The Two Separations
The Cambridge Companion to the First Amendment and Religious Liberty (Michael Breidenbach & Owen Anderson eds., Cambridge University Press, Forthcoming)
27 Pages Posted: 9 Oct 2017
Date Written: October 6, 2017
There is nothing self-evidently attractive about separation — whether of church and state or anything else — as a model for individual or collective life. Pursuing separation is not like pursuing knowledge or friendship — ends that are intrinsically good. Separation must be justified by some contingent reason. Though the Constitution speaks of the free exercise of “religion” and “religion’s” non-establishment, much of the confusion about separation as an American civic ideal results from a failure to focus on the specifically historical and contingent justifications for it. These justifications concern not “religion” in general or in the abstract but Christianity in specific — Christianity being, as a historical and cultural matter, the central religious tradition of the United States.
These historical justifications have taken two cardinal forms. The first concerns the politico-theological benefits that are believed to devolve onto Christian churches, or onto Christian believers, from division from the state, and the general social and political advantages derived therefrom. The second involves the secular benefits to the liberal democratic state of unbreachable barriers against the civic and cultural influence of Christianity. The first justification is more ancient, but the second is more powerful today. The first is oriented positively, and the second negatively, toward the cultural and political value of Christianity in the United States. The first sees Christianity as precious. The second sees it as irrelevant or even obnoxious.
This chapter distinguishes and explores the two separations — separation as a specifically Christian piece of political theology, in large part for the benefit of a Christian civil society; and separation as a specifically secular position for the benefit of a liberal society that wishes to divest from and repudiate Christianity. It then describes the allure of equality and nondiscrimination as church-state ideals, their ascendancy in late twentieth century constitutional law, and the sense in which they are believed to have supplanted separation.
But neither equality nor nondiscrimination delivers what it promises: a valueless perspective on the social and political worth of Christianity. In fact, their perspective is decidedly negative. The chapter explains this claim by comparing the use of these principles in the contexts of race and sex discrimination, where the overriding assumption is that race and sex are fundamentally irrelevant considerations, and obnoxious and illegitimate bases on which to make laws and to order society. Transposed to the context of religion — and, as this chapter argues, the transposition in reality concerns Christianity specifically — a similar assumption holds: that Christianity is fundamentally an irrelevant, or even an obnoxious, and illegitimate, influence in the making of laws or the structuring of the cultural and political realms. Indeed, in a society in which Christianity has had such overwhelming predominance, insisting on equality is tantamount to squelching it. This view is not neutral as to the value of Christianity in contemporary American politics and society. It is nothing less than an expression of the second separation.
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