The separation of church and state itself has Christian rootsby Larry Siedentop / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
© Nicolas Chinardet/Demotix/Demotix/Corbis
How should we understand the relationship between religious belief and the idea of a secular state? This is an urgent question today and brings with it issues about the identity of the west and its self-understanding. Like other cultures, that of the west is founded on shared beliefs. But, in contrast to most others, western beliefs are informed by the assumption of moral equality, which underpins the secular state and the idea of fundamental or “natural” rights.
Christianity played a decisive part in the emergence of this culture. Yet the idea that liberalism and secularism have religious roots is not widely understood. The separation of church and state—the first objective of the liberal tradition—has drawn attention away from those religious roots. But so too has a conflict in which religious belief and “godless” secularism are conceived as irreconcilable opponents, a view that for a long time was fed by folk memories of the burning of Protestant martyrs in 16th-century England, the legend of the Spanish Inquisition and by a “holy alliance” between churches (especially the Catholic Church) and socially conservative forces in reaction to the French Revolution.
Those memories may have dimmed, but the perception of a profound conflict between secularism and religious belief has been reawakened and has taken a new form in western societies in recent years. In Europe, massive immigration and the growth of large Muslim minorities have widened the range of non-Christian beliefs dramatically—with significant consequences. Quite apart from the acts of terrorism which invoke—more or less dubiously—the name of Islam, Muslims are frequently encouraged by their religious leaders to look forward to replacing the laws of the nation-state with those of sharia. Islam appears to cohabit uneasily with secularism.
When, in 2004, it was proposed that a reference to Europe’s Christian roots be included in a new constitution for the European Union, there was strong support, particularly from predominantly Catholic countries such as Poland, Portugal and Italy. There was also robust opposition, notably from France. The most common reaction, however, was one of embarrassment, an uneasy wish that the question would go away, which it did when the proposed constitutional treaty was defeated in referendums. But the embarrassment remains.
Ever since the Italian Renaissance, many historians have been inclined to minimise the moral and intellectual distance between the modern and ancient worlds, while…