Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Separation of Church and State

Lee Randall, interviews the co-author of ‘God is Back, How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World’, by John Micklethwait (editor of The Economist) and Adrian Wooldridge, Allen Lane (Penguin), in The Scotsman, 19 May, HERE:

Keeping the faith

BACK in 1843, James Wilson, a hat maker from Hawick, founded The Economist, partly to serve as a mouthpiece for his campaign on behalf of free trade. As the magazine's website explains, he shared a special affinity with the economic philosophies of another notable Scot, Adam Smith. I've cornered [John-Micklethwait] to discuss his latest book [God is Back], which explores the interplay between God and politics.

God is Back [is] a thought-provoking exploration of the global rise of faith is changing the world ... the book's chief argument is that in order to understand the politics of the 21st century, you cannot afford to ignore God whether you're a believer or not.

Micklethwait is Catholic, his co-author an atheist:

"Our book is the latest stage of an argument that began in Edinburgh, between David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume favoured an established clergy that had been 'bribed into indolence', whereas Smith was keen to open up the religious marketplace to competition. He argued that you wouldn't get successful religion without competition, because established clergy are always bound to try less hard than people who have to battle for every soul."

The authors found that, at heart, man is fundamentally theocentric – given a chance to believe in God, we will do so. So although some Enlightenment thinkers saw religion as oppressive and unscientific – and prevailing wisdom, especially in Europe, held that as the world became more modern it would become more secular – Micklethwait discovered that instead, with modernity comes pluralism.

"You wind up with the ability to choose your faith, which is why we focus so much on America in the book. One in every four Americans changes faith – that's an amazing statistic. Pluralism also gives you the possibility to not be religious at all. What it does is forces you to make a choice."

The American and French Revolutions are key events, he argues. "The French took the line that the church was bound up with the state and so you couldn't have modern life without overthrowing it. That contrasts with the end of the American Revolution, when nobody felt it was particularly odd having religion around. Americans, in the main, have assumed that the two things can thrive together."

Indeed, America's Constitution, along with the writings of Adam Smith, form the key texts required to understand the "competitive mechanism behind religion's revival", writes Micklethwait. "The First Amendment – 'that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof' – was actually a compromise between dissenters (who wanted to keep the state away from religion) and more anticlerical sorts... (who wanted the church out of politics). Yet it became the great engine of American religiosity, creating a new sort of country where membership in a church was a purely voluntary activity

To fully follow the argument you should use the link (my editing necessarily is severe).

Adam Smith on religion is a controversial subject, worsened by it being almost ignored, despite a long section on the organisation of religious institutions in Wealth Of Nations (Book V), alluded to in Micklethwait’s statements. He suggests that there was an ‘argument’ between Hume and Smith, but I would consider it more the presentation of two alternatives.

Hume, the public sceptic about the revealed religion, and all that went with it, of Christianity, favouring an established church because it could do less harm to free thinking than allowing overly enthusiastic little sects to proliferate and cause trouble if they succeeded, and Smith favouring the weakening of state-enforced beliefs by encouraging a ‘thousand sects’ to proliferate, no one of them large enough to disturb a community’s tranquillity.

It was really an empirical question for both of them; Scotland had a quasi-established church in the many Presbyteries that covered the land, of which the zealots in many of them ruthlessly hunted down whatever they considered to be ‘heresy’ (England, of course, had the Church of England in England and the Episcopalians in Scotland); on the fringes of both countries, there were little sects (Quakers among the most prominent), which conformed to Smith’s model to a small extent – they held sway over small groups of people, but did not overly dominate non-members – they were ostracised by the larger established churches and mainly ‘kept their heads down’.

I am not clear what Mickelthwait means by ‘The French took the line that the church was bound up with the state and so you couldn't have modern life without overthrowing it.’ Revolutions can be messy, but the French Catholic church survived, and survives, as an institution (the church in the French village I live in for part of the year was built in the 11th century).

What is clear that the separation of Church and State in France is absolute and not challenged as it is in the USA. In a recent dispute over the wearing of Muslim headscarves by some young girls to School, the President of France said ‘non’ firmly and quoted the separation of Church and State and its operation , for many years in matters with the Catholic Church. The revolution overthrew the State of Louis XVI, disconnecting the roles of Cardinals, but at grass roots the Church continued, until recently – there are not enough priests to hold mass in every local church.

The problem of state and church in revolutionary America was not a little influenced by the question: which religion could be established given the already fractionated churches in existence. The last thing the new state was religious strife in attempting to force on church on the rest. Hence, Smith’s idea of competing churches struck a chord.

Note: My paper, ‘Adam Smith’s Religiosity: a review of the evidence’ is now completed and will be presented to the History of Economic Society annual conference in Denver, Colorado, in June.

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Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thank you for your comment. You may wish to consider why you are an almost perfect example of why your Church and its religion should be separated from the governance of a country.

It's not just your version of the Judaic-Christian regligion that cautions taking your ideas into governance (legislature, executive and justice); we only have to look at Iran and its state's version of religious doctrine.

7:06 a.m.  
Blogger Graeme said...

Gavin, I hope you realise that the vast majority of Christians regard people like Irv as loonies.

The majority of us, even if we regard gay sex, or anything else that does not harm others, as wrong do not wish to stop anyone else from doing it: any more than, for example, my Muslim friends would stop me from eating pork.

People like Irv also forget "let he who is without sin cast the first stone", and many more of Jesus's teachings: often to such an extent that they are not merely odd Christians, but it is doubtful that they can really be called Christians.

The French separation of church and state goes too far: if someone wants to wear a headscarf then, as it harms no one else, and is their business - much the same as having gay sex really....

God gave us free will to make our own decisions, it is an abuse of it to try to compel others - but we should also be free to persuade others and engage in debate with those we disagree with.

Are you the Gavin Kennedy who wrote some of those marvellous Heriot-Watt MBA text books?

7:02 a.m.  

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