Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State

    Excerpt from Freedom’s Power: The History and Promise of Liberalism, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Starr (Basic Books, 2008). Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State

    As Marxists have described it, liberalism is the ideology of the bourgeoisie and from its beginning was concerned, above all else, to uphold the rights of property. But while economic freedom was indeed important to early liberals, there was another kind of freedom at least of equal significance. This was “freedom of conscience,” or religious liberty.

    Liberalism emerged out of a world where religion was entangled with political power and where that entanglement was a principal source of war and civil strife. Nearly all seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European states tried to achieve religious uniformity by giving a single church a legal monopoly not just over faith but over important services and privileges, both sacred and profane. Under the law, only the clergy of the established church could preach, proselytize, and perform such sacraments as marriage; only its creed could be taught in schools; and typically only its members could attend universities or assume governmental and military offices. Even where dissenters were not actively persecuted, they were denied civil and political rights, and their religious organizations were forced to operate, if not underground, then without benefit of the right to own property, receive bequests, or seek legal recourse when threatened or harmed. The logic of religious uniformity seemed overwhelming. To those who believed that the established faith was the exclusive path to righteousness and salvation, it was obvious that other religions should be suppressed so as to save people from error and eternal damnation. And to those who cared more about the peace of this world, it seemed clear that an established church supported a strong and harmonious state by maintaining a shared faith and inculcating obedience and that any lessening of the church’s monopoly would invite discord and rebellion.

    Early liberals embraced a contrary logic, both religious and political. As it is the individual’s duty to find salvation, Locke and later liberals argued, civil authorities must not use their power to try to impose religious beliefs. True faith must come from within. The efforts to impose it, far from producing strong and unified societies, had actually generated self-destructive violence. Religious toleration therefore represented a means not only of protecting individual conscience but also of achieving social cooperation and political order. No doubt liberal thought expressed tendencies toward greater individualism, but the wars of religion in continental Europe had shown that the passions excited by religion failed to produce social harmony. Liberals wanted to end the cycles of cruelty and persecution committed in religion’s name. To the new generations of liberal revolutionaries in late seventeenth-century England and eighteenth-century America, the failure of England’s own Puritan Revolution was also an important cautionary lesson about the dangers of religious fervor.

    Broadly speaking, two currents in liberal political thought about religion emerged from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the age of the Enlightenment. One tendency, particularly strong in England and America, sought to develop a political framework of religious liberty that would accommodate diverse faiths. The second tendency, particularly strong in France, identified religion with superstition and unreason and attacked clerical power. The first was the spirit of Locke, the second that of Voltaire; the first, liberalism toward religion; the second, liberalism against religion. The first called for a shared public sphere, the second for a secular public sphere. The first sought to release minority faiths from the tyranny of the established faith; the second sought to release science, education, and the mind itself from all faith and dogma. The first culminated in the American Revolution, the second in the French Revolution.

    The first line of liberal thought had religious toleration as its initial political aim. In seventeenth-century England, “toleration” referred to any relaxation of the penalties and disabilities suffered by dissenters from the established Church of England. The 1689 Toleration Act, as we have seen, brought only a partial relaxation, as it allowed some dissenting Protestants the right to worship but failed to repeal laws excluding them from government office and the universities and did not extend any rights to Catholics or non-Christians. Even where toleration was more comprehensive, it was conceptually only a limited step. Toleration is a grant of liberty by the state, not the recognition of an inalienable human right; it exemplifies Madison’s dictum that in Europe power granted liberty rather than the reverse. Moreover, if we think of religious liberty as having two dimensions—free exercise of religious belief; and the state’s neutrality, or the disestablishment of religion—the 1689 Toleration Act brought the first (at least to Protestant dissenters) but not the second: it did not disestablish the Anglican Church or eliminate the legal privileges that the church enjoyed.[7]

    Two other liberal approaches to religious liberty sought to make the state neutral in religion, though they interpreted neutrality in almost opposite ways. One called for nonpreferential support of religion: government aid to a plurality of churches, proportionate to their support among the public. The other called for complete separation of church and state: no state aid to any religious activity. Nothing better illustrates the choice between these two options than the dispute that developed in Virginia during the Revolutionary era. In colonial Virginia, as in four other southern colonies, the Anglican (later the Episcopalian) Church had enjoyed a legal monopoly, while Baptists and other evangelicals had faced punishment, in some cases jail, for practicing their faith. Immediately after independence, in 1776, the Virginia legislature repealed many of the criminal penalties for religious dissent and suspended the taxes that all Virginians had been forced to pay to support the Anglican Church. But the legislature then deadlocked over the next steps to take. In 1784 Patrick Henry introduced a bill based on “the liberal principle” of treating all Christian denominations equally, which called for a tax that individuals could direct to the church of their choice. The alternative, a “Bill for Religious Freedom,” drafted originally by Jefferson, though Madison led the fight for it in the legislature, called for separation of church and state: “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.” Jefferson’s bill passed in 1785 thanks largely to a deluge of petitions in its favor, primarily from evangelicals who after years of legal persecution wanted to keep the state entirely out of religion. It was this alliance of evangelicals and Enlightenment liberals that originally produced separation of church and state in the United States.[8]

    Five years after his victory in Virginia, Madison played the central role in drafting the Bill of Rights in the new national government. The First Amendment’s language—“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—addressed both dimensions of religious liberty. (The Constitution itself had already declared that “no religious test shall ever be required as a
    qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”) But because the Bill of Rights was understood at first to apply only to the federal government, seven of the fourteen states in the early 1790s continued to maintain establishments of religion. None of these had established churches in the European sense—that is, an exclusive monopoly of a single church. Rather, as Henry had proposed for Virginia, they had general or multiple establishments under laws that permitted tax-payers, under varying procedures, to assign their assessment to a church of their choice. In one state after another, however, the politics of tax support of religion led to the same outcome as in Virginia. Massachusetts was the last state to abolish government financing of churches in 1833. The case for nonpreferential state aid to religious institutions would later be revived primarily in regard to education and social services, but there was no serious move to return to tax financing of churches themselves.

    With the separation of church and state came the rise of a fully deregulated and unsubsidized religious economy in the United States. In contrast, liberal states in Europe either continued to recognize an established religion while providing rights of free religious exercise (as in England) or gave nonpreferential aid to churches (as in the Netherlands). Some opponents of church-state separation in America feared that eliminating state support of churches would lead to the eventual fading away of religion. It did not work out that way. In fact, a comparison of the European and American experiences suggests that government financing of religion reduces the level of religious participation in a society (as measured, for example, by the proportion attending church once a week). Inasmuch as churches in a free, pluralistic religious economy depend on voluntary contributions rather than government subsidies, they tend to be more innovative and entrepreneurial than tax-supported churches in developing and marketing services that attract and keep members. Like any competitive market, an unregulated religious economy also allows stronger “firms” to emerge; denominational change in the United States from the start favored the more rapid growth of the evangelical denominations. Where a single church has a monopoly, however, the incentives and opportunities for innovation are limited, and the proportion of the population attending church every week tends to be low.[9]

    Two different logics were at work in the separation of church and state. As in the case of the separation of powers, the drawing of boundaries helps to preserve values specific to different institutions. In this case, separation helps to protect religious life from political control, and government from entanglement in religious passions. In addition, separation generates a competitive dynamic that would be dampened or eliminated if the state directly financed religious institutions. In this respect, the logic of separating church and state is not all that different from the logic of separating the private economy from the state.


    [7] Gordon J. Schochet, “From Persecution to ‘Toleration,’” in J. R. Jones, Liberty Secured? Britain Before and After 1688 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992), 122–57.
    [8] Leonard W. Levy, The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 52–60.
    [9] For this analysis of religious economies, see Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776–1990 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992), and Rodney Stark and Laurence R. Iannoccone, “A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the ‘Secularization’ of Europe,” Journal for the Social Scientific Study of Religion 33 (1994): 230–52. For comparative background, see Stephen V. Monsma and J. Christopher Soper, The Challenge of Pluralism: Church and State in Five Democracies (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).

    Excerpted from Freedom’s Power by Paul Starr. Copyright © Paul Starr, 2007. All rights reserved.

    Paul Starr is a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. He is also the co-editor (with Robert Kuttner) and co-founder (with Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich) of The American Prospect, a notable liberal magazine which was created in 1990. In 1994 he founded the Electronic Policy Network, or Moving Ideas, which is an online public policy resource. At Princeton University, Starr holds the Stuart Chair in Communications and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School. The Social Transformation of American Medicine won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction as well as the Bancroft Prize. His book The Creation of the Media received the 2005 Goldsmith Book Prize. In 1993, Starr was the senior advisor for President Bill Clinton’s proposed health care reform plan. He is also the president of the Sandra Starr Foundation.

    Paul Starr – Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism

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