Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, September 22, 2006

Another interesting tidbit from Nato:

A major difference between the Catholic Church and other Abahamic faiths is the division of spiritual and temporal authority - a difference to which many attribute the rise of constitutional liberalism and the ancestor to our modern separation of church and state. Because there was a constant tension between the power of the Church and that of the various nobles, third parties could survive in the cracks.

I've heard this theory but I don't find it very convincing. Of course separation of church and state is a product of Christian history, since "church" is a Christian concept. But I question the link between church and state and constitutional liberalism. Logically, the separation of church and state is actually hard to reconcile with liberal democracy: if the people want to have prayer in schools, or erect a cross on public land, who should have the right to tell them they can't? A clear distinction between separation of church and state and religious tolerance is needed. You can have either one without the other. In practice, "separation of church and state" as practiced in contemporary America was invented after WWII and is certainly not a precondition for constitutional liberalism.

It seems like any environment in which there are distinct powers could engender the "tension" that would allow "third parties to survive." Surely that could arise in many cultures? The link between Christianity and the rise of constitutional liberalism is correct, I think, but a different story is needed.


  • First, some clarification - I meant that the separation between church and state is a decendant of the doctrine of temporal/spiritual divide. Its enshrinement in liberal constitutions is because it had become cultural tradition, not because it was necessary to constitutional liberalism. Norway, for example, is explicitly Lutheran even while it is very much an example of constitutional liberalism. Put another way, the temporal-spiritual divide created the cultural tradition of separation of church and state, and the fact of the division of power blocks in the middle ages allowed third parties to agitate for liberalized codes of government in which it would be difficult for any one bloc to dominate.

    Anyway, there's a tension between constitutional liberalism and untrammeled democracy. Our constitution makes it tougher to pass laws - no matter how popular - that infringe on human rights. We could, for example, pass a law saying that people of African decent cannot vote, but first we would have to admend the Constitution. Of course, jurisprudence modulates the consequences of Constitutional prohibitions, which is why before Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Jim Crow laws were allowed under the "separate but equal" farce. A long time ago, jurispridence translated the 1st Amendment into the doctrine separation of church and state - not much of a stretch since Jefferson coined the phrase in reference to the 1st Amendment. Madison's phrasing used the apparently less catchy words "separation between religion and government."

    In any case, if people want to pass a Consitutional amendment anulling the 1st Amendment or modifying it in a way that clearly allows for schools to hold prayers and cities to erect crosses on their lands, there's a democratic process for doing that.

    By Blogger Nato, at 11:51 AM  

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