Separation of church and state

The final scene of Animal Farm really has legs. As it’s replayed yet again with yet another cast, we see the features of the reactionary self-appointed gatekeepers of Christian doctrine blur into those of the reactionary self-appointed gatekeepers of Islam as they all collapse the idea of morality into suppressing sex by anyone not married to a person of the opposite sex. This dinner party, of course, has only men at the table, and as we watch, appalled, through the steamy window, we can smell the incense of misogyny…and another distinctive smell…where have we encountered it before…locker rooms and boardrooms! It’s the smell of fear of sexual inadequacy and rejection, a sweaty aroma that arises when groups of men trap themselves into showing each other how manly they are while each secretly obsesses that he’s not the stud everyone else seems to be. And there is so much to fear; the young guys tomcatting around with women who won’t give you a tumble, and coming up the ladder behind you; women doing their own thinking and choosing and maybe not choosing you; gay men everywhere ready to infect you with homosexuality or (gasp) make you look at yours in the light…life is pretty terrifying if you let up even for a minute.

Motivated by the nightmare of letting any of these crackpots get control of a government, I sense a moment to reflect on why separation of church and state is such a good idea.

It’s a good idea for all the churches that don’t get established by the civil power, of course, for obvious reasons. However, if you’re a member of a majority confession (or a smaller one that can pull off some sort of coup) and your church’s doctrine is that it’s the only true one, and that all the others are blasphemous, infidel, schismatic, infernal, or even just wrong, …

this argument doesn’t have much weight, at least at a first look. It’s philosophically not so easy to get out of a circle of certainty that has God in it, and no inlet for evidence and data of the mundane variety.

Wise heads in mainstream religions have nevertheless recognized that if you take over the state, the embrace will be mutual, and this is not what your prophet had in mind. In the end, it is always the state that has the guns. Cranmer and Wolsey figured this out very late, More saw it from the start. Still, the illusion that a pope or imam will be able to direct the armies and minions of the king to the Lord’s work has never ceased to get religious leaders in big trouble, both theological and practical.

What separation is really good for is the state, despite the king’s symmetric illusion that he will be in solid shape if he can line up an established church as a ministry. Politically, establishment can be a good short-term deal at least as long as the arrangement holds (Spain 1936-75); in a democracy, when the church picks parties, things get unravelled much more quickly (Spain thereafter). But from a long-term perspective, or considering what is really good for society, separation is the way to go for all concerned: what Thomas Becket knew and Henry II didn’t. What religion provides to the state, if it can keep its distance, is a moral compass and a source of guidance insulated from the lure of a seductive quick policy hit, or an infatuation with Anne Boleyn, or a lech for a rose petal parade in Baghdad.

It’s extremely difficult for a ruler to get good counsel. To take it, you have to have trust and confidence in the counselor, and you have to be able hear what’s said. Trust goes to the counselor’s commitment to your success and welfare, confidence to his competence and judgment. Unfortunately, they don’t match up, because counselors are usually desperate to assure the boss’ tenure in office: if Bush isn’t president, what’s Rove? How is Lady Macbeth supposed to be queen if hubby doesn’t do what she needs him to do? Nathan, on the other hand, was a prophet whether or not David was king. One of the most destructive illusions for the powerful is that the worst thing you can lose is your job, and the lieutenants of the mighty can rarely see past their own interest to how wrong this is. So outside counsel is indispensable.

Institutional guidance from a church or something like it, unlike the sort of thing yr. obdt. svt. always hopes someone important will pick up from Paul Krugman or even this blog, comes with an inertial flywheel and an increasingly long memory that goes back across generations. This is what religious institutions have that not only Bill O’Reilly but also Krugman and even your favorite bloggers don’t (though science, including social science, is pretty strong on this dimension). Does any of this give religious guidance absolute authority? Is it always right? Of course not. But the whole idea of learning is to engage with a lot of different stuff, not to precensor the input stream (even if it has to be sampled to limit the flux to available bandwidth).

What More and Becket understood, I think, is that they were doing not only their popes and their churches, but also their sovereigns, a big service, big enough to die for (of course, they also understood that a life, like a job, is also not the worst thing to lose before you intended – T.S. Eliot gives Becket the immortal line, “I am not in danger, only near to death”). It’s not an accident that the robes professors wear to claim dispassionate and disinterested status in the truth and wisdom business are (literally) ecclesiastical in origin.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.