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Os Guinness on French, English, and American Securalism

Church and state were not officially separated in France until February 21, 1795. But the overall explosion that the corrupt, coercive French establishment ignited against itself created a grand fusion of revolution and irreligion and led to a radical secularization of French public life, so that in France to be progressive still mostly means being secular and to be religious still means being viewed as reactionary. This is a key part of the French mentality that lingers to this day and bedevils the resolution of French conflicts over religion in public life, not to speak of the direction of the European Union. ¶ Astonishingly, too, Roman Catholic writers, from the popes down, who decry the militancy of French secularism today rarely acknowledge that this fierce secularism was bred and developed in direct reaction to their own earlier corruptions and has led to similar outbreaks of murderous anticlericalism elsewhere. These include the vicious Mexican repression of Catholics in the 1920s and the brutal Socialist slaughter of seven thousand priests, nuns, and bishops in Spain in 1936.

In 1688 in England, the settlement was different and so also was the result. The move toward secularization was discernible but slower, more moderate and more fitful — all because of a very different establishment. To be sure, the Glorious Revolution kept the Church of England as the established national church, but even the church’s critics granted that it was half reformed; and while there was open discrimination against the nonconformists, it was relatively mild. There was no wholesale repression, and there was no English equivalent of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, let alone the slaughter in the Vendée.

As a result, English history has never been characterized by the militant anticlericalism or the wilder extremes of French secularization. Yet the secularization has been steady if slow, and the Church of England today hardly seems more than a beautiful Gothic ornament in English public life, or a nationalized utility for the "hatching, matching, and dispatching" of citizens, rites of passage in the seasons of life. Remembering Davie’s important qualifications about "believing without belonging" and "vicarious religion," we should not dismiss this reduced role altogether. But Davie is equally clear that the church has indeed "lost its role as the keystone in the arch of European culture." Though still established, the Church of England is little more influential in England than the long-disestablished Catholic Church in France.

The year 1791 and the passing of the First Amendment put the United States at the other extreme from the start. Religion in America was clearly and decisively disestablished, but it flourished all the more — not so much in spite of disestablishment as because of it. Without the insidious embrace of church and state, religion in America was liberated to be a matter of free, voluntary, independent choice, dictated by conscience alone. It was therefore cut free from the deadly entanglements through which European religion had come to be the parent of its own secularization and the digger of its own grave.