The separation of church and state is an aspect of the general separation that political philosophers have argued should exist between the state and private life. Although the state has generally retreated from religion in the modern West, controversy endures on a variety of church–state issues: By no means have all European state churches been disestablished, entanglements between church and state may endure even without a formally constituted state church, and many non‐​Western states both openly support state religions and impose high barriers against disfavored groups. Generally speaking, however, the separation of church and state is an area where classical liberal principles have achieved considerable success. In the developed world, the issue has in most respects been settled in favor of privatized religious institutions, practices, and beliefs. Libertarians applaud this development.

It is difficult to appreciate the degree to which church and state were conjoined in premodern Europe. Although practices varied from region to region, church offices typically conveyed a set of political and social prerogatives that far exceeded those of any other profession. These prerogatives were upheld not only by custom, but by the force of law. Churches, clergy, and their property were commonly not only immune from taxation, but also were the beneficiaries of compulsory taxes of their own, known as tithes. The higher church offices conferred feudal estates and honors to their possessors. Candidates to these positions were usually recommended, if not chosen outright, by the king or the high temporal nobility of the realm.

With the support of the temporal governments, the churches of that era operated state‐​approved courts to try cases involving the clergy and certain crimes arising out of purely religious law. Throughout the continent, church courts arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and executed religious dissidents, blasphemers, and so‐​called witches usually with the support or at least the acquiescence of the civil authority. Sporadic expulsions of those who did not share the state religion were a common feature in the histories of all European nations from the medieval era to the modern. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and all of the various Protestant sects were at times subject to these expulsions in virtually any territory where they constituted a minority. Churches exercised censorship both prior and subsequent to publication, and church attendance was often compulsory.

At times, as in Old Regime France, the church and state were so closely fused that it became difficult to determine where one began and the other ended. The cardinal ministers Richelieu and Mazarin, for example, served simultaneously in both hierarchies. The clergy held one of the three votes in the Estates General, France’s traditional legislature. In both France and England, the king’s touch was said, by the grace of God, to cure scrofula, a skin disease nicknamed “the king’s evil.” (The double entendre does not, however, persist in French.)

During the Reformation, Western Europe’s always tenuous religious unity finally disintegrated, and rulers faced the question of which religious faction they, and in turn their governments, should support. For example, from 1491 to 1558, England vacillated from Catholicism, to Protestantism, to Catholicism, and then to Protestantism once more during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. It would endure further disruptions during the English Civil Wars, the Interregnum, and the Glorious Revolution of the 17th century.

Yet few contemporaries questioned the idea that civil peace required religious unity. Paradoxically, almost everyone imagined that, without state intervention in matters of faith, constant warfare would result. This belief persisted despite more than a century of actual religious civil war, when governments tried in vain to enforce the state’s religion. Perhaps most surprisingly, religious minorities did not notably favor the separation of church and state. Instead, they usually aspired to take over the state apparatus and set up their own sect as the official, privileged church. Judaism was one of the few religions to renounce temporal power of this sort, but the Jews had almost no influence on their Christian contemporaries in this regard.

Early social contract theorists like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were thought controversial not chiefly because they would have limited state power, but because they argued that neither spiritual nor temporal governments were ordained of God, and that humans had created them both. Locke also argued that the power of churches could not legitimately include compulsion. Locke’s insights implied religious toleration and even supported the full disestablishment of the state church.

Other classical liberals were of like mind. Little appreciated during its author’s lifetime, Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico‐​Politicus (1670) argued that the state should have almost no role in religious life. The Tractatus was outlawed even in the relatively tolerant Dutch Republic. However, its key political ideas slowly gained ground. In the next century, Voltaire, David Hume, and Thomas Jefferson all promoted disestablishment as a pragmatic compromise among competing faiths and a way of creating public peace over questions that could not readily be resolved without supernatural insight.

The 17th century saw the gradual introduction of religious tolerance in several European states, including Britain, the Dutch Republic, and, to a limited extent, even France, beginning with the Edict of Nantes in 1598. No European state, however, disestablished its church during this era; toleration took hold well before disestablishment, and religious tolerance coexisted with special privileges for members of the officially favored religions. Even in ostensibly liberal England, Protestants enjoyed considerable advantages from the state. For example, the Test Act of 1673 barred Roman Catholics from holding office. It was not repealed until 1829, and the Church of England remains an established church to this day.

The first practical act of disestablishment came in the American colonies. In Massachusetts, the Baptist dissident Roger Williams contended that the civil power had no authority to try or punish religious crimes and that all people should enjoy freedom of conscience—what Williams termed soul liberty. The other colonists disagreed and exiled him. In 1636, Williams and a small group of like‐​minded settlers founded the city of Providence in what became the state of Rhode Island. For years, Williams worked to secure a royal charter protecting his colony, and when it finally arrived in 1663, it constituted the first formal separation of church and state in Western history.

The charter proclaimed Rhode Island a “livlie experiment.” Charles II, no stranger to religious strife, admitted that

inhabitants of the same colonie cannot, in theire private opinions, conform to the publique exercise of religion … or take or subscribe the oaths and articles made and established in that behalfe, [therefore] our royall will and pleasure is, that noe person within the sayd colonye … shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion.

Other British colonies followed a range of different courses, from disestablishment and religious liberty to a fully established church with compulsory public funding and laws against religious dissidents, atheists, and blasphemers. This pattern continued in the states of the early American republic, although the movement was distinctly toward disestablishment. For example, one of Thomas Jefferson’s proudest achievements was his authorship of the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The Statute termed established religion a “dangerous fallacy” and forbade public support for any church. By contrast, Massachusetts was a relative latecomer: Following his return to private life, Jefferson’s friend and sometime political rival John Adams worked to disestablish his home state’s official church. Yet disestablishment came only in 1833, 7 years after the long‐​lived Adams had died.

On the federal level, the U.S. Constitution protects the separation of church and state in a variety of ways. Most explicitly, the 1st Amendment declares that no established federal Church can ever exist and that no federal law can abridge the freedom of religion. Further, Article VI section 3 declares that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Given the tumultuous history of England and the great religious diversity of the early republic, this step may appear virtually forced. Yet other clues reiterate the founders’ intent: The text of the Constitution nowhere invokes the protection of any one church, creed, or deity. Similarly, the oath required of government officials may be either sworn or affirmed—a speech act that does not require referencing God.

The American founders were justly proud of their achievement. On January 1, 1802, Thomas Jefferson endorsed the separation of church and state with the following words: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” James Madison, the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution, declared that “practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and [is] guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.” Yet state support for religion endures in the modern world, both abroad and even at home.

In most European countries, religious groups must register with the state and submit to monitoring; those religions that refuse to register lose the tax exemption that registered religions typically enjoy, and they may face a variety of other penalties, as with the Church of Scientology, which is outlawed in Greece. Several European countries still maintain state churches, including England, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Malta. Although the Church of England no longer receives taxpayer subsidy, and although most religious tests for office have been removed in the United Kingdom, the holder of the highest political post, the monarch, must still be a professed member of this Church.

The world’s remaining totalitarian and one‐​party states are generally either hostile to all religions or else have established official state churches. The latter is the case, for example, in Myanmar, whose government actively promotes Buddhism; and in Saudi Arabia and Iran, which forbid the public practice of any religion other than Islam. Islamic religious law is strictly enforced by the Saudi state among others, often with beatings and public executions.

The situation in communist China is highly peculiar. The government has established multiple official religious organizations, which aim to supplant the private but now illegal faiths on which they are modeled. For example, China has a state‐​run version of Catholicism, whereas the Roman Catholic Church is illegal. The Roman Catholic Church, for its part, declares the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to be schismatic. Likewise, the official version of Tibetan Buddhism has even promulgated communist‐​sponsored regulations on how souls are to be reincarnated. In response, the Dalai Lama, the highest authority in traditional Tibetan Buddhism, has publicly declared that his soul will never be reborn under the Chinese communists’ authority.

Even in the United States, many issues persist regarding the separation of church and state. Several of these issues are symbolic: The U.S. motto “In God We Trust” and the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance have both been subject to unsuccessful Supreme Court challenges. Under current Court doctrine, the state‐​sanctioned display of the Ten Commandments now depends strongly on the surrounding context: Is the display intended to make a religious statement? Or is the depiction in question merely part of a larger display showing the value of written law in the Western tradition? If it is the former, the Establishment Clause prohibits the display. The latter, however, is permitted.

However, some church–state issues in the United States are quite substantive. For example, some groups would institute compulsory or instructor‐​led prayer in public schools. Others would institute the teaching of biblical creationism. During the last several decades, U.S. courts have tended to reject these initiatives. Libertarians overwhelmingly find proposals of this type improper. Not only do state‐​sanctioned prayers run contrary to all of classical liberal tradition, but most libertarians would add that the mere existence of public schools is problematic in itself.

Controversies still exist. Since the early modern era, however, it has become increasingly clear that the separation of church and state can serve as a model to guide efforts to roll back state authority in other areas of life. If the state should not interfere in these most important of matters, then it faces high hurdles in other areas as well. Therefore, the separation of church and state is of the highest interest to libertarians for reasons of history, philosophy, and public policy alike.

Further Readings

Brenner, Lenni, ed. Jefferson and Madison on the Separation of Church and State. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2004.

Feldman, Noah. Divided by God: America’s Church‐​State Problem—and What We Should Do about It. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.

Gaustad, Edwin, S., ed. Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Holt, 2004.

Spinoza, Baruch. Tractatus Theologico‐​Politicus. Boston: Brill Academic, 1997.

U.S. Senate. U.S. Committee on International Religious Freedom: Findings on Russia, China, and Sudan; and Religious Persecutions in the World. Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, June 2000.

Jason Kuznicki
Originally published