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The Myth of Religious Violence

Church and State

One of the enduring myths of the secular state is that religion is so dangerous, so volatile, so likely to burst into conflagrations of violence, that the only protection we have from societal destruction is the erection of a wall that separates religion from the state.

We've all heard the story, and in fact, having also heard endless tales of horror about the great religious wars—especially the French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years War—we might be strongly inclined to believe the myth.

Even my calling it a myth seems out of place. Isn't it true—in fact, a truism—that wherever religion and politics mix, it is like gasoline and a match? Isn't that what history teaches us?

No. History actually teaches us two things.

First, as William Cavanaugh so powerfully argues in his Myth of Religious Violence, when we take a closer look at the 16th and 17th century wars of religion we find that differences between Catholics and Protestants, and Protestants and other Protestants, were secondary to the aims of the emerging nation-states and various political and dynastic intrigues. Simply put, the main cause of these wars was political, not religious.

How can that be? If religious differences were the main cause of these bloody conflicts, Cavanaugh maintains, then we would expect to find that they were invariably fought along neat denominational lines. What we actually find is Catholic emperors attacking popes, Catholic French kings attacking Catholic emperors, Protestant kings and princes siding with Catholic kings against other Protestants, Lutheran and Catholic kings uniting against Catholic emperors, Protestant Huguenot nobles and Catholic nobles in France uniting against both Catholic and Protestant Huguenot commoners who likewise united against the nobles, Protestant and Catholic nobles in France uniting against their Catholic king, Protestants rejecting the Protestant Union (the coalition of German Protestant states) even while some Catholics were siding with it, Lutheran princes adamantly supporting the rights of a Catholic emperor, Catholic France supporting Protestant princes in Germany, the Dutch Calvinists helping the Catholic king to repress uprisings of French Calvinists, a Lutheran leading the Catholic imperial army, and mercenaries of every religious stripe selling themselves to the highest Catholic or Protestant bidder.

And that is only a very quick overview of the examples provided, at great length, by Cavanaugh. A careful, unbiased study of the so-called religious wars yields the rather surprising result that they were not religious wars. They were political wars that both ignored religious differences when the more important political aims demanded either cooperation with religious opponents or antagonism to those sharing the same religious beliefs, and used religious differences when they would serve political purposes.

That's the first history lesson. The second is equally important, and related to the first. As Cavanaugh makes equally clear, the secular state needed (and still needs) people to believe the story that religion is the cause of violence because this belief allows for the actual creation of the secular state. The secular state is what emerges when religion is forcibly removed from the public square through the powers of the state. The myth of religious violence justifies the removal of religion, and it is through that very removal that the state achieves secularization.

This can be seen, argues Cavanaugh, in the landmark Supreme Court case Everson v. Board of Education (1947) that interpreted the Establishment Clause as demanding (in Justice Hugo Black's words, borrowed in turn from Thomas Jefferson) the erection of "a wall of separation between church and State."

As other legal historians have shown, Jefferson's words had little or no legal effect prior to Everson. American jurisprudence was defined by the notion of cooperation between the church and state because there was general agreement that the state needed the moral and religious support provided by the church.

But by the mid-twentieth century, secularism had taken hold of the intelligentsia and, through university education, had formed the mindset of legal scholars and jurists. They were formed by the Enlightenment myth that religion was a negative presence that, for the sake of human progress, needed to be eliminated for the sake of peace. A sign of this (as everyone believed) was the horrible atrocities of the religious wars.

So it was that Justice Hugo Black, in his majority opinion, used that notion that religious violence in Europe was the defining reason why the American founders had written the First Amendment's Establishment Clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;..."

As proof, Black invoked Jefferson's famous words from a letter of 1802 written to the Danbury Baptists, wherein Jefferson remarks, "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State." So, Black ended his opinion with the flourish: "The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable."

For Black, and especially for those secular-minded justices using the reasoning of Everson thereafter, the specter of religious violence demanded the secularization of politics. So it was that, since 1947, Everson has been used to stop Bible reading and prayer in public schools, deny Christian groups access to public school and public university buildings, justify the removal of nativity scenes from public squares and Ten Commandment plaques from judicial buildings, and (unsuccessfully) to remove "In God We Trust" from coins.

In short, Everson has become an instrument for state-sanctioned secularization. It has effected the emergence of a truly secular state precisely through the active separation of the church from the state and the erection of a wall of separation. Historically, this active separation, and wall, created the secular state where one did not exist before. And I think I need to add (to capture the full irony of its use of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause), this active separation establishes a secular state, using federal power to transform America from a Judeo-Christian culture to a secular culture.

Now you see the connection between the first history lesson and the second. If the notion that religion is the main cause of bloody conflict is a myth, and the so-called religious wars were actually fueled by political ambition, then the alleged pressing need to erect an impregnable wall of separation between church and state, collapses as well. What, then, is the justification for the secularized state?
Originally posted at To the Source. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Patheos)

Dr. Benjamin Wiker

Written by

Dr. Benjamin Wiker is, first of all, a husband and a father of seven children. He graduated from Furman University with a B.A. in Political Philosophy. He has an M.A. in Religion and a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics, both from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Wiker taught full time for thirteen years, first at Marquette University, then St. Mary's University (MN), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and finally Franciscan University (OH). During these many years, he offered a wide variety of courses in philosophy, theology, history, the history and philosophy of science, the history of ethics, the Great Books, Latin, and even mathematics. He is now a full-time writer and speaker, with eleven books published including 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn't Help (Regnery, 2008); The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Regnery, 2009); and Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God (Emmaus Road, 2008). Some of Benjamin's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Follow Dr. Wiker at BenjaminWiker.com.

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  • Steven Dillon

    Whether a secularized state is justified will depend on whether any state at all is justified.

    I mean, really, why not have a stateless society? For instance, one which did not eliminate the functions of the state but privatized them? (Imagine buying a 'security' package along with satellite).

    Folks will say the state is necessary for protection, viable economy, or other such goods. But, what they will not say is that the state should be religious in order to secure these goods.

    • Mainly because, 95% of what a state does isn't profitable enough to privatize.

      States make bad businesses.

    • Martin Sellers

      " But, what they will not say is that the state should be religious in order to secure these goods."

      Why is this?

  • Separation of church and state isn't a bad thing… Matt 22:21 is often used as the justification for it.

    It is taken to the extreme by some, especially those who do not like religion and would like it to be taken out of the public discourse all together. The point Wiker makes about politics and other factors usually being the main motivator behind conflict is true. When religion suits a particular political agenda, it is emphasized and when it doesn't suit the agenda, it is often ignored. Religion often ends up taking the blame though.

  • It is clear that religious differences are by no means necessary to drive war or violence. I can certainly entertain the argument that the role of religion has been exaggerated with respect to wars in the 16th and 17th century. I would be happy to defer to historians on this for the purposes of this dialogue. All that is being alleged here is that the issue of religious difference was secondary. Even if it was, it is still a cause.

    I have a hard time imagining that religion played no role in the "wars of religion". My understanding is that there was a very great and well-founded fear by large Catholic populations that a protestant monarchy would outlaw their religion and that this was a very powerful tool in, at minimum, getting people to fight on your side, even if the causes relevant to the ruling class were political or cultural.

    I have an extremely hard time in imagining that religion never causes violence. That it played no role in the Crusades, the various Inquisitions, the attacks of September 11, 2001, the attacks we are currently witnessing in Nigeria and so on. I think it plays a role when people kill their children during exorcisms or deprive them of medicine because they believe God will heal them. These are harms the harms which I think it is reasonable to accept religion or faith as a primary cause and it is why I am interested in this discussion in the first place.

    • "I have a hard time imagining that religion played no role in the 'wars of religion'."

      Agreed. With that said, what political, philosophical, or religious ideology cannot potentially lead to violence?

      • Pacifism.

        • Highly doubtful. There are various degrees of pacifism


          A conditional pacifist could potentially become extremely violent under certain circumstances or given certain ideological persuasions (e.g., I'm against all forms of violence, but to stop more violence from occurring, we need to get rid of…).

          While I'm sure there are absolute pacifists out there who would actually do what pacifism is supposed to do, there are individuals out there who could just as easily use pacifism to justify violence.

          • Ok, then no, I would not say there is no political, philosophical, or religious ideology cannot potentially lead to violence. What is your point?

          • Some seem to believe that religion is more likely to bring about violence than other systems of belief such as political and philosophical ideologies. The only thing I was trying to point out was that there really isn't any system of belief/ideology that cannot be used to promote violence. That is sometimes lost during conversations concerning bloodshed that has occurred in the name of religion.

          • And I will point out that despite several thousand years of preparing the Jews for his message and then 2000 years of it getting to the rest of the world, Christians repeatedly take up the sword and slaughter the enemies that they believe god has instructed them to love. I mean no one would suggest that religion was the cause of Henry V's campaigns in France, but he was devoutly Catholic. Even Shakespeare had him say, upon killing 10,000 French with the longbow, that God fought with us.

            Sure any ideology, including motherhood can lead to terrible violence. Religion seems to be, at best neutral on average to causation or prevention of war.

            You have to keep in mind that for atheists, religion is dispensable. If it is causing any violence, we see this violence as gratuitous. Politics, ideology etc are not so dispensable, in my view.

          • Yes, I understand that religion is dispensable to atheists.

            Considering that we agree that any ideology can lead to violence, the idea that violence has been conducted in the name of a certain ideology is not a sufficient enough rationale to reject that particular ideology, including a religious one. I think politics takes much more of the blame in regards to violence in this world than religion, and I believe history would show this (e.g., Much of bloodshed brought about by Charlemagne to spread Christianity was very much tainted by significant political ambition). If one were to follow the logic you were using, then one should reject politics because much of the violence that has been brought about by politics has also been gratuitous. Rejecting politics of course is unwise, because whether one likes it or not, politics has a very profound effect upon the individual and society.

            You have to keep in mind that in the mind of many theists, the idea that saying religion/spirituality is dispensable is like saying politics is dispensable. One can reject politics, be ignorant of politics, and have never stepped inside of a polling booth, but at the end of the day politics has a very profound effect on the individual's life. Likewise, one can reject religion, be ignorant of religion, and have never stepped inside of a church/synagogue/mosque/etc., but religion/spirituality has a profound effect on the individual's life. I would not expect an atheist to agree with this idea, but telling a theist that religion is dispensable is like saying politics is dispensable.

          • I understand all of that. And I would likely agree that religion is necessary if a god existed. I would hope that, if you did not believe any gods existed, you would share my view that religion is dispensable therefore not worth the risk of the harms it causes.

            End of the day, my concern with the piece was that it seemed to imply to me that religion never causes war or violence. I am gratified that you share my view that this is not the case.

            I am happy to confirm that it is not my position that secularism is a good idea only because I think it will reduce the harms caused by religion. Even if it could be proven that religion caused no violence I still would want governments to be secular.

          • Very nice discussion. Do take care Brian :)

          • Religion is still necessary even when God doesn't exist- which is why the Soviet Union was so bloody.

          • And why the US is so peaceful. And Nigeria. And so on.

          • Which is why I'm more for Augustine's definition of a Just War than the modern one. The modern one can be used to justify wars of aggression and invasion. Augustine's definition can only be used, at best, to justify holding the city wall against a siege by an army that doesn't follow the same rules.

            I was surprised (since I had only paid attention to Augustine's theology, not his life) to recently learn that is exactly what the city of Hippo was doing when Augustine died.

          • Not sure what you think the modern definition of just war is. International law says the use of state force is only legal in self defence and the Rome treaty outlaws aggression. Of course the US doesn't need to bother with such things.

          • Current just war theory has four strict rules:
            - the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

            - all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

            - there must be serious prospects of success;

            - the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated (the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition).

            But the more primitive Augustinian Just War theory, had three strict rules:
            - War must be conducted in your own territory against an aggressor
            - You must not invade your enemy's territory in revenge
            - You must show love to your enemy by using tactics that are as dangerous to your own people as to the enemy.

            While the current version shows a good deal more nuance- I find it interesting to say the least that the Augustinian version would lead to significantly less war if universally practiced; and more horrific war when it fails (a good point is on weapons of mass destruction- under the Augustinian version, an argument can be made for repelling an invading army by sacrificing the lives of your own civilians in border cities along their route- which modern just war theory would not allow).

        • Martin Sellers

          I would attest that Christ taught pacifism.

          • I tend to agree for the most part, though in teaching pacifism one might decline to say "do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Matt10:34

            But the question raised by this piece was whether the religions created in his name have played a causal role in at least some wars and violence. I would attest that they did. At a very minimum you must agree that for centuries the crusades, the inquisition and wars pitting Catholics against Catholics or Protestants or pagans, that Christians of all sects thought they were fulfilling god's work and that he would agree their war was just. Such a view is incompatible with pacifism.

          • Martin Sellers

            "I tend to agree for the most part, though in teaching pacifism one might decline to say "do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Matt10:34
            - I think Jesus (understanding human nature very well) is speaking as a realist, indicating what is likely to occur as a result of his message, not necessarily what should occur as a result.

            "But the question raised by this piece was whether the religions created in his name have played a causal role in at least some wars and violence"

            I don't think that is the authors point. I think the author is simply trying to dispel the notion that religion inherently causes violence. He is trying to do away with the misnomer that religion was the sole cause of medieval war and suffering. From some of your other posts, it seems that you agree.

    • Jakeithus

      I think it's over reaching to say there is or has been no connection between religion and violence, but I don't think the article is making that claim.

      Religion, politics, culture, philosophy, economics...all of these play a role in the organized violence we see past and present. The idea that the Secular State will "save" us from this violence is a myth with it's own potential for danger.

  • David Ondich

    Even the early relations between Moslems and Christians were political- the Moslem Moors were invited into Spain by a Christian prince as allies in his struggle against his brother for the throne; Charlemagne was invited into Spain by the emir of Barcelona (I think) as an ally against his rival emir in Cordova-I may have mixed the cities. In the First Crusade, there were 4 major players with different levels of cooperation: Latin Christians, Greek Christians, Turkish Moslems and Egyptian Moslems. The hostile rivalries between the Christians are probably better know to the West than the hostile relations between the Moslems: the Egyptions took advantage of the weakened Turkish presence in Palestine and successfully occupied Jerusalem from the Turks; when The Latin Crusaders in turn conquered Jerusalem they found letters documenting the behind-the-
    scene peace negotiations between the Greek Christians and the Egyptians, in which the Greeks explicitly distanced themselves from the Crusaders.

  • My understanding of secularism is that it is being neutral on questions of religion, faith or theology and that no decision may be justified on these grounds. Being secular is not being atheist. It is not an institution saying there is or isn't a god, it is saying such issues are irrelevant to our policy. For governments in free societies, I think secularism is a must. In the United States this means that no, you cannot chose to erect a monument on public ground (use public resources) for one religion or religious perspective and exclude others, you can allow all, or none. You cannot force students to pray, but you cannot stop them either.

    Religious speech is not banned in public or in government or in schools in the US. And secularism is not premised or need not be premised on a nexus between religion and violence.

  • David Nickol

    using federal power to transform America from a Judeo-Christian culture to a secular culture . . . .

    First, it would be interesting to explore why so many Christians say Judeo-Christian when Christian would be more appropriate. None of the Founding Fathers were Jews. There has never been a Jewish president. There has never even been a Jewish candidate for president. No Jew sat on the Supreme Court until the early 20th century. It is not Jews who insist copies of the Ten Commandments must be put up in government buildings. In 2012, the FBI's Hate Crime Statistics show that 59.7 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes were anti-Jewish. (Note that Jews make up only about 2.1 of the US population.) Here's the complete list:

    • 59.7 percent were anti-Jewish.
    • 12.8 percent were anti-Islamic.
    • 7.6 percent were anti-multiple religions, group.
    • 6.8 percent were anti-Catholic.
    • 2.9 percent were anti-Protestant.
    • 1.0 percent were anti-Atheism/Agnosticism/etc.
    • 9. 2 percent were anti-other (unspecified) religion.

    Second, even aggressive pursuit of separation of church and state is not about creating a secular culture. It is about creating a secular government.

    Third, it should come as no surprise that country to which many of the original inhabitants had fled for religious freedom, that freedom would be important. What Everson v. Board of Education did was begin the process of incorporation, making the Bill of Rights applicable to the states. Unless one disagrees with the principles embodied in the Bill of Rights, one ought to see this as a positive thing. (Think of it as analogous to the "development of doctrine" in Catholicism.)

    especially the French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years War

    It seems to me there is a long, long way to go in denying a connection between religion and violence even if it was the case that French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years War had nothing to do with religion.

    • "Second, even aggressive pursuit of separation of church and state is not about creating a secular culture. It is about creating a secular government."

      What would you say about Aristotle's thoughts on statecraft being soul craft? Doesn't the government have a very large role in the development of what the culture deems to be right and wrong? I believe that while one cannot legislate morality, one can implement policies that significantly impact what a large portion of the population believes to be moral or immoral.

      • David Nickol

        What would you say about Aristotle's thoughts on statecraft being soul craft?

        Cathleen Kaveny, law professor at Notre Dame and contributor to dotCommonweal and Commonweal Magazine, has pointed out that there are two views of the function of law—law as teacher of virtue, and law as keeper of order. I believe she has said that a great many conflicts about what the law ought to do are, at bottom, disagreements of those two different views of law. I think probably few people are consistent about how their viewpoint on law ought to be realized in actual lawmaking.

        But it seems to me that law should be about maintaining order and, if it is to teach virtue, it ought to confine itself to universally applicable principles. It ought not to teach what white, upper-class, rich Christians men think of as virtue but black, middle-class, churchgoing Protestants do not. It ought not to teach Christianity to Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists. It ought not try to eradicate religion from the society or culture, but it ought to make sure that people of all religions have religious freedom under the law. And it ought to do this reasonably, so that members of each religion (and members of no religion) have to obey, as far as possible, the same laws. There is always going to be tension between religion and government, just as there is always tension between government and citizens over all the rights in the Bill of Rights. But what many of us think is great about America is that it welcomes everyone, and those who are not Christians should not be made to feel as if they are second-class citizens.

    • TomD

      ". . . it would be interesting to explore why so many Christians say Judeo-Christian when Christian would be more appropriate."

      Jesus was Jewish. So were Joseph and Mary. So were the twelve apostles. So was every writer of the New Testament except Luke, who was probably a Syrian Gentile. The Old Testament, which within Roman Catholic tradition is based on the content of the Septuagint, is fully considered part of Sacred Scripture. The Ten Commandments is an integral part of Christian morality and ethics. Thus the direct link between OT Judaism and NT Christianity. I could go on and on, but won't.

      And historical examples notwithstanding, to be anti-Semitic is ultimately to be un-Christian.

      • David Nickol

        Jesus was Jewish.


        I could go on and on, but won't.

        It is fortunate that you stopped, because you weren't answering the question. Judeo-Christian does not mean Christian. It means "Jewish and Christian." The use of Judeo-Christian is really quite recent, and the reasons for it are not readily apparent—at least, not to me. But I think among the many explanations of why Judeo-Christian became popular (particularly since the 1990s), two we can rule out are that Jesus was Jewish and that Mary and Joseph were Jewish. Those facts did not prevent Christianity from being laced with anti-Semitism for almost 2000 years. The fact that Jesus was a Jew did not prevent the old online Catholic Encyclopedia from saying in 1912, "Church legislation against Jewish holding of Christian slaves can be easily understood: as members of Christ, the children of the Church should evidently not be subjected to the power of His enemies. . . . " Who were the Jews to Catholics in 1912? The enemies of Christ.

        • TomD

          Judeo-Christian . . . Jewish and Christian. Reread my response to you. Isn't that what I said?

          Yes, David, there have been many Christians who were anti-Semites. Martin Luther, if I remember, wrote some very anti-Semitic things. The Gospel of John, when improperly interpreted, concerning "the Jews," has been used in an anti-Semitic manner. Thankfully, we don't live in 1912 . . . and I don't feel the need to apologize for or address specific issues from the past, especially being unfamiliar with the specific context. This much is true, anything that was said or done to invoke anti-Semitism was wrong.

          It is clear from Scripture that, to Christians, Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish prophesy . . . Judaism AND Christianity linked . . . thus Judeo-Christian. And let there be no doubt, to be anti-Semitic is to be un-Christian.

          And, actually, I have encountered those who claim to be Christians who, when I have pointed out that Jesus was Jewish after I detect at bit of anti-Semitism from them, look at me with great confusion. Hard to believe, but true.

    • TomD

      "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . " FIRST AMENDMENT TO THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES

      The controversies regarding incorporation aside, there is a long, long way from these very specific words in the Constitution to the prohibition of prayer at a high school graduation ceremony, for example. And the modern rulings of the US Supreme Court notwithstanding, it was the intent of the founders to prevent the legal formation (establishment) of a national religion, not to prohibit free religious expression by the people, even if done within a governmental context, such as "In God We Trust" displayed in a courtroom.

      The founders would not have seen the expression of religion and religious belief, even within a governmental context, as necessarily being incompatible with the Constitution; only certain modern minds see it that way.

      Having said this, five US Supreme Court justices can define the law anyway they see fit, and it has the force of law. Even if they are wrong.

      • David Nickol

        The controversies regarding incorporation aside, there is a long, long way from these very specific words in the Constitution to the prohibition of prayer at a high school graduation ceremony, for example.

        There are 225 years' worth of Supreme Court rulings (and rulings of other federal courts) we must look to for guidance in interpreting the Bill of Rights, so it is no surprise that those few very specific words can't be read to mean something incredibly simple. It is still being debated what constitutes an "establishment of religion" and what constitutes "free exercise," and the meanings will never be pinned down so a machine can decide First Amendment cases.

        The founders would not have seen the expression of religion and religious belief, even within a governmental context, as necessarily being incompatible with the Constitution; only certain modern minds see it that way.

        How do you know what any of the Founders would say if they were brought back to life and studied the past 200 years of American history and jurisprudence? It is impossible to know how the Founding Fathers would interpret the constitution as we have it today. The Founders could not have predicted the 14th Amendment, which is critical to the incorporation of the Bill of Rights and its application to the states.

        • TomD

          David, it is impossible to respond to you on this thread in a manner that gives the complexity of this issue its proper consideration. But I will say this. The founders knew pretty well what they meant by an "establishment of religion." Judges, in the modern era, have twisted that meaning well beyond anything that would have been recognizable to them. And as to the intent and correct interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment . . .

          And, in a sense, it is all moot anyway. The Constitution literally means what as few as five US Supreme Court justices says it means, no matter what you or I might say. And whether they are right or not.

          • David Nickol

            Judges, in the modern era, have twisted that meaning well beyond anything that would have been recognizable to them.

            That is an opinion, not a fact. As I said before, you can't possibly know how the Founding Fathers, if brought back to life today, would interpret the Constitution and 225 years of ensuing jurisprudence. What you are actually saying is that you do not like the direction the Supreme Court has taken, and your are invoking the Founding Fathers in order to associate your opinion with them. Also, Jefferson was one of the Founding Fathers, and it is his idea of the "wall of separation between church and state that we are discussing." Are you saying that Jefferson would disapprove of today's legal interpretations of separation of church and state?

            From where I stand (to the left of center) it looks to me that the Supreme Court has been moving ever more to the right, with all the Chief Justices having been appointed by Republican presidents since 1954, although the sharp turn right should probably be dated as beginning in 1986 with the appointment of Rhenquist. Exactly why conservatives are so unhappy is a mystery to me.

            And, in a sense, it is all moot anyway. The Constitution literally means what as few as five US Supreme Court justices says it means, no matter what you or I might say.

            I am extremely thankful we have the system we do, and I do not question for one second the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. Much as I disagree with many decisions, and negatively as I feel about some of the personalities on the Court, I believe they are all trying their best to do what they were appointed to do—interpret the Constitution as best they understand it, not make their own laws.

          • TomD

            We all have opinions. Very few of us can lay exclusive claim to the "facts."

            I can't begin to respond, on this thread, to all your points, and your characterizations of what I have written. We will have to end the discussion here.

    • Raphael

      How many of America's Founding Fathers were atheists?

      • David Nickol

        How many of America's Founding Fathers were atheists?

        Benjamin Franklin might be considered an atheist, but he is the only one that I know of. What is your point, though?

        • Raphael

          I haven't made a point. I just asked a question. How many presidents were atheists?

  • Gordon Reid

    The history of the Mayflower and the pilgrims to America begins with their persecution by a state religion in England. The pilgrims left England in order to freely practice their religion without interference from a sectarian state. Quakers in America originally went to the pilgrim towns in New England to spread the message of their religion and discovered they were put into jail by the pilgrims. The New England pilgrims used their sectarian state to persecute Quakers because of sectarian differences. The very nature of the founding of America was a demonstration that sectarian government does not permit free expression of religion. I accept your argument that if you don't have a sectarian state, you by definition have a secular state. I reject your implied argument that a sectarian state somehow prevents religion from providing a positive influence on society. The danger of a sectarian state is clearly demonstrated and casual to the founding of America. The danger of a secular state is not similarly demonstrable.

    • fredx2

      A secular government that allows free exercise of religon is wonderful.
      A seculart goverment that tries to impose its beliefs on believers, or restrict religious belief is horrible.
      Remember that the Soviet government was "secular". So there are dangers, depending on what kind of secular state you have.

      • Gordon Reid

        I agree with you about the two kinds of secular governments...a good kind and a bad kind. It should be possible to have a good sectarian government versus the bad examples most often pointed to. England right now is sectarian in their constitution even though it seems to be more secular in operation. This may be what is required for there to be a good sectarian government in the sense of not restricting religious belief. As for the Soviet government (and dare I say Hitler), it can be argued that these government were sectarian based on the ideology of Stalin is God and Hitler is God.

      • The Soviet government was not just secular, it was anti-religion, these are NOT the same thing. Governments should be neutral on religion. They should not prefer religions by erecting monuments to only one or a few religions. They should not require students to say the prayer of one religion in schools nor should they prohibit prayer in schools. They should not allow teachers to bully students of other religions and "the Lord" should not be an answer on a science test!


  • Danny Getchell

    An article written for a Christian website in June 2012, and which consists largely of references to a book which will cost me forty-one bucks if I want to read it.


    • Tara

      Serious research and presentation of the facts costs money to produce and deseminate. Whether written by a Christian or anyone else.

  • Casey Braden

    While I guess state sponsored violence could potentially be a reason for supporting the separation of church and state, I don't think this is the primary motivation for most secularists.

    I think that most of us would value the fact that the first amendment guarantees us the freedom of religion. As an atheist, I place great value on the fact that I can not be forced to ascribe to any religious beliefs, nor engage in religious activities (at least theoretically). I would also imagine that Catholics would value this because they are free to practice the tenants of their faith without interference from the government. I see the separation of church and state as the only way that this freedom can truly be preserved. Otherwise, those in the majority could potentially use the government to force others to adhere to their belief system. Also, if the government is endorsing specific religious beliefs, it is disenfranchising all those who do not share those beliefs. For me and for most secularists I know, the threat that religion could lead to state sponsored violence is a non-issue. I just don't see that happening in the US. Call me naive.

    • Alden Smith

      You are not naive as a Christian I don't that would happen either.

  • Mike

    I would like to agree with much of what has been said already. It seems like there is some broad agreement about what the government should or shouldn't compel from it's citizens.

    However, I would like to make a distinction between society and government. In my experience people tend to use them interchangeably, but I prefer to think of them as distinct. Do I want the government to support a particular religion? NO. Do I think the broader society should be secular? Again, no. I think that a society can decide for itself what religion, if any, to which it will adhere. Now I'm obviously biased and prefer a society matching my religious convictions, beliefs, and values. I would think many others would want the same, be it other religious backgrounds or lack of religious backgrounds.

    Now I also don't think religion should be a privatized notion either (nor atheism for that matter) but think they should be open for society to consider. I would hold the same for other things a society should consider, including the role of government, family, the values to which is subscribes etc.

    There were several posts about prayer in schools, which made me think of a link between this concept and the evolution/creationism/intelligent design discussion from last week. I think many people within the US perceived that when compulsory prayer was removed from public schools, etc that their religion was under attack, and there were several supreme court rulings (I think) that progressively marginalized religion in public schools. As a result those individuals tried to put God back in school, see the "teach the controversy" or "intelligent design" movements. Instead I think we should widen our gaze of what we should consider society, and realize that both religion (whatever variety) or lack there-of isn't limited to the government, or other public entities.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      When you make the distinction between government and society do you really mean between government and civic organizations?

      • Mike

        Civic organizations such as, for example, the Boy scouts, or Lions Club? Are you thinking of other examples?

  • M J

    You don't mention Islam, but I suppose you'd point to many of the Islamic Magistrates are against the violence in Syria, Egypt, and other places.... I agree that most wars are rooted in state interest, but surely religion has been used for violence... yet even so, if you look at sub-cultures and violence in communal societies, we see violence at an alarming rate being beyond religious influences, rather tribal... like gang violence, and the mafioso

  • Moussa Taouk

    Is this article speaking specifically about Christianity or about about religion in general? I think that to address the question of whether religion is a key factor that leads to war, one must look to the source or official teachings of that religious tradition. I think that Islam for example has some difficulties justifying the view that terrorism is evil or that the spread of Islam was NOT due to their religion's teachings. Ofcourse politics features in the picture, but with Islam as I understand it, politics and religion are very much intertwined.

    • Alden Smith

      Only about 7 percent of wars were inherently religious in nature. Encyclopedia of War is where I get this from. Most were fought for secular reasons. Money, Land and Influence were the most common.

  • Moussa Taouk

    Whether or not a state should be secular I think is a question of identity. Should the people of a nation have a common identity? Also, should the nation be informed by a particular world view in the way it operates?

    I say yes to both. It seems to me that the state needs a philosophy to orient it one way or another. Or else it will be lost in an environment of confusion or at least blandness and vagueness.

    My model is this: A country should operate as per democracy, but a democracy that is very much informed by a particular philosophy. That philosophy shouldn't be forced onto others but it should be the vision that guides the progress of that state.

    For example in a Christian country: christian prayers at state schools, days of rest on Holy days, chapels in hospitals, avoidance of war unless it is a just war, honoring life from conception to death etc would be the norm and would be supported by law. However muslim or atheist children at school wouldn't be obliged to join the prayers, muslims can still work on Sundays and rest of Fridays and Jews rest on Saturdays.

    If at some point in time a referendum was to change the country from being a Christian to an Islamic or a Humanism based state, then that would be the fairest thing to do if the majority decided that's what they want.

    Similarly in Islamic countries, the laws would be according to Islamic law.

    The main difference between the model and democracy is that it is democracy clearly and unashamedly INFORMED by a particular philosophy. I think then it would be a lot clearer as to what philosophy works best in practice.

    • Gordon Reid

      Your model is a terrible idea. Religious governments (where "laws would be according to Islamic law" or law would be according to Christian law, etc.) have a terrible record in providing tolerance to all points of view. For Islamic countries it is by definition that religion directs the laws. These countries are completely intolerant of deconversion from Islam. Christian countries, especially at the time of the founding of America, had similar problems with being tolerant to people not supportive of the state religion whether that state religion was Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican or some other variant of Christianity. When the state becomes responsible for the immortal souls of its citizens, the state cannot possibly allow or provide freedom for citizens wishing to act on their best interest when that action puts their soul at risk. Freedom and religion are not naturally compatible ideas. My model would put freedom first and then allow any, all or no religions to thrive as members in that system of government.

  • Howard

    Let me ask a question, then. The Civil War -- was it a religious war, or not? If it was, then the bloodiest war in American history was religious. If not, can we please get rid of that Unitarian hymn from our Masses? (Actually, let's lose the Battle Hymn of the Republic in either case.)

    I think the problem with sorting these things out comes from the fact that any major endeavor will be influenced by the religious atmosphere, just as it will be influenced by economics and politics. An attempt to characterize almost any war as ONLY economic or ONLY religious will end up producing a caricature.

    • What make this even more complicated is that political leaders will use religious language to rally the troops. You saw that with the Iraq wars. Both Iraq and the US made many references to God as they prepared for war. Nobody really thought it was a religious war but what are they going to say? I want you to risk your life over a petty political squabble? No, they are going to frame this as an epic struggle between good and evil, between God and the devil, etc.

      • HowardRichards

        Absolutely. In fact, the question of "what was the war all about?" never has a simple answer. As a rule, the politicians will have motives that are different than those of the professional officers, who in turn will have motives different than those of the grunts -- and that's just treating the broad categories. On top of that, think back to major decisions you've made in life, like what to study in college and what job to take. If you look at yourself carefully, there were always multiple reasons for each of these decisions.

  • Brad

    I do think in many cases the role of religious violence has been hyped. No doubt if everyone was atheist we would find plenty of things to resort to violence for. I don't quite make the connection however between the existence, or lack thereof, of religious violence and a separation of church and state. I think there are plenty of reasons to support a secular state regardless of whether religion causes the degree of violence it has been blamed for. How else can you explain the fact that Catholic and other minority religious groups were strong proponents for a separation in the infancy of our nation. They had to be because the people with the power were Protestants. I doubt there is a religion in the world that isn't represented by a population in the US. From Atheists to the most devout Christian, they are all here. The wall exists to protect everybody, not just the non-believer. I promise if we had a country and constitution set up and run by die-hard Presbyterians the Catholics would be fighting once again to get religion out of government. It seems to me that the way things are now, any more intrusion of religion in government would only serve to alienate those Americans who don't believe in whichever God or God's policy was put in place by those with the power to do so. It is not an infringement of your rights to not be able to infringe on the rights of others. The great thing about this country is that everyone is free to practice their religion however they want to, until that practice interferes with someone else's freedoms.

    • David Nickol

      And, in a sense, it is all moot anyway. The Constitution literally
      means what as few as five US Supreme Court justices says it means, no
      matter what you or I might say.

      Excellent point!

      The OP says:

      As Cavanaugh makes equally clear, the secular state needed (and still needs) people to believe the story that religion is the cause of violence because this belief allows for the actual creation of the secular state.

      When has the Supreme Court, or any other court, or any governmental body ever argued that the United States must have separation of church and state because there were religious wars in European history???

  • I'm unfamiliar with Wiker's claim that the wall of separation between church and state in the U.S. was justified by concern over religious wars. Whenever I've read the historical reasons for it, it has been based in talk of human rights. There's nothing that supports Wiker's position in the Wikipedia article on the subject, nor in the ACLU's position on why separation is good, nor even in Justice Hugo Black's court opinion that Wiker referenced. More curiously, the quotes Wiker does give in this article ("as proof", even!) offer no support for his position.

    It's almost as if he invented the claim because he needed it in order to segue from "religious wars were actually fueled by political ambition" to "the alleged pressing need to erect an impregnable wall of separation between church and state, collapses as well".

    The bio mentions that Wiker has a BA in political philosophy, so maybe there is support for his claim that isn't common knowledge and that he just decided not to use. But it would be quite imprudent for readers to give the claim credence prior to that support being given.

  • tz1

    The problem is not so much that the state is secularized, but that they keep moving the wall. "Charity" - welfare, healthcare, the poor used to be the business of the church. Now it is the business of the state. Vice has equally moved, often with the support of the church.

    A small, remote government, only concerned with fraud, theft, and violent acts, or with international relations in the case of the feds (does subsidiarity have meaning?) kept within the wall of separation is not a threat to either the church or the liberty of the citizen.

    Do not forget that it was the church that kept ceding power to the state. Taking care of the poor is so hard when the collection plate is unreliable. Hospitals are so hard to run out of the chancery. Schools should be for everyone (forgetting that Catholic schools were set up when protestants were within the state walls calling us the whore of babylon in public school classrooms).

    Jesus said not to give holy things to dogs, pearls to swine. Render unto Caesar...
    The church has given its treasures and authorities to something worse - Caesar or Nero. I would not insult dogs or swine with a comparison. Marriage is sacred but it must be profaned by Caesar with his no-fault divorce (which is an order of magnitude worse than gay marriage - would you prefer that marriage was permanent but extended to a few percent of gays or that 80% eventually dissolved but all were heterosexual?).

    Neither elephants nor donkeys should be in the sanctuary, much less on the altar - though I would consider it if they were humanely sacrificed.

  • fritzpatrick

    A well-argued piece, but one thing it doesn't argue is that there is anything inappropriate or bad about the wall of separation between church and state that exists now in the U.S. Given the plurality of beliefs, including atheism, in this country, I think it's a good thing.

  • Doug Indeap

    Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution, much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the first place, the Supreme Court has thoughtfully, authoritatively, and repeatedly decided as much; it is long since established law. In the second place, the Court is right. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of "We the people" (not a deity), (2) according that government limited, enumerated powers, (3) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (4) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (5), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day (by which governments generally were grounded in some appeal to god(s)), the founders' avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which affirmatively constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation--in those very words--of the founders' intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that were the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Rather, the Court discussed the historical context in which the Constitution and First Amendment were drafted, noting the expressed understanding of Madison perhaps even more than Jefferson, and only after concluding its analysis and stating its conclusion did the Court refer–once–to Jefferson’s letter, largely to borrow his famous metaphor as a clever label or summary of its conclusion. The notion, often heard, that the Court rested its decision solely or largely on that letter is a red herring.

    The notion that the Court rested the principle on some idea of religious violence is entirely unsupported by a review of the Court's decisions or the founders' statements. The most obvious motivation of the founders was to mediate competition among the various sects and assure their equality in the eyes of the law.

    Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). Indeed, he understood the original Constitution--without the First Amendment--to separate religion and government. He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    Confusion understandably arises because the constitutional principle is sometimes equated with a widely supported political doctrine that goes by the same name and generally calls for political dialogue to be conducted on grounds other than religion. The underlying reasons for that political doctrine are many, but three primary ones are that (1) it facilitates discussion amongst people of all beliefs by predicating discussion on grounds accessible to all and (2) it avoids, in some measure at least, putting our respective religious beliefs directly “in play” in the political arena, so we’re not put in the position of directly disputing or criticizing each other’s religious beliefs in order to address a political issue and (3) since the government cannot make laws or decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion, it makes little sense to urge the government to do just that. This political doctrine, of course, is not “law” (unlike the constitutional separation of church and state, which is), but rather is a societal norm concerning how we can best conduct political dialogue in a religiously diverse society. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the doctrine is a good idea or not and whether or how it should influence us in particular circumstances.

  • brad lena

    I would say that violence and warfare are part and parcel of humanity. If this were not the case then the 20th Century, being free of religious domination, imbued with rationalism and reason would not have dwarfed the slaughter of religious wars of 500 years ago. Religion is as useful a rationale for aggression as political,ethnic,racial,economic and social ideologies.

  • Doug Shaver

    A careful, unbiased study of the so-called religious wars yields the rather surprising result that they were not religious wars.

    I will believe that a study involving religion is unbiased when both religious and unreligious readers express a consensus that it is unbiased.

  • Albion

    Have you notice the deafening silence about wars and terror in the name of militantly-atheistic Communism in Soviet Russia, Communist China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Fidel Castro's Cuba, and North Korea?

  • jafnhar

    "What, then, is the justification for the secularized state?"
    Because I don't want the government shoving some official religion down my throat. Isn't that a good enough reason?