The Non-Separation of Church & State

Review: Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere, by Craig Martin (Equinox Pub. 2010)

“Separation of church and state.”

It is revealing that this phrase, a shibboleth of sorts, means so many things to so many different people. In law, there are endless arguments over the extent to which government may entangle itself with religion or religious institutions. In politics, there are endless arguments over the extent to which these words should or should not be applied as a matter of policy.

As Craig Martin shows in Masking Hegemony, there is a sense in which all these arguments are beside the point or miss it entirely. While “separation of church and state” is a juridical and political construct that is constantly being negotiated, much of this negotiation is surface and ignores the reality that religious power, in the form of “private” socialization, circulates freely within and through “public” institutions. It is a kind of fiction that serves hidden interests.

Martin begins his analysis of this fiction or “rhetoric” by stating what everyone knows, even if most disagree about its meaning and application:

“Separation of church and state” – and its corollary: proper religion is a private, not a public matter – is one of the sacred cows of American discourse. The public/private and religion/state binaries are taken for granted by almost everyone, even by those who argue that there should not be a separation of church and state (7).

Martin’s thesis is that this rhetoric makes no sense and the sense it does make is superficial. It renders invisible or “masks” the very real ways in which supposedly private-sphere religion influences the public-sphere state. Martin’s goal is to unmask or render visible the genealogy of this rhetoric and explain where it “comes from, how it works, what it accomplishes, and what it obscures” (7). Because intellectual genealogies are a form of debunking, we can surmise that Martin’s project is to expose a fallacy or upset received wisdom. How does he do it?

Martin begins with a sophisticated analysis of the public-private binary which is integral to “separation of church and state.” This binary is rooted in history and can be traced to Luther and Locke. It was Martin Luther (1483-1546) who developed the Augustinian idea that there are two realms: one “spiritual” or religious and the other “temporal” or secular. Having posited the existence of two spheres, Luther argued that church authorities should regulate “private” matters of the (heavenly) soul, whereas governmental authorities should regulate “public” matters of the (earthly) body.

This two spheres doctrine was troubled from the start. It was an ideal prescription rather than actual description. Church authorities have always been convinced that the proper working and maintenance of the public-governmental sphere depended on the proper working and maintenance of the private-religious sphere. While religious leaders paid pragmatic lip service to “separation,” they did not believe that actual separation was workable or desirable. There might be a de jure distinction, but the de facto reality was that the polity rested on a religious foundation.

It was not, however, only church leaders or religious authorities who subscribed to these ideas. That great champion of liberalism, John Locke (1632-1704), did so as well. Like other political theorists of the time, Locke was embedded within the cultural matrix of Christianity and could not envision a political order which did not presuppose a Christianized “natural religion.” Martin dissects the “toleration” which Locke famously championed and concludes it is limited in scope: “In sum, for Locke the only way in which societies would be able to create the conditions for civil order or public welfare would be to habituate Christian moral norms into all citizens from childhood” (44). The lesson to be drawn from Christian-on-Christian violence engendered by the Reformation was not that the state and religion should be wholly separate; it was that the identity of the state should be separate from Christian factionalism and specific kinds of Christian institutions.

Translating this limited separation into liberal political theory required considerable discursive skill, which Locke certainly possessed. By closely attending to Locke’s maneuvers, Martin shows how Locke’s liberalism “contributed to making the invisible the continuing authority of Christian ideology for the state” and notes the effect: “Although it eventually came about that there occurred a separation of ‘religion’ from the ‘state’ at the top levels (insofar as ecclesiastical orders no longer had control of kings and vice versa), the ‘visible church’ was clearly active in socializing the bodies of citizens and magistrates with Christian ideology” (54).

So while the rhetorical relationship between the state and the visible church changed over time and due to Locke’s efforts, the underlying reality remained the same: “at no point did Christian ideology cease to be a foundation and justification for the shape of the public order” (55). This is not, however, to say there is no kind of separation: “My intention is not to argue that the discourse of separation does no work of any sort; I merely want to argue that there is not, in fact, a separation, and I want to explain precisely how channels of power reach from so-called ‘private’ institutions into ‘public’ ones” (55).

Although Martin’s arguments revolve around European political history and theory, American readers will immediately recognize their relevance to current debates. Liberals and progressives might feel more than a bit queasy to realize that a favorite argument made by some on the right – that the United States is a Christian nation – has more truth to it than might be admitted. This truth, however, is deeper and older than stale arguments about the Founders, whether they were Christians, and whether Christian ideas are embedded in the Constitution. The irony here is that those same people on the right – the ones who argue that “separation of church and state” is not found in the Constitution and therefore is illegitimate – fail to understand what they gain by it: “The separation of church and state discourse did not separate the state from churches, but assisted in making their imbrication largely invisible” (90).

It is, according to Martin, naïve to think that people who are socialized as Christians by families and churches in the private sphere somehow shed this socialization when they participate in the public sphere. Christian ideas cultivated in private have profound impacts on ideas espoused in public. The difference is that “private” Christian ideas can be explicitly stated, whereas “public” Christian ideas are – out of respect for the separation shibboleth – implicitly acknowledged as being the natural order of things. Separation rhetoric thus masks the hegemony of Christian socialization and the effects wrought by this dominance:

Groups that achieve a hegemonic status are more capable of serving their desires and interests than other groups, often because they are capable of presenting their identity markers, behaviors, and discourses or ideologies as ‘normal,’ thereby instituting a regime of privileges that benefits their own group over others (161).

The strength of Martin’s book is to show how this hegemony arose (as a matter of history) and how it works (as a matter of rhetoric and theory). By the end, we are left with the distinct impression that Martin is right – on historical, rhetorical, and theoretical grounds – but are left wondering how all this plays out in the real world. Americans will of course sense that it does. Those of us who live in a highly religious and staunchly Christian culture are continuously aware of the ways in which that worldview shapes the parameters of public debate and understanding, even if we haven’t given much thought to how separation rhetoric and law conceal the true power of these ideas.

If there is a weakness to Masking Hegemony, it is that it ends. In another or ideal next book, we would be treated to an empirical exploration of the “private” institutions responsible for hegemonic or Christian socialization. We would then look at the specific ways in which ostensibly private religious socialization plays itself out in public or “secular” arenas. We would find (by examining a series of debates on education, taxes, abortion, euthanasia, marriage, etc.) that despite all the legal and rhetorical lip service paid to separation of church and state, there is much less separation than supposed. For conservatives this will be good news but for progressives the tidings are less glad.

Masking Hegemony cuts across several disciplines and should appeal to a wide audience, including those studying religion, political philosophy, history, anthropology, and sociology. One audience, in particular, should read it: those who study and practice law. Perhaps no group would benefit more from arriving at a deeper understanding of the ways in which “separation of church and state” masks an underlying reality that is constituted and negotiated to serve certain interests.

Despite what law students are taught or attorneys and judges may believe, Establishment Clause jurisprudence is not played out in a pristine legal vacuum; it takes place within a loaded cultural matrix. Frankly acknowledging this rather than pretending otherwise is an essential first step toward intellectual honesty and integrity.

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