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Separation Isn’t So Great

Via James comes this claim:

Contemporary Japan and India, among other non-Christian countries, have also embraced the Great Separation.

This is pretty demonstrably untrue in the case of India, since Indian politics has been nothing if not suffused with religiosity of all kinds since independence.  It is technically true to the extent that the religious communities in question do not have institutional “churches” as such, but pretty clearly nonsense to the extent that religious activist associations wield enormous clout in Indian politics.  There is an idea that this has been bad for “Indian secularism,” but Indian secularism has not meant the separation of religion and politics but the incorporation of all communities into the political process.  Where Hindutva seems to some to threaten the system is in its majoritarianism and exclusivism.  But the Great Separation has nothing to do with it one way or the other.  Japan is more straightforward in that the divinity of the emperor was officially repudiated, but large numbers of people still respect the emperor intensely and the symbolic value of the emperor is incalculable.  The clearest example of actual separation is in Turkey, which is where the separation is being actively undermined by the democratic process, because the “separation of church and state” or the separation of religion from politics is fundamentally hostile to democratic principles in a religious country. 

Then there is this even more extraordinary claim:

Separating church and state works; mixing them tends toward disaster.

This is where the messy details and historical contingencies come in handy.  First of all, it depends on which church or religion and what kind of state, which this formula ignores.  I can also say, with just as much confidence, that mixing church and state works, while separating them tends towards disaster.  I can say this because I can think of cases that support both claims, just as Ms. Goldstein can think of cases that support hers.  To my mind, Rome (renowned as the most punctilious of religious societies) and Byzantium “worked” and the Soviet Union failed–consider their respective lifespans as political systems and “experiments” in having different answers on the church/state relationship question.  Byzantium wins, hands down.  Does that mean that we should all prostrate ourselves before an emperor?  Perhaps not.  What it does mean is that taking the particular experience of certain nations as a universal rule is probably unwise.  The details of church-state relations are extremely important in distinguishing between excessive subordination of church to state or subordination of the state to the church.  Separation works, except for all the times that it doesn’t and symphoneia works better.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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