What if Church and State Aren’t Separated? A Comparison
I spent eight days in Ireland recently, and while I was there I was struck by the way the Irish people approach their government–along with similarities I’ve seen in my travels in other European countries. What follows is an overly simplistic description of that approach. I want to compare it to the approach we take in the States. The result will be not so much a judgment of which is better or worse, but rather what the ramifications of each are.
The United States is a nation of people whose identity is defined by two things: we are cynical of the government and we fight for freedom. Consider what our own history teaches us about what it means to be American. We left Europe for religious freedom, we fought the War of Independence for tax and other freedoms, we fought the War Between the States for freedom, we fought in two World War for freedom, the Korean and Vietnam wars for freedom from communism, as well as two Gulf Wars. We are a people who will lay down our lives and shed the blood of others for freedom. Right or wrong, for better or for worse, true or false, we are raised to believe that this is what it means to be an American.
That defines the latter, that we fight for freedom. Why are we cynical of the government, though? We left Europe for religious freedom. As a result, we ordered a government, the State, to be completely independent of the Church, so as to avoid the State imposing religious beliefs on us as a people. Initially, the State was intended to be quite limited in what it could do. As that changed, almost all Americans remained cynical of the government–what differed was what aspects of the government we were cynical of. Some don’t trust the government to educate children, others don’t trust it with healthcare, others don’t trust it with foreign policy, the list goes on and some don’t trust it with several or all of these things. The point is that we are cynical, all of us, about the government being involved with one or more aspects of our lives.
Thus, when an American asks the questions, “Does the government have the authority to educate our children?” the question is a legitimate one, but may result in different answers. Similar questions will be viewed as legitimate as well, but will also result in different answers.
In Europe (at least the UK), the separation of Church and State is less severe, even non-existent. Where I, as an American, might ask if the government has the authority to education my children and answer it no, yet ask if the Church has the authority to educate my children and might answer yes, in the UK the question wouldn’t make sense.
Their national identity isn’t wrapped up in a separation of Church and State or a cynicism of government. To ask if the government has the authority to do XYZ isn’t answer the same way, because the State includes the idea of the Church doing it. For example, I heard on the radio in Ireland that national school teachers were complaining about having to prepare students for the Sacraments. They weren’t complaining that they had to do it, they were complaining that they don’t have enough time to do it well and still teach everything else they are required to teach.
The results of these two views are interesting. In the UK and Ireland, you have people who are less cynical of government (and the Church), and who expect the government (and Church) to be involved with very many aspects of life. This also results in a people who don’t retain certain authorities and freedoms that Americans would deem essential to be retained by the people.
In the States, on the other hand, you have a people who are extremely cynical of the government (especially we libertarians), and who expect the government to be extremely tiny and uninvolved. A great deal of infighting occurs between these people and the government, and between different factions among the people who are cynical at different points. Europeans have a national unity that Americans seem to lack, and Americans often don’t even get around to asking these or any questions about the Church. This might possibly be because it has been so separated that it doesn’t even enter the national consciousness on these points.
Another post should follow on which approach is the better. Or, maybe some interesting conversation can be generated on this question within the comments below.