[This article appeared in the December 1973 issue of New Guard, the national publication of Young Americans for Freedom.] 


The Myth of the Separation of Church and State

An Old Issue Stays on as the Central Question in Modern Politics


The proponents of individual liberty ought to insist, the author says, not simply on the old-style separation of Church and State, but on the separation of the State from the modern social religions—and for the same reasons.


Dwight D. Murphey 


            We are under the strong impression that during the past two centuries we have put to rest an issue that previously had burned at white heat for several centuries—the issue of the separation of Church and State.  One of the prides of Thomas Jefferson’s life was that he was the author of the Virginia Declaration of Religious Liberties.  Since then, for the most part, we have flattered ourselves that the issue has been resolved.

            Inevitably, of course, a few practical questions have remained in the gray area between the two great institutions; the demarcations in Constitutional law are rarely fully settled.  There was the famous “school prayer” decision of a decade ago; occasionally someone objects to a Christmas pageant in a school; and there are some serious questions still open involving tax exemption for religious foundations and the expenditure of public monies for aid to parochial schools.  But these are the sort of thing one would normally expect even in a society in which the Church (or, really, churches) and the State are separated.

            We have, however, deluded ourselves by losing sight of the underlying issues.  It is true that the problem does not exist in its old form; but in a new form what is actually the same issue is the central question in modern politics and ideology.

            The Church as such, by which I mean the institutions involving man’s relationship to God, is no longer attached to the State.  There is no “established religion” and there is religious freedom in the usual sense in which we define religion as involving the worship of a supreme being.  In this context, there is a real separation.

            But if we are to keep in mind the really crucial matters of principle that were at issue in the earlier dispute over Church and State, we should look at the problem from a broader perspective.  If we do, we see that the reality is very different from what we have supposed it to be: we see that ultimately vital principles of “the separation of Church and State” have not been honored.  When we update our vision and consider the new form in which religion and the State are brought together, we see that the separation, at its heart, is an illusion—one of the grand Myths of our time.  In a new sense, “Church and State” are as married today, and with as deleterious consequences to human freedom, as they were a few centuries ago. 

The State and Secular Religion 

            What has happened has been that our eyes have, on this subject, failed to adapt to the secularization of modern life.  We have thought the issue resolved when we have witnessed the separation of the familiar, recognizable Church institutions from the State.  What we haven’t seen is that two impulses that were involved in religion and that caused oppression when they were enforced by the power of the State—an impulse toward an acceptance of and insistence upon a single cosmic view, and an associated impulse toward a remolding, redirection and reformation of mankind—are still with us.  They are claiming the power of the State as their legitimate vehicle.

            Does it make any difference that now these impulses are no longer associated primarily with theism, but rather find expression in a multitude of secular creeds?  Surely the problem for human liberty is the same. 

            The “secular religions” of the modern period—Marxism, Nazism, socialisms of many varieties, even modern “liberalism” to a degree—have insisted on their own total truth and their respective visions of a properly redirected mankind.  Although we might classify Classical Liberalism also as a type of secular religion, it stands alone among the major ideologies in refusing the State as a coercive tool for change.  (Its opponents argue correctly that even this abstinence results in a certain cultural product that is necessarily exclusive of alternative cultural forms, but this is an argument that refuses to recognize that a culture of freedom is not just another imposed system; though it, too, unavoidably involves social cements and some coercion, it is fundamentally different in being the one social order that seeks to make a minimum imposition on the individual.)

            What we palpably need is a principle of separation between State and secular religion.  Those who have deep personal visions for mankind ought to have to operate, as theistic religion is required to operate today, within the voluntaristic nexus.  To be sure, this will involve a denial per se of many of these creeds, since they are inherently creeds of state action; and to others it will deny, at least, a major tool. But ought free men to demand less?  Can we both hold to the principles of individual liberty and admit the right of any creed to use the State as an instrument for the remolding of human culture? 

Humility Versus Assumed Truth           

               A certain cosmic humility lies at the center of a voluntaristic philosophy.  Those who hold it do not, for one reason or another, feel justified in pressing their view of things onto others.  They distrust the power this would require and abhor the pretension, the hubris, of those who claim to have the ideal mix for everyone.  Accordingly, they direct their “social engineering” (which is something Karl Popper would say even Classical Liberals unavoidably engage in) to the establishment of a framework within which individual choice is maximized.  They nourish voluntarism because they wish to leave the actual content of human life free to develop as individuals see fit to make it develop. 

            When, centuries ago, there was a combination of Church and State, it existed partly because men believed implicitly that the Church had truth on its side.  The question followed naturally and unconsciously: Why should not Truth be extended ubiquitously throughout mankind?  The separation of Truth from the State is, accordingly, a very unusual phenomenon; those who know beyond question that they have Truth can understand no reason why all men ought not to be caused to observe that Truth.

            The difficulty with this seems clear enough to us today, although our ability to see this now is by no means entirely due to an increased intelligence on our parts; it is also a predictable concomitant of our relaxed convictions on the subject of religion, which makes our need “to save the other man’s soul” less compelling; and there is, too, a measure of self-interest in religious tolerance, since centuries of warfare taught us the costliness of its opposite.

             But it is, unfortunately, not clear in those areas where the modern faith burns brightest.  Modern “liberalism,” say, is thoroughly convinced of the Truth of its perceptions.  It does not acknowledge itself as simply a point of view; it knows itself to embody a correct summary of things, a form of unmediated reality.  When men become so absorbed in the orientation of a given creed that its tenets become truisms for them, it hardly enters their minds that those tenets ought not to be the tenets also of the society at large—or of the universities, or the social sciences, or wherever men are operating.  Humility hardly enters the picture, since they are blinded from seeing that the situation calls for it.

            Each modern social creed interprets all reality according to its own lights.  The world it perceives is a world with the same existential structure that it itself holds.  Because of this, each insists on its own conformity, on its own orthodoxy.  The insistence is partially by intellectual osmosis, partially by the uses of power.  And here we see a tendency that, unless offset by other things, is closely analogous to ecclesiastical authoritarianism; with it, the Inquisition, in one form or another, has hardly been drummed out of human life. 

A Transitory Truth 

            We are so immersed in their claims and counterclaims and implicit worldview that it is sometimes hard for us to see the extent to which these modern creeds do not hold a final Truth for mankind.  But if we back off and see them in historical perspective, we see that they are strikingly vulnerable and transitory.  Nothing is really settled in modern Western civilization.  The Left in particular, with all its many branches, including American “liberalism,” has for centuries involved an anti-bourgeois alliance between the intellectuals and the so-called masses.  But this is surely tenuous.  We cannot assume that this alliance and the many half-perceptions and exaggerations it breeds will be a permanent feature in history.  I have no doubt but that with the passage of time it will come to appear to have been as strangely out of shape as many past creeds seem to us now.  “Liberalism,” say, weaves its own extended mythology.  There are things it sees and things it does not see, some truths it omits entirely and others it blows up out of all proportion.  It involves some important internal contradictions, which are in fact operative in its present crisis.  Its ideology has never really been settled, its ultimate identification with or hostility toward our culture is still up in the air, and the coalition of interest groups which has in the past been so important to it is now shattering.

              Surely this is not worthy of being made absolute.  It deserves no privileged power to impose itself upon us.  What a pleasant and wholesome thing it would be if by principle it could not use the power of the State to implement its own unique half-Truth, but would have to take its hostilities and its sympathies into the arena of voluntary individual action to see how many it could persuade to give of themselves and their money to further the goals it considers so pressing.  Then it would be put to the test; and then, too, it would test its own sincerity.  Perhaps, to the extent it sees genuine needs, it would thrive; but perhaps, too, it would shrivel once the coercive fertilizer is gone. 

The State as Church 

            We often think of the problem of Church-State relations as involving the Church’s desire to use the power of the State, as when soon after its acceptance by Constantine early Christianity began a persecution of pagans and heretics.  But this is only part of the picture.  It is remarkable how often leading thinkers throughout history have wished, instead, to elevate the State to the status of Church, to use the State as Church.  Here we see no bringing together of otherwise alien elements; the State itself is interpreted to be the spiritual center, absorbing everything into itself.

            Frequently, the philosophies that have espoused this have reflected the intellectual’s desire to absolutize his own values.  No matter how democratic the ostensible rationale formulated may in many cases be, wherever this is operative there is an implicit elitism, with the democratic features being ultimately, even though not expressly, contingent upon the expediency of the alliance between the intellectual and the have-nots.

            One can readily see that where, as in the modern Left, the intellectual absolutizes the State for the ostensible benefit of the have-nots, the result is a situation in which the individual is relatively weak vis a vis the State.  There is a non-reliance on individual energies and a corresponding reliance upon the State.  This is particularly true where there is a deliberate refusal to endorse the so-called “middle class values” of “hard work, thrift, self-reliance,” etc.  Man, diminished, is suited for despotism, paternal or otherwise.   In this context, true “democracy” may or may not maintain its hold on the reins: the elite, with its own idealistic visions and as well its own ordinary power-hungers, may well aspire to leadership; or it may be, as Hoffer has suggested, that even the idealist is supplanted by a new generation of bureaucratic pragmatists.  In all, the prospect is not terribly inviting—and ought not to seem an unmixed good even to the intellectual himself, were he fully to appreciate the myriad directions it can take.

            It is fascinating to look back through history at some of the major thinkers and to come to a full appreciation of the extent to which they have often envisioned the State as Church.

            Greek thought, say, was by no means homogeneous.  Periclean Athens held, for the most part, to the ideal of an open society.  But it is surprising how many Greek intellectuals idealized the Spartan alternative, with its military discipline and barracks-like existence.  Xenophon’s State of the Lacedaemonians has been said by Jaeger to have “held the Spartan state to be a sort of political revelation from heaven.”  Tyrtaeus also lavished praise on Sparta, and Plato’s deep infatuation with the Spartan communism is reflected in his Republic, which itself hypothesizes a society satisfying the utopian intellectuals’ dream of having precisely the intellectuals on top.  It is interesting, if somewhat dispiriting, to note that the historian Plutarch still later joined in this idealization of the Spartan system.

            Leaving the ancients, we see that in his Utopia, Sir Thomas More called for a strong secular administration involving a prohibition of private property; the end of the State was to be “the highest fulfillment of individuals.”  Later, Rousseau, one of the most influential philosophers of modern times, decried a competitive, voluntaristic nexus; he sought through collectivism to return to what he understood to have been a simple, brotherly original human nature.  In this, he was picking up a theme stated earlier by Rabelais, and it is impossible to estimate how many thousands of intellectuals, including, say, Veblen, have followed him in this theme of reconstructing society from its present warped values to return to a tribalistic beginning.

            During the French Revolution, Robespierre, one of the many disciples of Rousseau, went so far as to merge the revolutionary State with secular religion.  He declared a “Republic of Virtue” and announced a “Cult of the Supreme Being.”  The calendar was changed from the Christian calendar to a revolutionary one and an extensive system of national holidays was declared dedicated to secular virtues.  He led a religious procession through the streets of Paris a few short weeks before losing his head to those who, not without some justification, feared his power.

            Shortly thereafter, the philosopher Hegel penned a philosophy exalting the Prussian state and virtually deifying the State.  Werner Jaeger tells us that “No less a one than Hegel denied that subjective reason had the right to criticize the morality of the State, which (he declared) is itself the fountainhead and complete reason for the existence of all morality on earth.”  Karl Popper quotes Hegel: “The Universal is to be found in the State… The State is the divine idea as it exists on earth… We must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on earth.”  Perhaps we see here one of the clearest illustrations of an intellectual seeking to use the State as Church.

            Superficially, this may not be as clear regarding Marx; after all, did he not ultimately desire the “withering away of the state”?  But in perspective we see that here was an intellectual harboring immense animosity toward middle class commercial civilization who sought through a mystique of “dialectical materialism” to alter it fundamentally through class war.  And then there was to follow a dictatorship of the proletariat which would remain so long as it was necessary to remold mankind from greed to selflessness.  Surely this is State as Church.  True, the State was to “wither away” after everything was purified, but we ought not to understand Marx’s anarchistic classless utopia as a return to individualism; it is consciously collectivist, so that by ingrained habit the community was to continue to act as Church.

            It was Auguste Comte who, as well as anyone in modern times, gave voice to the desire for an authoritarian, secular, spiritual order.  Mankind as a whole was to be headed by a single Pontiff; there was to be a Temporal Power composed of the working rich, and a Spiritual Power composed, in the words of John Stuart Mill, of “a corporation of philosophers.”  Although Comte spoke of complete freedom of speech and criticism, he at the same time demanded that all life be marshaled exclusively for altruistic motives and that all but a hundred volumes be burned—hardly personal or intellectual freedom.  As with Robespierre, there was to be a secular religion, State enforced.  “The public cultus,” Mill relates, “consists of a series of celebrations or festivals, eighty-four in the year… devoted to the successive glorification of Humanity itself.”

            In the United States, near the end of the nineteenth century Edward Bellamy wrote of an intellectualized socialist utopia in Looking Backward.  Today in the New Left, Robert Theobald projects a socialist society in which “all life will be learning,” again reflecting the desire to intellectualize humanity.  He does not see the naivete in his expectation that man in general will want “all life to be learning.” 

A Clerisy? 

            In this discussion, I have attempted to focus attention on one important part of the pressures toward the absolute State—the intellectual’s impulse toward secular spirituality, both as a sincere concept and as a mask for his own power drives.

            But this is not to say that there is no need for moral, spiritual, aesthetic leadership in a secular society.  Despite the need to “civilize the intellectuals” (speaking generally), it is clear that mankind suffers a severe void so long as it lacks moral, cultural, spiritual guidance from its more contemplative and sensitive members.  John Stuart Mill, picking up an idea from Coleridge, spoke of the role of a “clerisy.”

             Surely the leadership of a sane, sensitive intellectuality is one of the major—most probably the major—need of our civilization. But to be consistent with individual liberty it must be touched by an ultimate humility.  It must renounce identification with the State and collectivism.  Just as assuredly as with the Church of three or four centuries ago, there should be a separation of secular religion from the State—and for the same reasons.