March 8, 2011

Church and State

I have long been interested in the relation of church and state. The principle of separation of church and state is one of American’s greatest contributions to the world. It is a principle much under attack, however, mostly from evangelical Christians obsessed with issues such as abortion and homosexuality and who insist, in the face of all historical and contemporary evidence, that the U.S. is a “Christian nation.”

The regulation of specific private behavior because some religious group considers it immoral, rather than to benefit society, or even the person whose behavior is being constrained, is, under the American system, simply improper. Yet, it seems that certain religious communities cannot refrain from trying to impose their views of right and wrong on others through the mechanism of government.

Church-state tensions have taken an interesting turn in the U.K., which—not to put to fine a point on it—has different traditions regarding the separation of church and state. That nation is being pressured by the European Union to eliminate discrimination in hiring, adoptions, and the like, and Christians of various ilk have pressed for the right to discriminate on the basis of their personal religious beliefs.

I mention this simply to give some context for my calling attention to an essay in a Guardian blog by Andrew Brown, “The Law of England is not Christian.” (You can read for yourself what occasioned the essay.) Brown quotes from the opinion of Lord Justice Laws (Sir John Grant McKenzie Laws) in McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd. Laws wrote (the clarification below is my own, not Brown’s):
The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified [Law had called enshrining a moral view in law because it is held by a particular faith “deeply unprincipled.”]; it is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective, but it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary. We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion, any belief system, cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic. The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law, but the State, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.

So it is that the law must firmly safeguard the right to hold and express religious beliefs. Equally firmly, it must eschew any protection of such a belief's content in the name only of its religious credentials. Both principles are necessary conditions of a free and rational regime.
It is ironic that a British jurist should offer an opinion so perfectly appropriate to the American context on the subject of the limits of religious liberty. We must take wisdom where we find it, however.

As Christians, we should perhaps adopt the tagline “Christians don’t let Christian friends become bullies.” Pass it on.


  1. Thanks for the great quotation. I am tempted to enlarge it and frame it.

  2. Now if only we could replace several hundred bad evangelical sermons with this excerpt!



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