Thursday, July 02, 2009

Church and State

On the back of some new research by Anna Crabb that shows the number of references to religion in parliamentary speeches has been increasing, Carmen Lawrence has weighed in with a piece that claims the principle of the "separation of Church and State" means politicians should not bring their religious views into the parliament.

Lawrence tries to make a distinction between religious beliefs and political philosophy, and attempts to argue that politicians should be uniformly avoiding basing their arguments on the former but rely only on the latter. She seems to base this view on a claim that this is the interpretation of the separation of church and state. She is wrong in her interpretation of the doctrine, and she is wrong in claiming that political philosophy should be the only under-pinning.

Let's first traverse the separation doctrine. Its origins are England over the period of the Tudor and tuart monarchs. We know one part of the subtext well, the English religious separation from Rome under Henry VIII and the subsequent trevails between different positions, with a number of monarchs favouring a reunification with Rome. Against this plot was the coincident plot of the reformation i the church itself, with a wide array of new variants emerging all generally described as protestant.

The settlement that became known as the separation of church and state however really only found its highest point with the establishment of the USA. In many ways the constitution of the US brings together an interesting amalgam of the political philosophy concepts that peaked in the (by then) United Kingdom in the Glorious Revolution, and the principles of democracy that developed in the 18th century. The US experience was particularly focussed because a number of US communities had developed from people who were effectively "religious exiles".

It is noteworthy that the Glorious Revolution was not so much about religion as about "arbitrary government" that was a fellow traveller with the Catholic view of monarchy in which the church was a united part of government, and which thus promoted the absolute authority of the monarch guided by the church.

Unsurprisingly to those who study the developmental side of institutional economics the two countries that most embraced the doctrine of separation and its "dual" the end of arbitrary government, the UK and Netherlands, were the two countries whose economies broke from the European pack. Rule of law, in other words, matters.

Neither country in going down that route was any less "christian". The separation of church and state was not a presecription that society had to be aetheistic. Indeed it can also be argued that one of the most important values outside of rule of law to get a market economy to develop is that piece of religion often referred to as the Golden Rule - in the christian case best summed up in "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you". (Interestingly a moral value actively rejected by Ayn Rand though an essential assumption in Adam Smith's writing).

It is important to note that many countries struggling with their economic development, especially those in the Islamic world, suffer because the theocratic state is be definition an arbitrary one.

It is also important to note that the biggest element of the separation argument is the religious tolerance angle, that the state will permit any religion to be practiced. This is another distinguishing feature of the Islamic states - they tend to not only be prosletysers but also seek to banish the infidels.

Now to the second error. Political philosophy only relates to political action - moral philosophy is what guides individual action. Historically religion has involved twin elements of theology and moral philosophy. The aforementioned "golden rule" and the ten commandments are the most important elements of that moral philosophy. One of the features humanists need to develop is a strong moral philosophy. It gains its distinction by being based on either its practicality or equity (or both) whereas the religious versions tend to get theirs from the idea the moral code has been commanded.

Now some religious people would even be prepared to admit that their current religion is a combination of both the theologically decreed and a social construct - not least through the treatment of major festivals. (Think Christmas).

The Australian Democrats leading into the 2007 election were seriously considering making a major campaign theme of the separation of church and state, especially focussed on the concern about the use of religious organisations as the channels for social programs (including pregancy couselling) and the funding of religious schools. Why they did not pursue it I don't know - I suspect because in the end they couldn't reconcile the message on separation from the idea of being anti-religion. The Democrats have a high support base amongst christians, especially those from the Uniting Church (I knew one branch with three Reverends as members).

Lawrence in her piece comes across the same - staying out of the chamber during prayers. I confess I share her concern about the exclusively christian nature of these prayers. I think I've written before about the solution I thought of for this problem when it was proposed that non-christian religious leaders be invited to say "prayers" prior to council meetings - any faith is welcome so long as they can (a) demonstrate that they preach religious tolerance from their own "pulpit" (or equivalent) and (b) that the prayer itself is focused on seeking guidance for the deliberations of the council, and includes a reference to those deliberations being conducted without concern of race or creed. I'd hope that an atheist would not find the sentiment of such a prayer such that they need to absent themselves, and culd find merit in the sentiment in a humanist sense.

The doctrine of separation of church and state is important both morally and economically. Those who wish to promote it need to couch their arguments in terms of religious tolerance not as being anti-religion, and they need to admit the importance of moral philosophy as well as political philosophy.

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