Sunday, 15 March 2009

Antidisestablishmentarianism: a Comparison

Yes, part of the reason for this entry is that it is a legitimate excuse to use that word, much the same as happened with my A-Level Politics coursework. But at the same time, it's also a very interesting subject, particularly when taken comparatively. Some of the issues I want to address here are: the prominence of the issue of the separation of church and state in the United States and United Kingdom; the reason for those different levels of prominence; and any implications there might be for the two societies. No doubt the discussion will range more widely, but that's the basic structure I have in mind. So let's begin.

I suppose the best place to start with this issue, as with most, is to define it. The separation of church and state is the phrase used to describe either the distance that organised religion keeps from the apparatus and activity of state politics, or the official, constitutional provisions for that distance. In short, it can refer to the rules, or to the reality. The U.S. and the U.K. have very different situations in both cases, and those differences are the subject of this entry.

Firstly, then, let's look at the prominence of the issue - how high up is it in terms of public concern/awareness? Well, in the U.S., there are few more visible issues than the separation of church and state, with strong advocacy groups on the matter and implications for such diverse issues as prayer in schools, "In God We Trust" on the currency, and even gay rights. In the U.K., meanwhile, the issue is hardly on the radar at all; certainly there are similar issues with gay rights, creationism in the classroom, and various others, but rarely do discussions on these matters make mention of the established nature of the Church of England. It doesn't seem to affect either legislation on, or public opinion of, the major issues.

So what is the formal position of religion in each of these nations? In the United States, there is a clear clause in the Constitution (Amendment I, concerning freedom of expression) prohibiting the establishment of religion by the state. What does this mean? Well, a fairly good example is the situation in the United Kingdom, as it happens: we have what is called an "established" Church here, the Anglican Church or Church of England. This means that not only is their brand of protestantism the official state religion (the monarch is still required to be a member of that religion because he or she is the nominal head of the Church), but also that members of that Church have seats in our national legislature.

Without going into great and tedious detail, the House of Lords is the upper house of the British Parliament, but has less legislative power than the House of Commons. It is also the highest court in the country. Among its 743 members, there are 26 bishops of the Church of England, known as the Lords Spiritual. It is hardly contentious to suggest that the presence of such figures in the legislature of the United States would be controversial and hugely unconstitutional.

So why is there no such uproar here? Well, the right answer (to the extent that there is one) is of course terribly complex and most likely involves matters of social history, and the complex interplay of power between the state, the church, and the people. But at least a part of the reason is simply that we don't have a constitution; there is no hallowed sacred document to which we can refer to determine if a certain practice or state of affairs is "allowed" by the rules upon which our nation was founded. Because, when you get right down to it, it's hard to say exactly how or when - or even if - that happened. Certainly there have been a slew of treaties (the latest coming as late as 1927), but there has never been a document drawn up to compare significantly with the strict and explicit terms of the U.S. Constitution.

It is strange to note how reversed the situation seems to be between the U.S. and the U.K.; one might expect the country with overt religious influence in the legislature to be the one that experiences a great deal of religious influence on legislation. But rather, it is the nation with explicit prohibition of religious influence on the legislature that is the arena for so much religious lobbying and debate. So on the one side of the Atlantic we have a secular government and a predominantly religious society, and on the other we have a nominally religious government and a - for all intents and purposes - secular society. Is it a case of causation, or correlation?

The answer is, of course, complicated. I am tempted to argue that it is a combination of the two on both sides of the ocean, but in the States it seems to be more causation than correlation, and in Britain more correlation than causation. I don't think it would be too controversial to suggest that the majority of British subjects are generally of an apathetic disposition with regards to religious matters; even the few who do attend church seem to be, for the most part, relatively liberal. Equally uncontroversial to me would be the suggestion that the U.S. was settled predominantly by religious persons, many fleeing persecution. For one reason or another, religion has persisted in a much stronger way in the U.S. than in Britain.

Now this is just speculation, but it seems to me reasonable to suggest that the current state of affairs, with religious lobbyists jostling and campaigning ceaselessly to crowbar some small modicum of their faith into the affairs of state, could have its genesis in the very constitutional measures designed to thwart them. Imposing secularism upon a strongly religious society could quite conceivably lead to strong resentment and this very kind of campaigning. Now, I'm not saying that the constitution is the only reason for the current state of affairs, or even that this is a worse situation than exists in Britain. Indeed, I think that the U.S. constitution is the only thing standing in the way of the country becoming an overtly religious one at the governmental level.

I can't purport to know the reasons why Britain is, broadly speaking, a secular society. Perhaps it is partly because of the establishment of religion; perhaps it has instilled in the religious groups a kind of complacency. But I doubt that this is the case. The fact of the matter is that in Britain, the Church enjoys far greater official power than religious groups in the U.S., but far less public support. As far as creating secular legislation is concerned, ultimately, having a secular society is more important than having a secular government.


Vincent said...

It's a very interesting topic and you have covered it in such a balanced way that I find little left to say. I was brought up in the tradition of British private schools whose cornerstones were the Armed Forces, cricket, Empire and the Church of England, whose blandness, mild hypocrisy and captive status were somehow guaranteed by the fact of the neutral status of the King or Queen as its head.

Originally the Church of England had been revolutionary and defiant, making Henry VIII's unprincipled stand against the Pope into something more respectable. In my childhood the Church had become a deeply conservative survival, whose doctrines were encapsulated in the Book of Common Prayer, Hymns Ancient & Modern, the King James I translation of the Bible. In short it was ritualised to the point where it had lost its teeth. this didn't stop me, as a questioning child, from secretly opposing it, even as I was forced to attend church. I refused for example to repeat the Apostle's Creed, but on the other hand i usually took care that nobody noticed.

But now I'm nostalgic for that blandness and annoyed by the evangelistic tendencies in those who want to make the Church meaningful.

One difference you didn't mention between England & US: here we have ancient church buildings, of architectural, historical and community significance quite apart from any uses to which they have been put.

Here in my town (High Wycombe, Bucks) we have many "civic services" at the main Parish Church each year; consecrating the Mayor, the Royal Air Force (whose Strike Command Headquarters is local) and various good causes.

These services have the advantage of not being rabidly Christian, a necessary thing because the town has 15% Muslim population and the Mayor is often Muslim (but still attends all the civic services).

It seems to me that British institutions have benefited through the ages from the sense that their leaders are still below a greater authority.

Darkwinter said...

You make some very good points, there - though I might take issue with the idea that British institutions have benefited somehow from a sense of being under a greater authority, once I've thought through it a bit more.

I absolutely agree with the point that many of our churches here have much greater significance than the religious aspects of their founding. Here in Wolverhampton our central church is easily over 500 years old, and of great interest to the historian in me. I can also see their value as a community venue for ceremonies such as those you listed. They are beautiful buildings, specifically designed for large gatherings of people after all.