Religion in public life

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Randall has a long post up where he highlights a book titled The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, which addresses the legal implications of religious pluralism. There are many complicated issues here, and I simply ask readers to check out the facts for themselves, but not get too caught up in the details. From the introduction:

This book is about the impossibility of religious freedom. Many laws, constitutions, and international treaties today grant legally enforceable rights to those whose religious freedom is infringed. Stories of the conflict between the demands of religion and the demands of law are daily news items all over the world, and take a familiar patterned form. Schoolgirls in France seek permission to wear the hijab to school. Sikhs in Britain seek exemption from motorcycle helmet laws. Muslim women seek civil divorces in India on the same ground as their Hindu and Christian neighbors. The Jehovah’s Witnesses seek the right to be a recognized religious organization in Russia and to be exempt from patriotic exercises in Greece….

I have read a fair amount about the Reformation as well as the history of Northern Europe in the 16th and 17th century and I support one of the contentions of the author that something rather peculiar happened in places like England1 and The Netherlands during this period, and the full flower of that process can be found in the United States, a nation that gives expression to Christianities, but no support for one state church. Of course, there isn’t a sharp dichotomy between the “Protestant model” and everything else, there is after all a difference between 16th century Spain or 21st century Saudi Arabia and traditional Chinese or Indian attitudes toward pluralism of faith.2 Also, note that one reason I believe Roman Catholicism has been such a success in the United States is that operationally it has become a Protestant religion here, when I listened to Catholics being interviewed on television after the priest scandals talking about how “they cared more about their relationship to Jesus” than “the edicts of the Church” it really struck home. Many Jews also mock the Reform as (in the words of John Stewart) “Christians with curly hair,” but again, the introduction of organs and other Protestant motifs and the popularity of personal “spirituality” as opposed to adherence to the norms of halakah suggests to me a definite inward Protestantization of that faith as well. Will Herberg’s Protestant-Catholic-Jew triumvirate was possible in large part, I believe, because the latter two were fast renorming themselves to adhere to mainline Protestant mores.

1 – Please note that there were multiple Reformations (including a Catholic one, what is termed the “Counter Reformation”). To say that the Protestant Reformation resulted in the trend toward disestablishmentarianism is to ignore the reality that in much of Germany and Scandinavia Lutheranism was closely identified with the temporal powers that be, that in Geneva and Scotland Calvinism became the state church (with some bumps in the road in the latter case). Rather, the road to disestablishmentarianism was seeded by the intransigence of groups like Baptists, Quakers and other assorted “Free Thinkers” who simply could not or would not submit themselves to the religious establishment and had abandoned any pretense of universal societal salvation. The difference between the Roman Catholic and Protestant models was not their mode or median, that is, as a whole Protestantism was not more or less predisposed to disestablishmentarianism than Roman Catholicism, but there was far greater variation because of the nature of Protestantism. It could be argued that in many parts of the Roman Catholic world the church was more separate from the state than in parts of the Protestant world (ie; Scandinavia), but for every Denmark you had a Holland.

2 – Many Hindus take pride in the fact that religious minorities like Jews and Parsis came to India to escape persecution, and rightfully so.


  1. what is all the fuss about 
    1. religion – no matter what the denomination is, and always has been a logical absurdity. 
    2. all religions-barring none- always have the last word in terms of what is the one true path. enforcement is a matter of local color but the reality of ” this” being gods word is essentially inviolate. 
    WRT religion any attempt to give a logic to; rationalize; pluralize (i think I just made a new word); legalize conflicting strands ( for secular law is ultimately about an excersize in sequential logic as well) or whatever secular logical institutional etc framework you want to put it within.  
    -will be bound to be inconsistent and impossible.  
    So why bother trying to give a logical frame of reference. Let irt be the way it has always been. a bundle of conflicting information that always requires a slight trickery and deviousness to reconcile.

  2. in addition one could even say that a logical extension of the core beliefs of ANY and all religions could well be a directive to kill or othererwise vanquish or convert – adherents of the OTHER faith. 
    So yes- religious freedom is an absurdity/an oxymoron perhaps.

  3. Razib, 
    There is an ugly situation in Orange County, NY between the locals (of all religions) and the Satmar community, which is an ultra-O Hasidic sect. The latter have lost a slew of cases in the Supreme Court relating to public education. Yet none of the Supreme Court decisions have been upheld because the Satmars just go to the NY State Legislature, which conveniently passes legislation favoring the Satmars. 
    BTW this goes to show that the Supreme Court does NOT rule by judicial fiat. A great case of checks and balances but in this case, an example of corruption of democratic rule of law by an organized group. 
    If this were Muslims, people would be saying that this is the end of civilization.  
    Of course there is a difference–numbers. But the situation is galling for those of us who believe in at least pretending there’s a wall between religion and state.

  4. Of course there is a difference–numbers  
    There is also another difference.

  5. There’s a great Kipling poem on the subject. 
    Whether the State can loose and bind  
    In Heaven as well as on Earth:  
    If it be wiser to kill mankind  
    Before or after the birth–  
    These are matters of high concern  
    Where State-kept schoolmen are;  
    But Holy State (we have lived to learn)  
    Endeth in Holy War.  
    Whether The People be led by The Lord,  
    Or lured by the loudest throat:  
    If it be quicker to die by the sword  
    Or cheaper to die by vote–  
    These are things we have dealt with once,  
    (And they will not rise from their grave)  
    For Holy People, however it runs,  
    Endeth in wholly Slave.  
    Whatsoever, for any cause,  
    Seeketh to take or give  
    Power above or beyond the Laws,  
    Suffer it not to live!  
    Holy State or Holy King–  
    Or Holy People’s Will–  
    Have no truck with the senseless thing.  
    Order the guns and kill!  
    Saying –after–me:–  
    Once there was The People–Terror gave it birth;  
    Once there was The People and it made a Hell of Earth  
    Earth arose and crushed it. Listen, 0 ye slain!  
    Once there was The People–it shall never be again!