In order to inoculate and neutralize religious sectarianism, strife and tyranny from overflowing onto the public sphere; with consequential travesty, atrocity and devastation; a political formula was adopted seeking to ensure pluralism of religious worldviews, ethics and ethos. Although a good in itself, from an individual standpoint; the motivations behind this proposition were primarily meant to neuter the ability of one form of factionalism from undermining the survival and welfare of free civil societies. The concern of the American Founding Fathers about the insidious and deleterious effects of faction upon civil government was profoundly expressed throughout their writings; from the Federalist Papers to Washington’s Farewell Address.
Classical education informs us of the recurring civic convulsions of Greek city states between aristocratic and democratic factions; of the Roman Republic’s implosion, resulting from class warfare and the culture wars between the old Republican guard and upstart Hellenized Romans; or of the enervating effects of national division between orthodox and Hellenized Jewish factions, as they contested against Greek and Roman imperialists from the Maccabeans to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The specter of the 16th and 17th Century religious wars, culminating in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), whereby one third of Germany’s (Holy Roman Empire’s) population lost their lives and its landscape was devastated, still haunted. America was initially populated by Europe’s oppressed religious ‘losers’ in the religiopolitical squabbles of those preceding centuries.
The American constitution attempted to ameliorate the effects of the faction of self-interests; the First Amendment to nullify the effects of the faction of ideology.
The Founding Fathers adopted the formula: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”: as the legal device by which this ideological pluralism would be achieved. It was not that the concept of “separation of state and church” was unknown before Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists. A variation on that same theme was expressed as far back as 1644 by Baptist theologian and Rhode Island statesman, Roger Williams. “[A] hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” was an iconic expression of the political sentiments that emanated from the 16th Century Anabaptist tradition.
However, the Founding Fathers rejected that formulation. The formula that was adopted may have been a compromise between the Federalist (i.e. Washington and Adams) and Democratic-Republican (i.e. Jefferson and Madison) wings; going by other artifacts and writings of the times. The Federalist conception of the limits of religious establishment differed from the Jeffersonian-Madisonian; the former seeking only to restrict proper church institutions. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which governed the mid-west territories until their statehood; explicitly permitted religious instruction in the public schools. The latter, demonstrated by Jefferson’s and Madison’s advocacies in Virginia, sought to adopt a form of European laïcité; whereby religious worldviews would be effectually eliminated from the public domain including the schools.
Separation of church and state, which has increasingly become the guiding interpretation the world over governing such relations, is a flawed concept. The more “high and impregnable” and “absolute” that wall is, the more irrational and absurd. For instance: unless the state intends to leave the Catholic Church to judge its own sexual pedophile predators, in accordance with an absolute divorce of jurisdictions, those who advocate such laïcité cannot but be inconsistent with their principle. The effectual consequence of this laïcité denies the influence of the religious in the public domain, while at the same time; ‘pragmatism’ demands public oversight of religious institutions and individuals. Logically, laïcité means not separation of church and state; but subordination of church under state in a slow meandering eventuality to reach what existed in the French Revolution (The Civil Constitution of the Clergy) or in Communist states.
So long as the scope of powers of government is circumscribed; so long as there is a common moral ethic, although underlying secularist metanarratives do not support a Christian ethic; the principle of separation of church and state doesn’t cause undue hardship. What wasn’t conceivable in the minds of the progenitors of this precept of separation of church and state was the prospect that large swaths of the population could ever entertain an agnostic / atheistic / antitheistic stance. North America might be nominally Christian (CINO). However, the conventional wisdoms that prevail, particularly at the official and elite level, are significantly secularist and materialist in nature. It was a failure of imagination, especially in light of known historical fact that the Hellenist and Roman ruling elite were religious in name only. “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful” (Seneca).
Western liberal judiciaries have exploited the concept of separation of church and state to preclude and exclude even rationally argued spiritually-derived values and the concerns of theists from the public domain. Thus, what was intended to inoculate Western societies from sectarianism of a theological nature has ironically opened up a much greater and graver sectarianism of a philosophical nature; between sacralists who subscribe to a theistic universe and secularists who subscribe to a materialist and naturalist universe. The application and misapplication of the separation of church and state interpretation is producing the very sociopolitical conditions it was meant to avoid.
It is not the fine points of philosophical debate that drives the cultural and civilizational acrimony and wars. Rather, it is the implementation and coercion of these ideas. It is the social opprobrium that translates into the punishment of the consciences of ideological adversaries, including the incurring of economic loss and disadvantage (i.e. candidate inadmissibility in public related jobs). It is judicial, bureaucratic and political officials attempt to compel, by threat of fines and incarcerations, those individuals and groups who belong to a different ethic and ethos and who find the official ethic distasteful, stupid, foolish and even wicked. Philosophical sectarianism, no less than religious sectarianism, produces a resentful class of second-class citizens; a dangerously acrimonious social and political environment well described by George Washington over two centuries ago.
However, the secularist, cosmopolitan elite are as deaf as the Tsar. Believing or disingenuously propagating the self-serving deception that their beliefs are incontrovertibly verified in reason, fact and science; their intellectual arrogance attempts to impose an ethic and ethos upon all. However, the premises of the secularist, naturalist, rationalist, nihilist and materialist are unproven, irrational and cannot stand up to critical scrutiny. They constitute a constellation of tenets of an ancient Ionian metanarrative, a cosmological viewpoint, which is as complex as the religious systems they scorn. Their belief system is as untenable to the sacralist as the various sacralist worldviews are to these secularists. As Madison stated in his discourse on faction (Federalist Papers); “As long as the reason of man continues to be fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.” However, the complexity of these overarching theories make incontrovertible proof or disproof improbable; even if the adjudicator is honest and not looking for an intellectual cover for his own preferred manner of living.
In a previous age, when various Christian theologies held the Commanding Heights of society and government in their various jurisdictions; the Bible, the Catholic Magisterium and various Protestant Magisteriums (though they won’t admit to it) were believed to be so true, that common sense demanded that they be imposed onto all.
A theological discourse to demonstrate the invalidity of this proposition would bore most readers. Nevertheless, there has been a historical Evangelical understanding, though not faithfully and consistently practiced, that Christianity has no obligated duty to impose a Theonomist regime. “Let the blind lead the blind” (Matthew 15:14). It is not merely that different Christians (or other sacralists) will interpret the rather complicated and nuanced Scriptures differently (or the same Christian differently at different junctures of his same life). It is that even if one had perfect understanding of the Full Counsel of God, one had no more authority to impose his perfect understanding than God generally allows Himself to impose, except when He deems the moral rot of any given person or society to be too intolerable for the general welfare of humanity. The natural consequence of our actions ought to be our tutor. This has been the general gist of historical Evangelical thinking.
To what extent Christianity ought to be brought into the public square, poses deep conundrums. There are no hard and fast rules that New Testament Scriptures provides. However, one would not know this if one considered the history of Christendom. Wariness about a Christian commonwealth or conservative authoritarianism is as understandable and shared even by Francis Schaeffer as that of a liberal statist social totalitarianism.
Modern secularists, or most forms of them, have merely become a different form of fundamentalist; transferring the basis to impose and coerce their values from the Word of God or some derivative thereof, to the tyranny of reason; their reason; or an epistemological approach to truth (science) which suffers from many of the same fallibilities and shortcomings as are found in other epistemological approaches to truth. How useful is peer review in a discipline and among practitioners, governed more by philosophical dogma than by established and incontrovertible proof; or one that is susceptible to internal and/or external political and economic pressures and interference?
The absurdity of the reign of Reason becomes quickly apparent if one gives consideration to the largely secular philosophical battles between the different schools of the ancient Greek academies. Whose ‘reason’ should rule? The absurdity also manifests itself in the philosophical winds and scientific theories that have come and gone through the revolving door of history
Even the nihilists and cultural and moral relativists are guilty of secular fundamentalism in their Cult of Tolerance; with a hilarious dose of hypocritical inconsistency to boot. Perfect tolerance logically demands the tolerance of the intolerant; not to impose your non-committal to truth upon those who are committed to some version of truth. However, it is not reason and science that really governs most souls of men. They want what they want. Reason and ideology generally serve as intellectual and moral cover for self-interest.
The secularist, cosmopolitan elite are as deaf as the Tsar. Some still believe in the myth of a liberating Secularist Triumphalism over the theocrats and sacred texts; as simple-minded and sophomoric a conception of history as those constructed by Adolph Hitler and Ayn Rand. Others believe that their current hold over almost all the organs of societal and political power, they can withstand and contain the fury of their ideological adversaries. In this, they are historical illiterates.
The two broad sweeps of philosophical thought, between naturalist and theist, are contending for the Commanding Heights of society; perhaps everywhere; but most acutely and evidently in the U.S. These broad metanarratives provide the waters that perennially nourish and refresh all the acrimonious socioeconomic and political issues in contention. But, it is not the ideas themselves that threaten social cohesion and peace. Rather, it is in the foolhardy arrogance of one side or the other, coercing the other through soft and hard totalitarian measures. It is the unwillingness to bend backwards to accommodate the both sides to live their affairs largely free of external interference and without direct and indirect economic detriment. It is the preclusion from the public square, the opinions of the other on the basis of some self-serving criteria. The American Founding Fathers had given due warning to the consequences of faction. We have been obliviously sleepwalking to the scenarios they described and feared.