Necessary Conditions for Justifying Church-State Separation under Utilitarian Theory


Everyone seems to value separation of church and state, but few do so in a way that demonstrates any intellectual integrity beyond fundamentalist thinking: if the claims of Islam hold true, then perhaps Iran is the best nation to be born in; if the claims of Christianity hold true, then perhaps Inquisition-era Spain would be the best nation to be born in; if Calvinism holds true, we should wish to be born under Calvin’s theocratic rule in Geneva, etc. In particular, if much religious thinking is correct, then the world would be best off in the long run if the maximum number of people adhered to the proper religious requirements for salvation (or whatever positive promise that religion makes). This is a clear opposition to the thinking of U.S. and other Western intellectuals who do not wish to promote religion through government. What I intend to do is to show an attempt to resolve problem, or point to a resolution of this problem, which would give separation of church and state a relatively well-tested theoretical backbone in utilitarian theory.


I do so by pointing to the two contexts in which separation of church and state is a rational goal for a utilitarian thinker:


I.                    Government attempts to impose religion prove futile at saving or helping more people, or

II.                 No forced adherence to any religious belief system would maximize or promote utility, even if successful


Proposition (I), the belief that government imposition of religious is futile, is problematic in light of empirical evidence that there is a high correlation between state sponsorship and practice of the state-sponsored religion. Proposition (II), the belief that government forcing a religion on someone does not help maximize utility, is not troublesome to religions which do not uphold adherence to their non-secular requirements as in any way connected to the world’s state of happiness. Finally, I will analyze John Rawls’ theory of justice as a possible justification of church and state, and find it useful but not totally adequate for justifying the separation of church and state in any sense.


I will examine both propositions, in argument-outline form.


I.                    Government attempts to impose religion are futile at achieving their ends

A.     But just look at the obvious: People born in Israel tend to be Jewish. People born in Iran tend to be Muslims. People born in the United States tend to be Christian. People born in Hispanic nations tend to be Catholic.

B.     Obviously there are, in many cases, correlations between belonging to a particular state, and adherence to a particular religion

C.     Clearly, some of this is due to culture, not to government-sponsored religious institutions (e.g., U.S. government founded largely by Deists, but U.S. is not by and large a Deistic nation)

D.     However, where freedom of religion is not respected, there tends to be adherence to the established religion; if Islam holds true, then we should wish to be born in Iran; if Catholicism holds true, perhaps we should wish to be born in Inquisition-era Spain; etc.

E.      The claim that externally imposed religion is bad for someone. “Don’t all religious beliefs of any value ‘come from inside’?”

1.      If so, ask your local religious authorities why they do missionary work if it doesn’t actually do any good for the people in these nations to be externally persuaded of any particular religion

2.      If so, ask your parents why they brought you up to have certain beliefs about religion if it doesn’t actually do you any good to have religious views imposed on you from outside

3.      Why would Moses jot down the Law, if the Law could only be enforced with the help of external sanctions (specified punishments) on the nation of Israel? Why did Jesus come to preach if what comes from outside (the message) doesn’t matter? Why did Allah write the Koran for others to see, if beliefs that do not originate from pure self-soul-searching don’t matter? Etc.

4.      “Yeah, but government imposes religious beliefs without respect for inner cooperation.”

a.       Actually, most modern theocracies do not work this way. They basically “suggest” a religion for people to follow, and give incentives for people to follow it (e.g., different tax rates for different religions), but do not violently force it upon the population.

b.      Just because one’s religion comes from one’s parents does not mean that this belief in it isn’t internalized or deeply ingrained in the heart of its adherent

c.       The same is true with government-sponsored belief systems, so the usefulness of this line of reasoning is almost nil

d.      Of course, in practice this argument is often very persuasive, in spite of its actual theoretical weakness

II.                 No forced adherence to any religion would successfully promote utility

A.     The claim that externally motivated religion is not worthwhile. (See above.)

B.     This notion, (II), stands in direct contradiction to claims that belief in, or adherence to, such-and-such a religious tradition is good for the world. That is, this claim has massive theological implications.


Finally, Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is not enough in and of itself to justify church-state separation. No doubt, John Rawls’ original position, in which one is cloaked in a “veil of ignorance,” in which one knows nothing of his or her religious beliefs, is a fine precondition for coming up with the doctrine of church-state separation. In fact, any point of view of religious agnosticism will probably do just fine to justify separation of church and state. (In the absence of religious knowledge as to which activities maximize utility, one must use secular criteria as the “tie-breaker” in establishing institutions.) However, the problem is that Rawls has no compelling reason for any religious fundamentalist to don the cloak of ignorance. Why should she ignore the evidences she has for believing in her particular religion? Establishing this is no trivial case.


To sum up, the preconditions for accepting the reasonability for separation of church and state as good in a utilitarian sense are more demanding than most people, or even most political thinkers, stop to think about. Knowledge of this requisite intellectual legwork gives political thinkers an idea where they should begin if they wish to justify their ideas.