of the spiritual life of the nation, and as the default viewpoint from which legislative matters are considered.

Christ Himself expressed His faith at all times. He didn’t hide behind any sentimental notions of “keeping one’s faith a private matter” or political correctness. We should not do any less.


1. starview - October 24, 2007

Hi. I have some questions.

1. Are you saying that your there-is-no-wall-between-State-and-religion interpretation of the U.S. Constitution (which was copied by the Phils) is more faithful to the actual text and its authors intentions? Is it reasonable to conclude that your interpretation is better than a founding father and ex-President?

2. If majority of the Phils. citizens were Hindu and Catholics a minority, how would you react if the Hindu Priests lobby for a law banning the killing and eating of cows?

2. starview - October 24, 2007

‘Christ Himself expressed His faith at all times. He didn’t hide behind any sentimental notions of “keeping one’s faith a private matter” or political correctness. We should not do any less.’

Jesus did not interfere with politics either.

3. Manny - October 24, 2007

On the contrary, Christ infuriated the political/religious authorities. His faith did not “interfere”, but it involved Him in the “affairs of men”, as it should have. And those whose toes He stepped on would be the ones whining about such “interference” if the concept of “separation” were in vogue then.

4. Manny - October 25, 2007

Answer to question 1:

It is unreasonable to conclude that the interpretation commonly used by those who wish to silence the Church — an interpretation far more radical than Jefferson’s — is in any way faithful to the text or the intentions of the authors of the U.S. or Philippine Constitutions. The texts and supporting documents cited (including Jefferson’s letter) are clear: there is no mandate keeping religion out of the affairs of men. That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court is moving away from such radical interpretations as I noted in the article. You might also note that not all of the authors of the U.S. Constitution subscribe to Jefferson’s wall analogy, much less the more radical interpretations of it.

Answer to question 2:

I don’t see how this question is related to the topic, since I haven’t advocated for the establishment of a state religion. But since the question was asked…

I would react the same way if someone (perhaps falsely claiming to do so in the name of the Church) managed to get a law making it a criminal offense for anyone to miss Mass on Sundays. Such a law would run counter to the interests of the Faith and would be tantamount to the establishment of a state religion. The Church wouldn’t want that here and neither would I.

The bottom line is that there is no legal or historical reason to believe that Faith should be kept out of public debate. In fact, that is where Faith belongs. That is not interference just as Christ’s involvement in the affairs of men was not interference.

5. reckless2k2 - October 25, 2007

This is good powerful stuff Manny. I couldn’t agree with you more and have said the same things when the word “separation” has been used regarding such subjects. I can see you and I share the same views on many things. I find it interesting that the many that use such wording as “separation of church and state” when referring to the 1st amendment don’t even know that wording doesn’t exist in the document.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….


The society was not meant to be secular at all. The intent was for government to not establish a religion for the land and start hanging people that didn’t practice that religion like in England. Hence the reason for that being the opening line. If people understood their history, they would understand the amendment.

6. fredflash - November 1, 2007

Most people here in the U. S. who advocate “separation of church and state” don’t use the phrase to mean “that religion should have nothing to do with the affairs of men.” Instead, they use the phrase to mean that civil government has no authority over religion, or as James Madison put it, “religion [ the duty we owe to our Creator] be wholly exempt from the cognizance of civil authority.”

Those who favor civil power over religion, or a union of church and state, often accuse those who favor religion being totally free from civil influence, of wanting to “exclude religion from the public square”, “stamp out the public expression of Christianity” or “remove God from public life.” They seem to believe that civil government has as much claim to jurisdiction over religion as God does. They apparently believe that after the Strict Separationists get rid of all government established religion, their next goal will be to destroy religion established by God.

The type of Separation of Religion and Government advocated by Madison and Jefferson was founded on the assumption that that God had absolute and exclusive authority over the establishment of a man’s duties to his God. The government had no authority whatsoever over religion. As it was put in the creed of of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, “the civil magistrate…hath no power over things purely spiritual.”

7. Mark T. Market - January 13, 2009

I would add though that the word “Church” and “religion” should not be hastily used to lump together varied, conflicting (sometimes diametrically opposed) sets of beliefs. The salient point is to allow for freedom of beliefs and not to stifle them, but in no way categorizes those beliefs whatsoever.

It was never conceptual black-and-white battle between Church and state but between expression and suppression.

8. Arvin Antonio Ortiz - January 14, 2009

A very perceptive post, one that cuts through the thicket of complexities surrounding the Phils. Constitutional clause which says that “The separation of Church and state shall be inviolable.”

Made a similar point here. (The Catholic Church as a lobbyist) http://arvinantoniospeaks.wordpress.com/2009/01/10/the-catholic-church-as-a-lobbyist/

9. The Glenn Beck Review - June 14, 2010

I have a post up about James Madison’s views on this that you might enjoy.

10. tetgallardo - October 8, 2010

I support for churches of all kinds to influence the State as any other pressure group in a sea of democratic debate. But the moment any of their believers serve in public office, theirs is the burden of accountability for the bases of their policies. These bases must have positive proof in the secular world; otherwise, they will be treated as baseless postulates. Thus, Kerry was right in his decision not to let his religion interfere in the lives of others by abusing his power over their affairs. Also, any church must not unduly influence their believers in public positions to censor public debate only according to their own worldview.

Maddog - October 10, 2010

Yes, any religious organization has the right to influnce the state just like any other group.

As for accountability of public officials for the basis of their policies, I would agree so long as this accountability is due to public opinion and subject to the next election. No one should ever be made to abandon their religious beliefs just because they are in public office. If their policies do not have a secular basis, that is no reason for removal unless the people simply do not vote for the person. To do otherwise would be to impose a state ideology that suppresses the free exervise of religion.

John Kerry’s flimsy excuse doesn’t hold water. He just didn’t have any real religious convictions that would hold up. He wasw just looking for an excuse to justify his abandonment of his supposed beliefs.

11. Hellfire is not the only argument against the RH Bill « The Idiot - May 19, 2011

[…] But what about the separation of church and state? Well, what about it? There is absolutely nothing in the 1987 Constitution that prohibits Catholics or other faithful from influencing the state. Neither is there a prohibition in the United States constitution which inspires ours. What we do have in our constitution is a prohibition of state-sponsored religion and discrimination because of religion. Just like any advocacy, all religions are free to influence the state by airing their views. (For an in-depth discussion of this often misunderstood clause, I recommend Manny Amador’s excellent article.) […]

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