The Secular Basis of Separation of Church and State: Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville

Christopher Nadon; Perspectives on Political Science; 43:21-30, 2014; Taylor & Francis Group

The following is condensed for a research paper relating to the Christian role in politics and the public square.

Nadon is an Associate Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. His article focuses on the birthing of the concept of Separation of Church and State. He argues, through the works of these listed in his title, the origins of the concept were purely out o secular reasoning. Although inspired by Christian thought and drawing from theological arguments, it shares how over time, “political utility rather than truth” came to be the “foundation of belief”.

– advocates for “extreme deference to political authority” p 24.
In Hobbes’ hands the Bible would teach that the Christian has a Christian duty to acquiesce even in measures taken for the apparent destruction of Christianity. HE seems ti take a certain delight in then pointing out that any who would complain that the widespread acceptance of such a teaching makes it easy for the sovereign to crush resistance are in fact objecting to the occasion for certain martyrdom, and therefore acting in bad faith and with but little trust in God. p 24.

Hobbes – Spiritual/Temporal
Hobbes, writing chiefly for a Protestant audience, does not shy away from blaming the papacy for much of the troubles found “in these western parts of the world”. But he proceeds to give a more direct diagnosis of the underlying cause of papal malignity: it is the Christian distinction between spiritual and temporal powers. “By Spiritual power they [the doctors of the Roman faith] mean the power to determine points of faith, and to be judges in the inner court of conscience of moral duties, and power to to punish those men that obey not their precepts by ecclesiastical censure, that is, by excommunication”, a power, “claimed immediately from Christ”.

Temporal power… consists in judging and publishing the actions that are done again st the civil laws… The difficulty arises with the priestly claim to supervise or exercise temporal power “indirectly, that is to say, so far forth as such actions tend to the hindrance or advancement of religion and good manners”.

The difficulty is that the claims or spheres of spiritual and temporal power overlap and thus make conflict inevitable.

Reformation was itself no cure –> the difficulties in Scripture gave rise to even greater “diversity of opinion” and a corresponding multiplication of sects whose only point of agreement was that the considered “politics subservient to religion”. p 22.

Locke: Ecclesiastical Liberty and Separation
Most influential theorist of separation of church and state.

…instruments of political authority are apparently inadequate to reach man’s inward disposition.

Ecclesiastical Liberty was traditionally taken to refer to the corporate rights and privileges of the church vis-a-vis the magistrate. Locke recasts the term to mean each individual’s right to choose his own religion… We have no choice but to leave ecclesiastical liberty intact because it lies outside the power of human beings to devise a more secure enjoyment of the end for which it was apparently instituted, namely, salvation. p 25.

Locke finds its basis in neither Scripture, conscience, nor any other strictly Christian teaching. Instead, he derives it from the undeniable existence of conflicting religious sects.

Writes with assumption that:
political power is in fact something that can literally be manhandled. In the words, the constitutional principle of the separation of powers presupposes that the political world is a realm of human artifact, which means, at least at a minimum, that religion and politics belong to separate spheres. “What god hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” But what man makes,man can sunder more or less as he pleases.

Montesquieu had an anti-religious intent.

When T arrived in America, he was initially struck by the apparent hold Christianity had over Americans. He later came to appreciate the hold that Americans had over Christianity. The principal means by which religion was controlled was the separation of church and state.

Religion exercises its hold over men largely by its constancy and permanence. Political power in America frequently changes hands and democratic societies engage in frequent political experimentation and innovation.

Yet T knew that at a deeper level politics and religion are inseparable. “Allow the human mind to follow its tendency an it will regulate political society and the divine city in a uniform manner; it will seek, i are say to harmonise the earth with Heaven”. In this  (Democracy in America, 275). In this passage T does not state whether politics conforms to religion or religion to politics. Nor is he so doctrinaire as to think one would trump the other in every time and place. p 29.

The experience of “limitless independence,” in politicos religion, frightens men and makes them long for something firm and stable. Dogma, which T takes to be the essence of religion, provides certain limits and fixed points necessary for democratic man to orient himself and act.

“No one…has…tried to advance the maxim that everything is permitted in the interest of society” because “religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything”. But it does sons a means “to facilitate” a higher end… this argument shows the political utility of religion within democratic societies.

This is how utility rather than truth can come to form the foundation of belief.

For the Christian distinction rests upon and is meant to reinforce the superiority of religious to political concerns.


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