Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Separation of Church and State

I went to church recently, where I was conversing with a woman.

ME: One of the striking differences between England & this part of the US is that in the UK, very few people go to church, whereas here, most people go to church.

HER: Yes, but this is not true throughout the States, we are after all in the Bible Belt. It may also be because Britain doesn't have the separation between church and state that we have here. Didn't it start with some king who wanted to divorce his wife?
ME: Thought cloud saying: Eh??

I can understand that the situation is not the same throughout the US, but I was not (and still am not) sure why a separation between church and state would result in more people going to church; or conversely, why having a monarch who is the head of the official state church would lead to fewer people going to church.

The US has a written constitution, wherein the First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...". The separation of church and state is based on this, together with a letter by Thomas Jefferson and subsequent legal precedent.

The UK, on the other hand, has an unwritten constitution. The UK constitution is not based on a particular document, but on precedent and tradition. Not only that, but the reigning monarch is the official head of the state church -- the Church of England.

The funny thing is that although the US has a constitutional separation between church and state and the UK does not, US politics is steeped in religion in a way that the UK's is not. It is rare for a UK politician to play the "I'm a Christian, vote for me," card. Even strongly religious politicians will tend to keep their personal religious beliefs private. Even at ground level, politics and religion are not closely tied. Within a given church one is likely to find individuals with political beliefs that span the spectrum of left to right.

In the US, however, it seems that the professed beliefs of a politician can be a strong influence on the voting public, with the right being dominated by conservative Christians. I cannot comment on the political persuasions of individuals in the churches we attended because it is not something that one can tell at a glance.

A couple of weeks ago I heard Simon Mayo interview an American called Jim Wallis on FiveLive. He was in the UK to promote his latest book, God's Politics: Why the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. The interview is no longer available for download, but here's a Guardian interview instead. Mr Wallis's religious views seem to be conservative, but he seems to de-emphasise issues like sexual morality and abortion in favour of a political agenda that promotes social justice. I haven't read this book or anything else that Mr Wallis has written, so I can't yet comment further on his views, but perhaps as more left-wing Christians come out of the woodwork the political balance can be redressed.

By the way, State gives Church a really good thrashing in Googlefight.


crystal said...

What the lady told you is pretty true ... the south tends to be more religious and more conservative. In real life (not computer life :-), I don't really know any other christians.

I don't think the politics and religion connection here has ever beforer been like it is right now with Bush. While conservatives may like it this way, most liberals I know, even those that are christian (including me), are horrified by it.

It is interesting that your head of state is also the head of the church ... that you have a "national religion" in England ... I don't think that would ever be allowed here, the fear being that those of different religious persuasion, or atheist, might end up being discriminated against. I know, though, that that isn't the case in England.

Anonymous said...

Sgt D chips in again, maybe on a subject he knows about...

Many of the early colonists were dissenters fleeing from the persection of the established church (of England, Ireland or Scotland) in the British Isles. The Plymouth Bretheren, Quakers and co were regarded as barely Christian at the end of the seventeenth century, but were allowed, on the whole, to practice their beliefs in the colonies. Funnily enough, with no established church, there were no legally enforced tithes, and therefore no conflict over what was always a heated issue here, until they were finally abolished in the 1920s. When the constitution of the US was written in the 1770s it was taken as read that religious freedom was a Christain denominational one; the possibility of other religions being accepted was ignored, as they were clearly false religions, and not worthy of consideration. I suspect the founding fathers of the USA would be horrified to see that their attempt to avoid the iniquities of the British Constitution (in the eyes of those who felt that the Test and Corporation Acts were unjust, and who resented being subject to the juristiction of a church which they rejected), they created a type of state atheism. After all, the motto of the country is: "In God we trust". And, whatever lots of clever and expensive lawyers think, in the 18th century that was the Christian God who is still so much worshipped in America. So, well done the People, and boo hiss to the judiciary!

By the way, in fact, it was Protestant denominations. Catholics were often subject to more legal and illegal discrimination than in the three Kingdoms here, probably until very recent times. Your Oirish American lobby won't tell you that, but it does not suit their political agenda.

Lorraine said...

On a tour bus past Westminster Abbey our guide intoned, "On your left is Westminster Abbey, where kings and queens have been crowned for over a 1000 years". And that's when I really understood the difference between Britian (and all of Europe for that matter) and the US. We are still toddlers. But your analysis seems spot on to me.

I am just now reading God's Politics. I heart Jim Wallis. Sojourners (the magazine he founded) has long been a progressive Christian voice crying in the wilderness. That the larger progressive church is finally starting to speak up is a tremendous joy to me.