It’s been a good month for the much-maligned, often misunderstood principle of church-state separation.
A whopping 67 percent of the American people agree that the First Amendment “requires a clear separation of church and state,” according to the 2011 State of the First Amendment survey released July 12 by the First Amendment Center.
This is somewhat surprising given the decades-old culture-war fight over the meaning and scope of separation.
For decades now, Christian-nation advocates have tried to convince Americans that “separation of church and state isn’t in the First Amendment.” They have peddled a revisionist account of a “Christian America” that should (at best) tolerate other faiths to reside here.
Apparently, the American people aren’t buying the propaganda.
It’s true that the actual words “separation of church and state” aren’t in the Constitution. But as the majority of Americans understand, the principle of separation clearly is.
The establishment clause of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) prohibits government entanglement with religion — a principle of religious freedom described by Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as “separation of church and state.”
What most Americans see as a necessary condition for religious liberty — separating religious institutions and government — has always been a tough sell in most of the world. But last month, new endorsements of separation were heard on the international front as well.
On July 9, the 8 million people of southern Sudan celebrated separation of mosque and state in the newly independent Republic of South Sudan. After decades of subjugation, southerners are finally free from the extremist version of Islam imposed by a northern regime.
Under the leadership of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the northern government killed and enslaved southern Christians, followers of traditional African religions as well as Muslims labeled apostates.
Today, South Sudan is the world’s newest secular democracy, with a constitution that separates both mosque and church from state, thus protecting religious freedom for all. Sudanese in the south have learned the hard way that only by prohibiting entanglement of government with religion can people of different faiths live together in peace and safety.
Also in July, the Dalai Lama of Tibet — the living embodiment of an institution that has combined religion and government for centuries — offered a ringing endorsement of “separation” during his visit to Washington, D.C.
Explaining to congressional leaders why he voluntarily relinquished political power earlier this year, the Dalai Lama was emphatic about the necessity of separating religious institutions and government:
“The religious institution, the leader of the religious and the political leadership should be separate. I myself combine! So my statement, my explanation, become like hypocrisy. Saying something, doing something different. Religious institutions, political institutions, must be separate.”
Despite these gains for separation, the religious-liberty picture in much of the world remains bleak. From Islamic theocracy in Iran to Christian Orthodox nationalism in Russia, unholy alliances of religion and government conspire to deny religious freedom to millions of people.
Of course, “separation” itself can also be distorted and abused. In the name of separating religion and government, repressive regimes such as China establish an extreme form of secularism that keeps all faiths under the thumb of the state.
And in the United States, there are some who would banish all religion from the public square in the name of “separation of church and state” — a false reading of the First Amendment that denies religious freedom.
When properly understood and applied, church-state separation liberates religions from state interference while protecting people of all faiths from state-imposed religion.
The American idea of religious liberty — separating church from state and protecting free exercise of religion — may well be our greatest contribution to world civilization. But if you have doubts about this arrangement, talk to the people of south Sudan or to the Dalai Lama. They’ll quickly reaffirm your faith in the genius of the First Amendment.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, Washington, D.C.