At the Center for Law and Religion Forum today, my colleague Marc DeGirolami has a very thoughtful post on whether separation from the state, in the American model, really strengthens religion. One often hears the claim, of course, from both the Right and the Left: Religion is strong in America because America strictly separates religion from the state. Marc expresses some doubts:
But is the claim true? In part, perhaps, but only with substantial qualifications of a kind that make it problematic. There is nothing inevitable (or “logical,” as George Will might put it) about religious strength that follows ineluctably from its complete separation from government. There is no iron law that says: the more we separate religion from government, the stronger religion must become. Such a claim would run headlong into many counterexamples, contemporary and ancient. The ancient examples make the claim appear patently absurd. One wants to ask: “Do you actually mean to tell me that no society which has not observed strict separation between church and state has had a flourishing religious life? So there was no flourishing religious life in any of countless pre-modern societies that existed before Milton or Locke or Roger Williams or whoever got busy?” And to take only one modern case, religion and the state have been strictly separated for some time in laic France and in other extremely secular European countries, and the strength of religious life in those countries is by all accounts much weaker than it was in prior historical periods when there was greater proximity and interpenetration of church and state. . . .
If some notion of separation did in fact at one time contribute to a stronger collective religious life in the United States, the reason had little to do with any necessary connection in this respect, and more to do with the unique historical and cultural circumstances of the United States–circumstances in which the Puritan evangelicalism represented by Roger Williams’s particular style of fire-and-brimstone, garden-and-the-wilderness religiosity was much more powerful in the United States than it is today. Church-state separation may be a strategy that makes religion seem stronger, provided that one is beginning from the evangelical paradigm of the twice-born soul. But it is a different matter if religion is commonly perceived in wildly different terms and expected to perform entirely different functions.
At any rate, the action of separation on religion’s strength in America was situational and circumstantial; it was hardly causal or inevitable; and it is hardly inevitable that a policy of more stringent separationism at this juncture in the country’s history and cultural circumstances will result in a more vibrant religious life. Countries with other backgrounds and other histories who look to the United States as a model in this respect may well be misled. The pre-existing evangelical bulwark made church-state separation look like a real shot in the arm for religion, not the other way round.