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Questions and Answers on the Establishment of Religion


The relation of religion and politics has long been a contentious issue in the West. Particularly in America, the dominant view has come to be that religion has no place in public life and should be kept strictly private. That view is extremely unusual historically, far from unanimously held in the world at large, and of doubtful coherence. Even where it is dominant it is far more well-established among governing elites than among the people at large, sufficiently so to raise suspicion that it may have more to do with the defense of a particular ruling class and regime than with justice and public order.

This page presents an opposing view, that politics is inextricably connected to religion, and that government necessarily takes a position on religious issues, including the degree of truth of particular religions. Such a view implies that the ruling institutions of Western society, like those of other societies, reflect a particular religious outlook, and that claims to the contrary serve to entrench that outlook by pre-empting discussion. The page argues further that the religious principles now dominant in the West are radically defective, and should be seen as such so that other aspects of the Western tradition—specifically, Christianity—can play more of a role in public life. The discussion relates most particularly to American life, but is relevant to the West generally.

To promote discussion, we present our thoughts in question and answer form, and also provide a list of resources on the web and elsewhere. This page was put together by Jim Kalb, a lawyer, layman, and writer on topics relating to politics and culture, who puts it forward to help others think through the issues.

The issues presented here can be discussed in our forum. Your participation is welcome. You can also email the author, Jim Kalb, or add a comment at the foot of this page.


  1. What is an “establishment of religion?”
  2. But can belief be forced?
  3. Surely a believer wouldn’t give the state authority in religious matters!
  4. How do the legitimate secular functions of government require it to decide religious questions?
  5. Modern governments manage to stay mostly out of religious issues. Why not continue that?
  6. But what religious view do modern governments impose?
  7. What could be oppressive about saying that whatever anyone wants is what’s good for him?
  8. What are some specific things governments do now that involve them in religion?
  9. But isn’t liberalism different, since it doesn’t impose any particular view but only specifies basic principles that enable different views to coexist peacefully?
  10. So you think the Taleban are right!
  11. What about religious minorities?
  12. What about the First Amendment?
  13. What about the bloody persecutions and wars in the name of religion?
  14. Assuming you’re right, and there’s always a religious establishment of some sort, what’s wrong with the one we have?
  15. If you want to establish a particular religion, how do you decide which one?
  16. Do you have any idea what religion ought to be established in America?
  17. But if you say Christianity should be established, don’t you have to be more definite about which kind?
  18. Why expect religious and moral minorities to accept a Christian establishment?


  1. What is an “establishment of religion?”

    Historically, it meant a state church like the Church of England. Today the expression is used in the broadest possible sense, to include any government recognition of the truth of religious claims and any government preference for one religion over another or religion generally over irreligion. We view an establishment of religion in the latter sense as unavoidable, and in the former sense as fitting or not depending on circumstances.

  2. But can belief be forced?

    No more than scientific knowledge, artistic taste, or patriotism and attachment to constitutional principles. Government can nonetheless judge those things to be good and favor or oppose them by the way it acts. The same is true of religious practice and belief.

  3. Surely a believer wouldn’t give the state authority in religious matters!

    No more than a physicist, sculptor or ethicist would give the state authority over science, esthetics or morals. Nonetheless, in the course of its legitimate functions government must sometimes make decisions about physical truth and esthetic or moral merit, as when it builds a bridge, erects a monument, hands out medals, or educates schoolchildren. Government has no special authority in such matters, but they are part of what constitutes the world in which it is acting, so it must at times deal with them and make judgments about them in order to act reasonably. The same holds for religion.

  4. How do the legitimate secular functions of government require it to decide religious questions?

    Life cannot be divided neatly into separate compartments, least of all in connection with things as basic and all-embracing as political society, personal and social well-being, and human understandings of the world. Government necessarily deals with questions of loyalty and sacrifice, life and death, the defense and survival of the political community and its members. Such questions cannot be divorced from considerations regarding the nature of man and the moral world, or thus from religion. To claim they can be answered apart from religion is itself to make a quite radical and surprising religious claim.

  5. Modern governments manage to stay mostly out of religious issues. Why not continue that?

    They don’t, actually. Of necessity they take a particular view of the nature of man, the world and moral obligation, how man should live, what is a truth worthy of sacrifice, what is a private opinion that one may hold or not at pleasure, and what is blasphemy or thought crime. The claim they avoid such issues only silences discussion and so facilitates imposition of an official view of things that is at odds with both popular views and the society’s own traditions.

    Modern government has taken on very broad responsibility for the well-being of the people, and can therefore hardly hold itself aloof from any aspect of their lives. It educates the young, which means that it must tell them what life and the world are like, what they owe others and themselves. It must impress those things on grown-ups as well, since with the growth of the welfare state and the increasing concern for promoting equality in all aspects of life it has taken on responsibility for the practical well-being of all the people and their detailed relations to each other. How people end up and how they deal with each other depend on their thoughts and habits. Government must therefore become involved with their moral life and whatever goes into it.

  6. But what religious view do modern governments impose?

    The view now authoritative in all Western countries is the liberal view that individual man is the measure of things. As such, he constructs the social and moral world by his actions and purposes and in accordance with his desires, subject to certain requirements such as the equal status of all persons and their value choices. That view is not optional; those who reject it are treated as divisive and extremist (the liberal equivalent of “schismatic and heretical”), as bigoted fundamentalists whose views pose a threat to civilization and must be excluded from public life. That view is taught in school, dramatized on TV, and reinforced by all respectable social authorities, including those who speak for government. All public life is devoted to teaching “tolerance,” which is nothing of the kind but is simply insistence on the liberal view that individual desire is the measure of the good. The penalty for nonconformity is ridicule and ostracism. In the West outside of America merely verbal rejection of liberal tolerance can lead to fines and imprisonment, while in America the consequences of non-aggressive withdrawal from liberal society can on occasion (as at Waco) be much worse.

  7. What could be oppressive about saying that whatever anyone wants is what’s good for him?

    The problem is that if one is forced to accept that in public life the good—the goal of rational action—is simply what men want, it is difficult to maintain the view that the good in private life can be anything very different. Man is social, after all, and has few goods that do not essentially involve other people and the common moral understandings that join us to them. Liberalism insists that for all practical purposes the good is the sum of human desires. It thus insists that traditional transcendent religion can teach us nothing of consequence for human life that we can’t know more easily apart it. It permits religion to be only a sort of symbolism or poetry that may adorn the world for some people but has no cognitive content. It therefore establishes denial of religion as the law of the land.

  8. What are some specific things governments do now that involve them in religion?

    Particular aspects of present-day government operations that put government at the heart of day-to-day moral life and thus necessarily require answers to religious questions include education, family policy, and the terms and conditions on which government extends aid to particular individuals. Are children to be told that God, their country, or their own desires are at the center of things? Is marriage a contract people enter into for their own purposes and can define as they wish or a moral reality that transcends all desire? Is the center of moral life and thus human responsibility the social order or the human soul? Such issues are unavoidable and their consequences are pervasive.

    Religious issues are also raised by the symbolic acts of government, such as the ceremonies, proclamations, holidays and monuments through which it establishes the nature of its authority and of the social world it protects and fosters. Such things necessarily proclaim a particular moral ordering of things. Even the punishment of crime has necessary symbolic aspects relating to the nature of human culpability and thus raises religious issues. And the First Amendment notwithstanding, American government like all governments protects some symbolic interests from violation. Flag-burning may be protected, for example, but cross-burning, a symbolic attack on liberal tolerance, is not.

    Government involvement in the moral life of the people could be reduced somewhat by radically reducing the functions of government. Such a reduction would no doubt be a good thing, although it will remain unlikely as long as contemporary liberalism retains its authority. The effects of such a reduction could only go so far, however. As long as government must command obedience and sacrifice and claim the right to punish misconduct, it cannot be neutral on moral fundamentals, including religion.

  9. But isn’t liberalism different, since it doesn’t impose any particular view but only specifies basic principles that enable different views to coexist peacefully?

    No. The “basic principles” do not act on a different plane from other “particular views,” because they tell each what it can be and so suppress what it actually is. Specifically, in a liberal society each view other than liberalism has to understand itself as a private opinion with no public validity. It must understand its own goods as personal preferences, with no higher standing than any other preferences. It must admit that the true good, the object of rational action that all must recognize as valid, is that of liberalism—personal preference simply as such. In short, it has to accept liberalism as the truth of things and demote itself to a personal taste or hobby. It is senseless to praise liberalism for staying out of ultimate issues when it imposes such requirements.

  10. So you think the Taleban were right!

    No more than those who want religion out of politics think Sade or Stalin were right. Life is too complex to grasp completely, and fanaticism is the attempt to reduce it to a single principle that we can possess in full and force on everything. By that definition the Taleban were fanatics, since they thought they could do away with everything but the Koran and Sharia, but so are contemporary liberals who think they can create a world without race, class, gender or religious distinctions if a managerial class only enforces its ideology comprehensively enough.

  11. What about religious minorities?

    What about those in America today who reject the liberal view of religion? Every society includes some who reject some of its fundamental principles. Concern for such persons cannot mean the society should have no fundamental principles. (Such a concern is, however, a reason to reject implicitly totalitarian ideologies like Marxism or contemporary liberalism that deny any standard other than a human one, have comprehensive implications for all social life, and demand results here and now.)

  12. What about the First Amendment?

    The First Amendment forbids the U.S. federal government from making law with respect to an establishment of religion. The federal government originally had a very narrow range of duties, and most functions were left up to the states. In particular, it was empowered neither to set up an established church nor to interfere with state religious establishments. The religion clause of the First Amendment simply made that principle explicit. Supreme Court decisions forbidding states and localities from providing for school prayer are thus an extreme example of one sort of conduct the First Amendment was intended to forbid.

    Even between the federal government and religion, the First Amendment did not require a “wall of separation.” That phrase comes from a letter by Thomas Jefferson that had no legal status, notwithstanding its subsequent use. An “establishment of religion” was understood to mean a state church along the lines of the Church of England, supported by state revenues and with membership a requirement for political office. It did not mean making judgments on religious issues when relevant to government functions, or even directly promoting religion in some cases.

  13. What about the bloody persecutions and wars in the name of religion?

    What about the bloody persecutions and wars in the name of political ideology? Even in time of peace the last century saw mass butchery in the name of secularism and social progress that dwarfed any cruelty ever perpetrated in the name of religion.

    The problem is not religion as opposed to some other way of viewing things. Religious or not, men will differ on what they believe is right, and there will always be something they see as the highest standard. No society can survive unless its members believe that the ultimate standards on which it is based are right, should prevail, and are worth serious sacrifice. Those standards, however, will always conflict with other possible standards.

    Ideological conflict is therefore always a possibility. At home such conflicts can lead to persecution and abroad they can lead to war. There have been various proposals for eliminating that possibility. The most common is ideological uniformity: if everyone agrees, wars will cease. Thus, Islam distinguishes the Dar-ul-Islam, the realm of peace in which Islam rules, from the Dar-ul-Harb, the realm of unbelief and war, and looks forward to the unification of the world in a single community of believers. Similarly, contemporary liberalism attempts to cure and re-educate, or at least isolate and make harmless, its own infidels, the “bigots,” “haters” and “fundamentalists,” who (it believes) plunge the world into war by their rejection of liberalism.

    Unity is difficult to achieve, however, and saying that one’s opponents are enemies of the human race because they destroy the unity that would exist if they threw in the towel is a bad way to bring it closer. The genius of contemporary liberalism is that it puts forward an alternative strategy, the abolition of politics, with its unavoidable conflicting claims of truth and power, in favor of the custodial state. If men stop taking their beliefs seriously, and care only for private indulgences and consumer goods, they will not fight over ideas.

    That is not a strategy that can be carried out for long, however, because it eventually destroys something any government needs to survive, willingness on the part of the people to accept discipline and sacrifice for the common good. Further, it demands a principled, disinterested and unified ruling class to act as the custodians of a self-involved and apolitical populace. It is hard to see how a liberal social order that idealizes self-indulgence could support such a class, or if such a class did exist why it shouldn’t have its own ideological conflicts that could lead to war.

  14. Assuming you’re right, and there’s always a religious establishment of some sort, what’s wrong with the one we have?

    It leaves out too much of human life, and suppresses fundamental aspects of the civilization in which it arose. Man does not live by getting his own way alone. He is a social, rational and religious animal who lives in and through others, and by reference to things that exceed his grasp. He is also an historical animal, who must remember his past and find himself in it. By making individual desire the measure of the good, contemporary liberalism cuts man off from his past, from other men, and from any moral reality that transcends the self. It is therefore radically at odds with the necessary conditions of a tolerable human life.

    Further, the established public morality of the West is based on principles that contradict themselves. It ends by imposing a tyranny of tolerance and establishing a centralized power that controls everything in the name of freedom and equality. Such a state of affairs cannot last, and certainly cannot support a coherent and principled political order. We must look for something else for the future.

  15. If you want to establish a particular religion, how do you decide which one?

    If you want to establish a political society, how do you decide what the fundamental principles of the society are to be? The two questions are the same. Such things can not be decided by an administrative act, but somehow a decision is always made. The immediate practical point is that religion cannot a priori be excluded from the foundations of society, that it is a necessary part of those foundations, and that the claim that it must be excluded is an attempt to prevent all discussion in the interests of establishing a particular religious position—the liberal one—by default.

  16. Do you have any idea which religion ought to be established in America?

    Sure—the natural public religion for the country would be the one it had before liberalism was established as the sole public moral principle, an informally established, nondenominational Christianity. Anything more specific (e.g., Roman Catholicism) would lack necessary support at present; anything more abstract (e.g., “Judaeo-Christianity”) would be an artificial construction that no one would take seriously as something to live by. Once the principle of establishment was accepted, things might well evolve further, but they can’t be forced and their pace and direction can’t be chosen in advance.

  17. But if you say Christianity should be established, don’t you have to be more definite about which kind?

    No more than liberals have to get universal agreement on a single interpretation of liberalism before they can start appealing publicly to liberal principle. The principles that govern a political society must be coherent and substantive enough to arouse loyalty and give life a certain order and direction, but they are always imprecise and subject to interpretation and reinterpretation. That’s as true of religious principles as any others.

  18. Why expect religious and moral minorities to accept a Christian establishment?

    Why expect anyone but a liberal to accept the establishment of liberalism? Somehow it has come about, even though a great many people are appalled by it, because the dominant classes came to understand liberalism as the most fitting way to deal with public life. The same could happen again with Christianity. Those who accept it could bring the Christian point of view into public life, and if enough people found that point of view illuminating, the center of gravity of discussion and policy would shift. Whether the consequences would be more or less divisive than the current liberal establishment would depend more on circumstances than on any principle that liberal establishments unify the people more than traditionally religious ones.


Historical Background

The Traditional American Polity

Public reticence on the subject can disguise the fact that American political society has been based on Christianity.

The Victory of the New Order

The Counterattack

Responses to liberal advances in the culture wars have been defensive, fragmentary and ineffectual. Highbrows complain about the “naked public square” without proposing any good response, while populists who try to put prayer back in the schools and the like not only lose but are unable to convince anyone respected or influential that their cause is legitimate.

Non-Denominational and Populist Approaches

This is what the Left calls the “radical religious right.” They have a great many supporters and a great deal of support in American history, but they have been losing all their battles, in part because they tend to lack an adequate theoretical grasp of the situation.

Libertarian Perspectives

One approach to the naked public square is radically to reduce the functions of the public square.

Reform (Calvinist) Perspectives

They probably have the best-developed theoretical perspective on the issues.

Roman Catholic Perspectives

Given its history and way of operating one would expect the Church of Rome to have the best-developed theory of church-state relations. Its outlook is somewhat in disarray, however, in part because of Vatican II and in particular uncertainty regarding Dignitatis Humanae and its relationship to earlier doctrinal statements.

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