What Separation Of Church And State Really Means
At USA Today, Notre Dame Law Professor Richard Garnett uses the current battle for religious freedom in China as an example of why separation of church and state is important, and how it has been misunderstood by people on both sides of the debate:
It is precisely by failing to respect the separation of church and state, and by trying to co-opt and domesticate what the government regards as a dangerous rival, that China is trampling on religious freedom. In a way, China and the Holy See are replaying one of the oldest and most fundamental religious-liberty scripts.
Today, many regard church-state separation as a reaction to church control of government. In fact, it was for a millennium the ambition of kings to expand their power, and keep down their rivals, by controlling the church and its affairs.
By resisting, the medieval church affirmed the foundational and still fundamental principle that the state and its power are limited.
And for that the world should be eternally grateful. It was in the efforts of the Catholic Church to assert its independence from the rulers of Europe that the ideas that formed the basis for the Enlightenment eventually sprung. More importantly, it was the fact that those efforts succeeded, and the Church became a powerful force in Europe outside of the state, that we can point to as the reason why despotism of the type that existed in Asia and Central America, which were dominated by state religions where the role of priest and poltician was intertwined, never really manifested itself in Europe.
In his conclusion, Garnett points out why separation of church and state is important for everyone:
The struggle for the church’s freedom in China reminds us that what the separation of church and state calls for is not a public conversation or social landscape from which God is absent or banished. The point of separation is not to prevent religious believers from addressing political questions or to block laws that reflect moral commitments. Instead, “separation” refers to an institutional arrangement, and a constitutional order, in which religious institutions are free and self-governing â€” neither above and controlling, or beneath and subordinate to, the state. This freedom limits the state and so safeguards the freedom of all â€” believers and non-believers alike.
Properly understood, the church and the state are neither enemies nor rivals, they are independent institutions, and the doctrine of separation allows both to exist in a way that is most beneficial for human liberty.
H/T: Brendan Loy