Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Three Degrees of Separation

Marco has advanced the thesis that the principle of Separation of Church and State enshrined in the United States constitution is a major, or even the major, factor in the success of the United States, and that nations that have such a principle are likely to be more stable and prosperous than those that have not. If I have misstated his thesis, I am sure he will correct me!

Now, I am not sure that this is a general principle at all. There are three obvious questions: Which Church? Which State? And, most importantly, what do we mean by Separation? I asked Marco for a definition, and I am taking the liberty of reproducing his response below:

My definition of Separation of Church and state is the principle (enshrined in USA's constitution for instance) that the laws of the "Church" as in any moral edicts or by-laws given in any registered religious organisation are independent of the laws of the country. It also means that the head of state cannot also be a head of a religious organisation. This does not mean that just because murder is disallowed with Christians that this law cannot be also a law of the country, but that the country's law is independently defined, judged and policed from any christian institutions. Although Australia does not seem to have this enshrined in the constitution, the principle is well known, and is argued at great length when, for instance the GG is/was also the head of a Church. I agree that where there wasn't an alternative in the past history, in the examples you mention for instance, long and stable Theocracies did thrive - but in modern history, from whence the principle first surfaced, how have countries that disavowed the principle thrived compared to ones that didn't?

(1) If by ‘independent’ is simply meant, ‘there should be laws of the state separate from the laws of the religions followed by people in the state’, I agree. There is no reason these laws of the state should be quite as all pervasive as they are in Australia; Israel, for example, gets along reasonably well with no civil marriage or divorce. At its most trivial, there are many things that need laws, but are not important enough for religion to deal with: traffic lights, income tax, corporations law, etc.
Every state that I can think of has some laws that are not religious laws; I don’t know if Afghanistan under the Taliban was run completely according to Shari’a. Sudan and Sa’udi Arabia (and to a lesser extent Iran) have a very large religious component in their laws, and I don’t think we can say they are that much less successful than the surrounding nations who share a similar cultural background but are more secular. And on the other hand, Utah was quite prosperous and successful as a theocracy. I don’t think there is enough proof that this form of the general principle holds, although I suspect it will once the state is large enough to hold significant minorities who are not wholehearted adherents of the religion in question.

(2) If ‘independent’ is meant in the sense of ‘independent variable’, such that the laws of the state should not be a factor in determining the laws of the religion, then again I agree completely. If our religion demands polygamy, or wax fruit, woe betide the state that tries to legislate against us! The laws of God beat the laws of man as surely as rock beats scissors. To be fair, religions should not accept money from the State, because he who pays the piper calls the tune. The State should not fund religious schools.
However, there have been plenty of successful states where Church and State were not separated by this formulation of the principle: The United Kingdom, for instance, where the tenets of the religion were determined by the State and the Head of State is the Head of the Church; Russia, which experienced extremely rapid development and economic growth in the late 19th century with a church wholly subservient to the State; ditto Japan, with the state-sponsored Shinto cult. The prosperous nations of Scandinavia have (or had) state-sponsored Lutheran Churches on the same model as the Church of England.

(3) If ‘independent’ is meant in the sense of ‘independent variable’, such that the laws of the religions followed by people in the state should not be a factor in determining the laws of the state, then I would strongly disagree. I would argue that this is not the practice of the United States, nor the theory on which the United States constitution is built. The United States was a nation with a great variety of (Christian, Protestant) religions when it was founded and its founding documents rest on a foundation of 18th century theism- the basic religious ideas that just about everyone could agree to. ‘That each man is endowed by his creator with certain inalienable rights...’ Without that bedrock consensus, I doubt that the United States or the United States constitution would have been as successful as they have been.
Nations that have instituted separation of Church and State on this model that I can think of are France and Italy in the period 1870-1914, approximately. They seemed to do reasonably well in that time. I am leaving out all those modern states that have actively tried to destroy religion, like the Communist ones... they had too many other problems.

I think ‘Separation of Church and State’ is not a determinant of a nation’s prosperity. If the Church and the State are both pulling in the same direction (e.g., a Protestant or Confucian work ethic with an economically responsible government and a clearly defined rule of law), it does not matter whether the Church and State are separate by definition 2 (United State) or not (England, Japan...). Which Church? and Which State? are very important questions. If the laws of the religion insist on a three day week and generous subsidies for uncompetitive manufacturing industries, the State will probably be better off ignoring them. But even if the laws of the State are based on some Anarcho-Syndicalist fad, the right sort of religious laws might keep the economy moving...

I wanted to talk mostly about ‘what is good?’ but have ended up talking mostly about ‘what will make us more money?’. Hopefully my answer to the first is clear. My answer to the second is, it depends: Which Church? Which State?

5 comments:

Marco said...

For what its worth, I think we agree that USA's interpretation of the Separation of church and state in its constitution is "good". However, I don't count Israel as being "stable and prosperous", and I lay the blame on not the Jewish religion itself, but that by calling themselves the jewish state, and not counting Arabs as voting citizens from the start. How can a country claim to be a democracy if some of the people within its borders are not given representation. Sure the influence Judaism has had on the economy has been positive, but had there been a suitable distancing of government policy from religious influence in its money ties etc., stability would also be possible. I also count Turkey as the most stable Arab country, mainly due to its secularness of Government. My thesis is that this principle as I've defined it, is completely independent of religion. Because freedom of religion goes hand in hand with its separation from state, churches compete vigorously and fairly for members (most visibly in the USA). With an invisible hand, this tends to more effectively reach more people with a richness of spirit and moral advance. With stability comes prosperity. Basically, I'm saying that the question of Which religion?/ which state? is moot because any state, any religion is applicable. However, my belief is, that in a world in which religions are able to compete freely for members, various forms of Christianity have a distinct advantage, and a head start from being used to compete in USA.

Marco said...

If you're caught up in definition, the supreme court is there to judge on how it's defined and whether it's applicable in any particular case. And the word separation is used in another principle, which is the separation of powers of Government, Judiciary and police. I think it is adequately interpreted in all countries that deal with these principles.

Marco said...

I'll just keep commenting here as I keep thinking of things. I know that my arguments seem vague, and the evidence sparse and not conclusive, but I am convinced of a pattern of clear and constant indirect consequences of constitutional abstractions. As much as the evidence of another thesis - which is that unilateral drops of trade barriers by a country can bring their people out of poverty more effectively than aid. There is sparse direct evidence for it; it is very hard to separate from other policy effects, but the invisible hand of trade is very powerful indeed. Top economists at The Economist would side with me on this trade thesis. However, my argument that competition between suppliers of Spiritual services works in the same invisible way is quite a conceptual leap that I've made. Just as privatisation means less Government interference in various industries, separation of church and state means less government involvement in spiritual affairs allowing the positive effect of competition to take root.

Dr. Clam said...

First of all, Arab citizens of Israel vote. There are Arab MK's who are more rabidly anti-Israel than any French members of parliament.

Second, it may be true that Adam Smith's invisible hand operates in the marketplace of ideas just as well as it does in the marketplace, and that this increases the likelihood that people will hold the right ideas and behave the right way. Or, will providers just advertise heavily and sell consumers ideas that let them keep thinking and behaving the way they already do? I do think there is a grain of truth in what you say, but I think American style separation of Church and State is a creative response to the plethora of Churches that happens to bear fruit in that particular situation. The Turkish situation is much more like the 19th century French and Italian. I would call Turkey a much less stable and prosperous democracy than Israel, and it might well be more prosperous and stable if it was an Iranian-style islamic republic. Remember it was Turkish secular nationalism that led to the massacres of 1915 and the sack of Smyrna.

Third, I think cooperation is in the long term more productive than competition. Let people live within a system that has agreed upon rules trumping any rules of the state: then you will see real progress on every level, not just economic.

Marco said...

Let me take that grain of truth metaphor and turn it on its head. Lets say I postulated that grain should be separate from state. Somewhere like Australia, there is no tariffs, less interference in trade in grains from government. Now is Australia any richer than than the EU because of this? We would probably agree that we are better off than the EU in grain trade because of our policy. However this does not mean the EU won't still successfully trade in grains for millenia - nor does it mean Australia is demonstrably any better off. It's quite clear to me that USA is more successfully religious compared to Israel, Northern Ireland or Iran. However, although these other countries/states are seemingly "successful" and "good" at some level, in religious conflict terms, they are complete disasters. This is the crux of my argument and probably the point of our disagreement. You don't think there is a religious conflict problem in Israel that has anything to do with the fact that the state is defined by its religion. And yes, I know that some arabs vote, but I don't know why palestinian refugees should be locked out of the voting process, at least in theory. Are they afraid of becoming citizens of a jewish state?