Thursday, October 02, 2008

Biden on Separation of Church and State

Palin and Biden were apparently both asked about separation of church and state—I don't know the context, but someone pointed me at the video. Palin doesn't say much of interest—largely standard rhetoric about the wisdom of the people. Biden is more interesting.

He suggests that we look at "every state where that wall is not built. Look at every country in the world where religion is able to impact on the governance. Almost every one of those countries, there's real turmoil."

Taken literally, the "impact" part describes all countries, including the U.S.; there is nothing in American law that prevents a voter from voting for or against a candidate or measure on the basis of the voter's religion. But suppose we take "that wall is not built" to mean, as the context of the answer suggests, countries where there is no legal principle of the separation of church and state. Perhaps I missed it, but where is the turmoil in England, where Anglicanism was the established religion when the Constitution was written and still is? In Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Lichtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Vatican City and parts of Switzerland where Catholicism is the established religion? In Denmark, Norway and Iceland where Lutheranism is the established church? In Greece where the official church is Eastern Orthodox?

It isn't surprising that Biden doesn't know about the established churches in Scandinavia, although that England has an established church is hardly an obscure historical fact. What strikes me here, as with the FDR comment he made earlier, is the impression that, faced with the need for facts to support his current argument, he simply invents them. He was presumably thinking of Muslim countries, which do not, with the notable exception of Turkey, have any principle of separation of church and state. But his argument required that almost all other countries follow the U.S. pattern, so he simply assumed it. That's a little disturbing—and reminds me a bit of Bush.

Fortunately, Obama is young and in good health.


J said...

I would point out the church in England has no real power, the majority of people are atheist or agnostic. You should factor that in.

Beastin said...

If pressed, I suspect he would try to use "impact" as a weasel word and claim that the churches in those countries have no real power at present. (Historically, there was plenty of strife in England due to the Anglican-Catholic split.)

jimbino said...

I imagine there to be no country that has true separation of church and state. In Amerika, we have to put up with god on our currency, pledges of allegiance and star-spangled banners, not to mention weddings, circumcisions and funerals that are religious exercises.

There are few atheists chaplains, and atheist prisoners have fewer rights on account of lack of religion.

Religious persecution is rampant in Amerika, even though we don't have the church taxes of Germany or the religious blasphemy laws and royalty succession laws of Britain.

I find it interesting that France, Mexico and Brazil, three historically Roman Catholic countries, are not only religiously freer and in ways more secular than Amerika, but also anti-clerical in either their laws or practice.

Anonymous said...

I think Biden's general sentiment is correct. With the exception of predominantly Catholic and Orthodox countries, none of those you mention have churches with any real impact on the state. The fact they're established state religions doesn't mean very much, and is usually linked to other anachronistic factors, such as monarchies, or the aftermath of monarchies.

Then consider some of the disastrous political consequences of having Catholic policy as official state policy; the way in which religious sentiment often spills into law and then interferes with the political freedoms of citizens. Would you want to live in a country like Poland, where women who want abortions are forced to board offshore charity boats to get them?

Also, the separation of church and state necessarily reduces one aspect of state infrastructure, and means less tax money being given over to religions taxpayers may not even participate in. The irony is, it takes a law to separate two institutions most people can clearly see shouldn't still be in bed with each other.

David Friedman said...

Three posters point out that the church has little current power in the European states with established religions. But Biden's claim was that, without the wall of separation between church and state, there was turmoil. That's quite different from the claim that strongly held religious views lead to turmoil.

Indeed, David Hume famously argued in favor of the establishment of the church that it led to a weakening of religious sentiment--because it bribed the indolence of the clergy. Their income depended on pleasing the aristocrats who controlled clerical positions, not on stirring up religious passions among their congregations.

Anonymous said...

When exactly was the English constitution written?

David Friedman said...

England doesn't have a written constitution. The term "The English Constitution" is used for the body of traditional legal rules.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.