Separation of Church and State is a Bogus Concept

October 19, 2019

[Also related: "Democracy versus Sharia"]

[Also related: "The Myth of Religious Violence"* by Karen Armstrong, with historical perspective on the idea of separation of church and state]

Separation of church and state is a bogus concept because it rests on the false assumption that religion is only about how one worships God (or in general how one does something purely personal that does not affect other people.)

Given this false assumption, of course, it makes perfect sense that the government should not be in the business of telling people how to worship God (or do something purely personal that does not affect other people.) In other words, it would make sense to have a separation of church and state.

But religion is not simply about how one worships God. Religion is primarily about what values should shape society and only secondarily about an argument for why those values should shape society. Most people who subscribe to one of the main monotheistic religions say that it is wrong to commit murder because God tells us so. Thinking that it is wrong to commit murder is not, per se, a monotheistic religious idea, since an atheist may also think it is wrong to commit murder. It is, however, a religious idea to think that the REASON it is wrong to commit murder is because God tells us so.

Since many, possibly most, people in the United States believe the RELIGIOUS idea that it is wrong to commit murder because God tells us so, they also believe that the government must not make murder legal even if a majority of people vote to make it legal. Why not? Because, according to the religious belief, God's will trumps any majority vote.

What about you, dear reader? Do you think that if a majority votes to make murder (and one could substitute slavery here, by the way) legal then it should be legal? I don't think it should, and I bet you don't either. But why not? What is more legitimate than a majority vote in a genuine democracy?

 

There must be SOMETHING more legitimate, right? Otherwise you'd have no basis for your opinion. Well you may or may not use the word "God" to refer to whatever it is that makes your condemnation of murder more legitimate than a majority vote to legalize it but whatever word or phrase you use it will be essentially "God" by a different name. It will be something that transcends mere human desires or beliefs, and your honoring its superior legitimacy is really the same as worshiping it, or close enough to make the difference unimportant.

How would you, dear reader, respond if a majority of people in a genuine democracy voted to make murder (or slavery) legal? You would probably say they have no right to do that.

 

Fine. But what would you then say if this majority told you:

"There should be a separation of church and state. The government should not allow religious people like you to make the government support your particular religious beliefs. The government should not be expressing support for your religion or any other religion. The government should only do what the majority says it should do with no obedience to anybody's God interfering with that."

I hope you can see that this "separation of church and state" argument is bogus. It is an argument that can be used to defend what ought not to be defended, such as making murder or slavery legal.

Both religion and government are about the values that ought to shape society, and when it comes to deciding such questions (not just strictly personal questions such as how to worship one's God) there cannot be a strict separation between church and state, nor should there be.

The bogus "separation of church and state" concept is part of a collection of related bogus concepts that the ruling class uses to defend what ought not to be defended. Three of these bogus concepts are: 1) that there can be a democracy of all the people when there is a fundamental conflict among the people; 2) that there is such a thing as the national interest; and 3) the concept of "freedom of speech." I discuss why these are bogus concepts here and here  and here respectively.

 

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* Warning! Karen Armstrong is a very interesting writer but I was disappointed to discover that she quotes the words (two separate full phrases) of the 17th century philosopher, John Locke, on slavery so totally out of context that her assertion about what Locke wrote is flat out false. (I wonder if Armstrong ever read these words of John Locke: “He that has but ever so little examined the citations of writers, cannot doubt how little credit the quotations deserve, where the originals are wanting; and consequently how much less quotations of quotations can be relied on.”) I suppose one must be skeptical about the veracity of her other quotations, alas. In all fairness to Armstrong, however, her mistake was to use the wrong words of Locke out of context to make a point--that Locke defended slavery--that is apparently true: Locke wrote: 

“But there is another sort of servants, which by a peculiar name we call slaves, who being captives taken in a just war, are by the right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters.”

 

— Delphi Complete Works of John Locke (Illustrated) by John Locke

https://a.co/hWQvNNz

Armstrong's Thomas Jefferson quotation to show he approved of slavery is correct, and it makes her point that the advocates of separation of church and state were not necessarily less violent and oppressive than those who did not advocate for that separation.