Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Lessons on Islam and Democracy from History - Part 2

Lorianne Updike Toler

This morning, a friendly gentleman seated nearby me in a London cafe asked me why, if there was separation between church and state in America, so much of religion infused all aspects of government.

His question highlighted the point I wanted to make here: strong and vibrant religious sentiment and adherence is best facilitated by making it free.  Free to express, and free from state support.

But first let me discuss why this Franco-Angle gentleman saw so much religion in North America, and particularly in governmental emblems and practices.

As I laid out in the first of this blog couplet, the primary reason a national established religion was proscribed in the First Amendment was because religion was locally controlled (and often established, or publically funded) at the state level.  States were not keen to relinquish this control.

Yet a small and persecuted minority in the country thought that establishing religion bespoke its decline.  General assessment bills, an equal-opportunity religious tax, were adopted by a majority of the states once independence from England--and the Anglican Church--was declared in 1776.  Although they would presumably benefit financially from the arrangement, Baptists disdained the tax, deigning they were "not adopted to promote true Piety, but destroy it."  (Petition of 'Several Baptist Associations" August 13, 1785, Library of Congress.) Put otherwise, as James H. Hutson wrote, "the only way [the Baptists saw] to invigorate religion was to let it makes its own way."

Although it is unlikely this philosophy made its way to the halls of Congress and contributed to the reasons why the First Amendment was adopted in its present form, the Baptists of 1785 proved prophetic.

When one looks at America beyond its secular coastlines (yes, that includes looking beyond impractical cultural aberrations common to international misperceptions such as Bay Watch), one will find churches.  Americans by and large are a believing people, with upwards of 83% claiming to belong to a religion,  40% claiming to attend services weekly, and a majority saying religion plays a "very important" role in their lives.  One will also find religious symbology on coins, in plaques, buildings (including the National Cathedral and chapels in public buildings and military complexes), and ubiquitously carved into granite in Washington, DC.  Religious speech will also find its way into public discourse, particularly into presidential speeches.  Office holders are not required to but will often opt to place their left hand on a Bible when taking their oath of office.  Bibles are also frequent for oaths taken in court.  Chaplains and prayers starting the days' work will commence national and state halls of government.

For the Western world, this is unique.  Compare this phenomenon to my current adopted country, the United Kingdom.  Here, according to the 2001 census, only 38% of Britons claimed belief in God.  Church attendance follows.  These numbers are on parallel with fellow Western countries.  And yet, in Britain there is no First Amendment nor proscription on state-established religions. My taxes go towards my local Anglican parish although I belong to another faith.  State sponsorship of religion seemed, over time, to correlate with decreased religious sentiment.

Is there cause and affect here?  Does state sponsorship of religion lessen religious zeal?  I believe that it does.  Providing for its freedom allows more organic urges to take root and prosper.  As the Baptists desired, religion, at least in North America, flourished when made free.  Where it was required, in Europe, it has declined into something resembling a historical relic.

I maintain, as with the first of this blog couplet, that established religions and democracy are not mutually exclusive.  Yet if the Arab world wants to ensure that its people will be the best Muslims, history has demonstrated that religion will take greater hold when disentangled from government.


  1. "Best Muslims" according to whose perspective? American? Egyptian? Saudi? Many Muslims in the Arab world view American Muslims as practicing a lesser form Islam. Under Sharia law,the state and Islam are inseparable. Though the American historical analysis you have provided bodes well with a country supportive of religious pluralism from its genesis, I recommend exploring how to redirect the well established forms of Islam away from the righteous violence traditions and toward peaceful coexistence, which is also present in its sacred text. Without this redirect in interpretation, separating Islam from the state in the very least would seem a sell out to many adherents and at most is probably impossible.

  2. Rayleen - see the first part of this series, and my comment here that democracy does not require separation of Church and State. I only think that religion is protected and supported best when it is not compulsory. It would seem at odds that if the Qa'ran required the state and Islam to be one and the same, that believing Muslims would establish any other government. But is it true that the violent and peaceful parts are both found in the sacred text? Can you choose to follow one and not the other? Perhaps that is my larger question here - if you can choose to emphasize the non-violent portions of the text, can you also de-emphasize the elements which require combination of church and state? I suppose I should read the text first - thoughts?