Issue #20, 2005
+ (secularity and complicity)

Separation between Church and State or the Aporia of Complicity
Gabriel Chindea

1. The Virtues of Separation

Separation between Church and State is a classical principle of modern legislation and has been followed in the major and oldest Western democracies. Of course, its understanding varies and depends on the historical context wherein it has appeared, or on the judicial practice that grants its true mean­ings. In France, for instance, the law stipulating the secularization, whose hundred-year existence is celebrated this year, has been the expression of the third Republic ideology. In the United States, the first amendment of the federal constitution, forbidding an official religion, is even older and it is rooted in the ideas of the 1787 fundamental law. In fact, the religious indifference of the American federal state comes from what Europe called the Westphalia prin­ciple: the religious policy was left in the hands of the federate states as the constitution prevented any intrusion of the federal state. But the indifference of the federal power in regard to religion matters has then extended over the entire American public space – administration, justice, central or local level – in the spirit of secularism recognized as such. Similarly, if the tolerance and religious diversity that the founding fathers had in mind were perceived as inherent to Christianity, the principle has been reinterpreted later on in order to include the followers of non-Christian religions or the atheists.

However, one thing is certain. To establish the separation between politics and religion was not only  gesture of practical reasoning but also of theoretical rea­soning. Although often blamed (as any divorce), the act of separation was really an act of proper judgment. The separation between Church and State aimed at a better distinction and reaffirmation of each in its very essence. In these terms, the separation wasn’t supposed to mutilate but to clarify. In fact, according to an old yet not archaic philosophical tradition, any reality needs separation in order to be intelligible. Whoever is familiar with the dawns of theoretical thought knows that since the Greek philosophy separation is a fundamental condition for understanding. Consequently, to dramatize separation means to fail seeing its positive condition, the emancipation from the indistinct, or the productive separation. In fact, from work process to social and administrative organization, the multiplication of differences and the repeated gesture of separation are the indication of an increased efficiency and self-awareness. One could then say that both the state and the church (or the churches and, generally, any religious group) should be glad for an act that enables each party to find itself.

The separation thesis is otherwise old and it has often been alleged in religious circles. Let us just think for instance about the picturesque image of the  American Roger Williams, often taken for a Christian anarchist, but whose theology was nothing else than a reinterpretation of Calvinism. At the middle of the 17th century, the founder of a colony in Rhode Island and preacher of the .“free grace”, Williams affirmed that divine favor and personal redemption were granted freely, independently from the individual’s deeds or character. No one can wait for redemption in exchange for one’s behavior as long as human nature is corrupted because of the original sin and thus incapable of reaching Good by itself. Therefore, any moral law of divine inspiration is obsolete and the individual is left to God’s mercy or good will. Consequently, theocracy is useless as long as there is no efficient procedure of redemption that the political power could regulate. Theological anomism, which put Williams in a posi­tion to oppose the Old and the New Testament, respectively the law and the grace, has also prevented him from accepting the theological basis of the justice system and the construction of a political theology.

In these circumstances, the state’s calling can only be civil: to ensure domestic peace and the welfare of the community members. The messianic pretension and the political alliance with God – which used to make sense in the context of the Old Testament – are surpassed, according to Williams, by the evangelic spirit, which would betray its role were it to disregard (through a human insti­tution) the exclusively divine right to lead people to redemption. On the other hand, in order to achieve its civil objectives, the state needs to rely only on the compe­tence and the righteousness of the magistrates and, in general, of the society members. Such a state, beside the tolerance for each confession, has to renounce to all established forms of civil and religious attributions mix: official church, financing of the clergy or the building of churches through taxes, the vow hand on the Bible or the profession of faith for magistrates when appointed.

The fact that both state and church function better if separated has been often repeated in American history. James Madison, who in 1833 was pondering the differences between Europe and the United States, remarked that religion is better and more pure in America, where it pertains to the private area and is fed on voluntary contributions, than in Europe, where it is state financed and declared national religion. Whilst, ever since 1777, Thomas Jefferson observed that the obligation to finance the clergy suppressed the joy of offering in good will the needed subventions just as, in general, all the religious principles are corrupted instead of being encouraged through the mandatory profession of faith in order to obtain public advantages.1

However, the separation of religion in its own benefit and the difference between sacred and mundane are older still. In a theoretic form, the process starts off with Greek philosophy that criticizes the archaic representations about divinity and grants it an existence separate from the physical or political world. A contemplative theology upholding the idea, as Aristotle does, that God is nothing but a thought thinking itself, which cannot convert into the postulate of a political theology. And maybe nothing has contributed more to the progressive disappearance of Christianity from the forefront of scientific and then public European life than the medieval recuperation of this Greek theology of transcendence. Luther had understood it very well when, reformatting the church, .he vehemently opposed the scholastic exegesis inspired from the antiquity and has proposed individual biblical reading. And the fact that classical rationalism and secularism have a Catholic tradition instead of Protestant must have its justification.

On the other hand, in social practice, the separation between religion and politics had already been asserted within Judaism. The Old Testament alliance  between God and the chosen people was meant to be unmediated and no state structure or icon was supposed to intermediate: hence, the initial rejection of the monumental political structures of the Antic Middle East by the people of Israel, who constantly felt the need to keep its distance from all that. The Jewish monarchy or the building of the Jerusalem temple are late events, against which the prophetic movement has strongly reacted: Saul’s kingdom is exemplary in this respect. This is why the first exile – which represented the disappearance of both the Jewish state with Jerusalem as capital and the temple – has been felt, in the spirit of prophetic ambiguity, as a punishment but also as a purification, and therefore as a chance for redemption. But, this prophetic spirit appears again in the primitive Christianity as eschatological indifference to established political order and goes on until its recognition by the Roman Empire transforms it into official religion. Henceforth, the situation is well known: the Roman state adopts the Christian religion and commits to sustain and protect it in its ortho­dox structure, whilst the church admits the divine historical mission of this state – or of the German kings that would replace it. Crusades and the early European colonization of the world are also a consequence of this late agreement.

Let us not forget then about the history of political and social autonomy affir­mation against religion. In modern times, it often went along with the emancipation of natural sciences, respectively of nature itself, already conceived as separate from the divine. Thomas Jefferson contended, for example, that civil rights depend just as much (or not) on religious opinions as natural sciences or geometry and that’s the reason why they should be respected as such. The physical world, as an autonomous system that can be understood without theological postulate thus becomes a model and foundation for what the 18th century would call human nature. And natural man also gets his rights: universal precisely because they are natural. A guarantee for these rights, the State, founded on the social contract, has its own rationale/ground that theoretic discernment knows how to find and the practical tact has to respect.

In such circumstances, the state couldn no longer be any the work of some divine will just as it could no longer be, in general, the exclusive expression of will. Of course, the fact that pure will is not enough in order to determine political action was also known by Plato, of whom the tyrant, the embodiment of free will, is the model for political failure. Because lacking a political science to follow and ensure success, the leader’s will would manifest itself beyond control and get compromised, eventually turning against him. But the necessary and ration­al principles of politics would emerge convincingly, as with Machiavelli, only when they would be separated not only from any personal considerations but also from moral or religious ones as well.

What would be called the classical international politics of the 16th–18th centuries embodies this new art of governance that would be continued by the idea of state reason until today. The “unnatural” alliances during the thirty-year war between German Protestants and French Catholics were its first outcomes just as the principle stipulated at the end of the war in the Westphalia treatise: cuius regio eius religio. Deliberate indifference of political reason towards religion is now stated with the conviction that, in order to ensure international peace, faith can no longer be a pretext for military intervention. After over a century of religious wars, Europe recognized that a safer world and more rational politics can be obtained only through separation between state affairs and religious affairs.

The few historical landmarks pointed out above seem to uphold the idea that both religion and state or society have only to gain from separation as long as  separation keeps the integrity of each party and prevents it from corruption. However, in its modern form, the only one meaningful for us, separation is not only the product of a conscience eager for clarity. Premodern arguments, but mostly religious, social or political practice anticipated or made acceptable principles that, as any principles, would have otherwise remained simple motives for reflection. Let’s not be fooled. Law is probably always the expres­sion of force or, to be exact, of power rapport (sometimes subtle and maybe not visible enough): political forces but also economic, demographic etc. .– in a word, an historical context. This explains how the separation has become the instru­ment for social, political or religious realities – insufficiently distinct yet – to be firmly determined and encouraged to develop in the serene light of reason. Just in this way separation has become, to put it bluntly, the saving key for progress. And whether it still can be supported unconditionally depends more, once again, on the present statu quo and less on our good intentions.

2. Disillusions of Separation

In its modern shape, secularization, whose genealogy now matters less, has been confirmed and expressed primarily through the separation between pri­vate and public: on one hand, religion as intimate conviction, inspiring the personal behavior in life, on the other hand, the political or administrative action, regulated by law, representing everyone equally regardless of opinion or belief.

Excluded from the state’s official space with all its institutions, from schools, courts or public events, religion should find its exclusive place in the private sphere of individual existence or in associations that preserve the private fea­ture. After all, religion is just a matter of conscience. And yet, however natural it may seem, the separation between public and private that lays at the foundations of modern secularism pertains to a historically determined moment: the bourgeois. It glorifies the individual as an autonomous and fundamental principle embodying mankind, whose rights and properties are intangible and whose freedom – of association or enterprise – generates society and economy.

Marx has been maybe the first to grasp the fictional character of the individual as basis of the society. In fact, it is not the individual who determines and constitutes, with other individuals either in agreement or dispute, a society that would belong essentially to individuals but, on the contrary, society is the one to determine directly the individual. Or, to be more exact, in order not to re­verse the so called natural primacy of individual over society in a primacy just as natural of society over the individual, Marx added that both – that is society understood as sum of individuals and individual as a member of such a society – are the exceptional product of what one might call the bourgeois age.

So the individual and his society are not eternal figures of mankind but the outcome of history and, more than that, it is a poisonous one. Viable only in a cer­tain society, self-determined and self-understood as society of individuals, the individual is promoted thanks to the society although distinct from it. .His autonomy is granted by the society although as an autonomy against society. Moreover, this autonomy can fully manifest only in society. Agreement with or opposition to society are both expressions of a socially imposed individuality. Even to ignore society and take refuge in a strictly private existence means yet another rapport to society. We know it from love stories: neglect is always a form of consideration.

Inheriting Hegel’s dialectics, Marx is thus warned that separation between individual and society, just as the one between private and public space, includes a contradicion and presupposes inevitably two opposed aspects: rejection but also attraction between the separated terms. If society demands the affirma­tion of the individual and thus for him to stand out, this delimitation would remain a social one and thus contradictory, generating a series of conflicts. To be different, to become an individual means to answer a general command: so, in the end, to be like everyone else. And the conflict is not just exterior, between two spheres of the world – the public and the private – but also interior insofar as the individual, coming and going between the two, is internalizing the separation.

In a general meaning, separation seems to be in fact the root of all bourgeois discontents. It generates a conscience that is split between ethical and eco­nomic imperatives, between idealism and realism, between class and universal interest, or between conscience itself and a half-asleep subconscious. But, in such circumstances, it’s no surprise that to find integrity again could have fascinated people and still can. And the modern religious spirit hasn’t been spared from such illusions and distractions.

On the other hand, in the case of “the modern crisis of religious conscience”, although sometimes the solution seems to predict a return to the past, in reality, the evoked past was an imaginary one, and the proposals, insofar as they came from an irreversible modern society, reflected this very modernity. The anthropological invocation of a supposedly religious ethos, describing human condition, pertains to a mentality that has nothing to do any longer with the traditional “religiousness”. The latter used to be embodied in one or several well-established cults and wouldn’t have understood the intrinsic significance of “religiousness” in general.

Consequently, the return to ancient pagan religiousness, as it is the case with Nietzsche, is nothing but the modern answer to a modern problem. It is the refusal to live the separation of the divine, but a refusal that takes into account the separation because the answer is not the resuscitation of God but the notification of the transcendent God’s death, so separated from world and history. God is not invited to come back on the stage but, on the contrary, all access is denied. Only after God’s death and atheism’s triumph there is a chance for the gods to return, the same but in fact different, for the prophetic poet’s jubilation.

After all, this newly found religiousness is a surpassing of the present time religion just like Marx’s atheism was only half resembling the contemporary atheism. In both cases, the divine or its disappearance refer to a unified conscience, which has escaped resentment and can enjoy aesthetically its integrity, future oriented but traceable with the help of Antiquity. And if the Nietzschean reli­gious furor has nothing to fear from atheism, the Marxist atheism would avoid just as less the reconciliation with religion, which is something else than classic Christian religion anyway. Liberation through revolution from the social contradictions and the class character (be it proletarian) is always limitative. The final conscience imagined by Marx can look with detachment at the religious products of the past times. For the true meaning of religion, the historical one, .will unveil only in humanity’s jubilation, at last mature, the fantasies of its childhood, just like the modern man can already enjoy with detachment the antique mythology.

3. What Is Complicity?

Obviously, prophecies never come true and keeping up the hope of overcoming the unhappy modern conscience is, maybe, a first form of complicity: complicity with utopia. In fact, neither religion nor atheism has emancipated us in the absolute way that the modern critical visionaries had hoped for. Or, if they did, the result is precisely the disappointed conscience, neither religious nor atheist, which observed with cold objectivity the failure of the modern promises of eman­cipation. It is indeed hard to say who are the most disoriented today: the atheists who see that human kind refuses to come out of something that was supposed to be only prehistory, or the religious minds who recognize, however, that religion “evolves” and that something durable, affecting the very substance of religiousness, is changing in the human condition as the science and technology expand at planetary scale. In this context, it would be great if .we could avoid new complicities. But is that possible.

In fact, the insurmountable gap that we find ourselves in today is somewhat leveled by the diffusion, seemingly more and more contagious, of religiousness beyond its boundaries. Is this interference a second kind of complicity, to which many of our contemporaries adhere despite the separation. The attraction is rooted however in the very act of separation, which as we have seen not only separates but also bonds the divided terms. In this case, is the increasing contamination between the political, the social and the religious, between public and private space, accomplice or merely inevitable.

In any case, the confusion doesn’t only concern our lives according to the traditional public-private division. Not only technology invades our home, in other days a harbor of peace, but also we, in our turn, invade the homes of others who are ready to welcome us. How can we avoid, for instance, the growing complicity between education and economy, which makes school the annex of professional market interests and the field for economic ideologies to spread and, last but not least, a profitable business. Is it that the mixture of politics, show, economy, and ideology couldn’t lack some faith and miracle.

Of course, if in general the frontiers of public space are more and more uncertain, we should hope that at least the state, in other words, the public area politically organized and centralized, would keep its religious indifference. .But how can one have such pretense from an entity that is being asked by every­body to reform its own structures or whose imminent death is predicted. Not even the newly invented European state can find itself in a better position and the debate around the introduction of the Christian reference in the constitution treaty proves the same thing. Surely those who demanded the Christian tradition to be put in the constitution were representatives of social-Christian or Christian-democrat ideology parties. But if the proposition appeared serious it is because Europe is desperately seeking for symbols, decided, as it is, to dis­cover or, in fact, to produce a common identity. If we have a common market why wouldn’t we also have a common religious tradition.

Or, to take another example, how can one perceive the French government’s proposal to amend the law on secularism, which, until today, has forbidden the state to finance from public money the construction of religious buildings. The Catholic Church, happy with the secularization in force since 1905, doesn’t agree. Besides, the reason for such an amendment is not religious but political: the major Muslim community in France is too poor to finance its own places of worship. So, in order to cut the foreign financial support (coming mostly form the rich Arab countries from the Gulf area), the French state would like to get involv­ed directly in the building of mosques. Will this help the better integra­tion of the French Muslims. Or would it reinforce their particular identity. Can the state be indifferent to the religious beliefs of its citizens. And if it does intervene, with what kind of feelings. Does the state control religion or does it surrender to it.

We can then wonder whether omission or neglect of the inevitability and ration­ality of domain contamination, which we would prefer separated, is deriving from a third form of complicity or not. In fact, it is a less apparent complicity, but no less real than the modern illusion or, to be precise, the modern mystification. It denounces the far too obvious complicity between religion and public space (which we highlighted before), but forgets, in its turn, to tell the whole truth that might explain the situation: that separation is contradictory in its essence and that it incites to breaking it. To recognize this can prevent us from being naïve or hypocritical and see in the mix of everything just the promiscuous side and the treason or overlook the conflicting truth of separation. .Do we have only the choice between constantly denouncing the reality or “understanding” it through the elaboration of public or personal strategies which, pretending to take reality into account in order to influence it better, compro­mise with it.

And how should we avoid then the cynicism of those who, without any illusion about modernity’s virtues, knowingly take advantage of its defects. The pre­tended absolute understanding of reality’s contradictions, just like the pragmatism that can follow, is great of course because it concedes reason the capacity to account for everything that is going on, including the circumstantial aspects and, here, for the more and more visible compromise between Church and State. But is this pretense of absolute understanding rational itself. Doesn’t long deliberated acceptance of ambiguities mean the proclamation of fact instead of law. Isn’t the adaptation to reason realism – which provides excuse but no right – the true complicity: complicity with complicity itself. And we are only left with this: a disillusioned reason and therefore accomplice, allowing complicity to self-satisfy by presenting itself as rational.

Translated by Izabella Badiu




1. For more information on the history of secularism in America see also .Le Débat, no. 127, November–December 2003.