Why Separate Church and State?
I’ve written before in this space about the 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts, and the interrelationship it assumed between virtue (how we live, treat one another, and act for the common good) and the “good order and preservation” of the state. “Piety, religion, and morality,” that Constitution averred, are the essence of that virtue, and — here’s where modern readers tend to get exercised — “these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.”
I’ll write more in the coming weeks about whether they were right that only institutions of religion can cultivate those ostensibly necessary virtues. But let’s say for now they were right — let’s say, even, that they knew they were right, and that the People of other states knew it, too. Was that sufficient grounds to enshrine religion in law?
Patrick Henry thought so. In 1784, as a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates, he introduced a bill “Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion” that would have required a Tax Assessment from all citizens of the state to support religious education. (Read the original text, preserved by the Library of Congress, here.) Every man would be required to pay, but each man could choose which Christian denomination would receive his contribution. The point, it might be said, was not a particular religion, nor even religion itself, but the maintenance of public piety in defense of the nation. Indeed, that’s how the bill framed it:
Whereas the general diffusion of Christian knowledge hath a natural tendency to correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society; which cannot be effected without a competent provision for learned teachers, who may be thereby enabled to devote their time and attention to the duty of instructing such citizens, as from their circumstances and want of education, cannot otherwise attain such knowledge; and it is judged that such provision may be made by the Legislature, without counteracting the liberal principle heretofore adopted and intended to be preserved by abolishing all distinctions of pre- eminence amongst the different societies or communities of Christians. . . .
What followed was a bloody fight over the distance that should be kept between government and religion, and some of the finest writing on the topic in American history. As was often the case, the first and best statement of the opposition was penned by James Madison.
The broadside arrived in the form of “A Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” addressed to the Virginia Legislature, and it is now as it ever was: red hot, brilliant writing. Combined with Madison’s political machinations, which included delaying votes on the Assessment and restricting Henry’s political advocacy by getting him elected Governor, it was enough to sink Henry’s bill.
The full text of the Remonstrance is here, and you should read it with a pen, a highlighter, some good scotch and your ten closest friends. (I know I did.) But first, to set the table, a few words about themes. Modern disputants of the wall between church and state will be familiar with Madison’s broad argument that religious entanglement undermines a secular authority. Civil societies have adopted religions only to see them become convenient tools for tyranny in the hands of tyrannical rulers, and “in no instance” has such a state religion “been seen the guardian of the liberties of the people.” (see 8). Legislative recognition of religion “degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority” (see 9). And more.
But to my mind the more interesting argument — perhaps because I’d never heard it raised before I read it in Madison’s words — is that government ruins religion. In 3, for example:
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?
Or in 5:
[T]he bill implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rules in all ages, and throughout the world: The second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.
Or 6: Religion should owe nothing to the powers of this world; to establish its monetary dependence on the state is to
weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.
Or in 7: Legal establishment perverts the religion itself.
During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive State in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks, many of them predict its downfall. On which Side ought their testimony to have greatest weight, when for or when against their interest?
I’m reminded of David Hume’s admonition that the best thing for society is to defang religious institutions by “brib[ing] the indolence [of clergymen], by assigning stated salaries to their profession, and rendering it superfluous for them to be farther active than merely to prevent their flock from straying in quest of new pastures.” Or Adam Smith’s parallel observation in The Wealth of Nations: “The teachers of [religion] . . ., in the same manner as other teachers, may either depend altorgether for their subsistence upon the voluntary contributions of their hearers; or they may derive it from some other fund, to which the law of their country may entitle them. . . Their exertion, their zeal and industry, are likely to be much greater in the former situation than in the latter.”
And even if the practical effects of governmental dependence or intermeddling were not sufficient grounds to condemn any establishment of religion, it would remain wrong. Madison said it in paragraph 1: “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.” Thomas Jefferson said it in his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which was passed by the Virginia Legislature in place of Henry’s bill:
Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; . . . [and] all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone. . .
And nickrod retroanticipated their arguments when writing in this space just a few weeks ago:
And this . . . is why I find myself a fundamentalist Christian who cannot bring himself to support most fundamentalist Christian political leaders. Yes, their approach is damaging to the idea of a pluralistic democracy. But it is even more damaging to the cause of Christ, who came to this earth not to establish a political kingdom of His own, but to inaugurate a heavenly kingdom, defined by a promise that is beyond this world and this life. He invited all who heard His message to choose to follow Him freely, and to suffer and die for that choice if necessary. To think that His kingdom is best expressed in the coercive actions of government and public policy is to place Christ in a box that is far too small for Him, and to lead non-Christians to misunderstand His message.
In sum, then, the separation between church and state exists to protect them from each other, not just the latter from the former — and that’s as true now as it was when the Framers of the Constitution advanced the idea more than two centuries ago.
In coming posts, I’ll write about how it is that we only hear of the dangers posed to the state by religion, not vice versa; the pernicious effects of unanswered one-way arguments; and the role that shared historical vocabulary can play in the amicable resolution of what might otherwise be poisonous disagreements.
 Hearty thanks to Michael McConnell, of Stanford Law School, for these examples in particular, and for bringing the entire episode of the Assessment and Remonstrance to my attention.
 Neologism and wryness are hobbies of mine. Indulging them both simultaneously is a rare pleasure.