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Religion and Civil Order

To see how much the common understanding of the relationship between religion and civil order has changed, it is useful to look at what Locke says about religion and civil government in the Letter. In his argument about the separation of the "ecclesiastical" and the "civil," the distinction involved was not between a religious sphere and an irreligious one: Locke took for granted that religious principles were the foundation of the civil order. He also acknowledged the justice of theocracy in principle (by which he meant specifically a commonwealth in which civil and religious law and authority were combined). His famous contention that there could be no Christian commonwealth did not rest on any claim that theocracy itself was inherently unjust, but rather on the simple fact that no Christian commonwealth, or indeed any specific form of government, was prescribed in the Gospel; and only what was clearly warranted by the revealed scripture could be considered binding. However, where theocracy was ordained in the Holy Scripture itself, as it had been in the Law of Moses, Locke insisted, it was obligatory.

Locke was concerned, rather, with the just extent of the jurisdictions of civil and religious authority in a society where the general consensus in Christianity among the majority of citizens was obscured and overshadowed by violent dissensus between denominations. This disunity was intractable in the absence of any universally recognized source of authority to adjudicate the competing interpretations which had led to the fractionation of the body of the religion into sects. In proposing that the "civil" should be separate from the "religious," by "religious" Locke was referring primarily to the contentious sources of difference between denominations, not to the broad foundation of religious morality which was uncontested. It seems he was also trying to apply to the problem at hand a conceptual distinction, familiar to Christians, between "the `religious' duties owed directly to God," as contained in the first four of the Ten Commandments (concerning matters of faith and worship), and the "`moral' duties owed to fellow human beings" which made up the rest of the commandments (the social or moral laws concerning actions against persons and property, and so on). While laws concerning inner belief applied only to believers, the laws concerning outward behavior justly applied to every citizen, regardless of belief, as they constituted the moral basis of the civil order.

But the origin of both these duties in the revealed scriptures underscores the fact that the domains of the spiritual and the temporal, the "religious" and the "civil," are ultimately not radically separate but are two aspects of one reality. 30 The relevant distinction in this case involved that of competence to judge, and thus to impose punishment: only God could judge the sincerity of one's belief; but human authorities could judge actions in society. Locke wanted to ameliorate a prevalent condition of his time--the subjection of people to civil punishments for not belonging to the state church or attending worship--by putting things in their proper order. He proposed that membership in religious associations should be voluntary and never compulsory; that different faiths should be free to practice their beliefs (provided they did not engage in sedition against the civil order), and that civil power should be used only to enforce the civil, public laws of morality, public security, and order, while religious institutions should hold only the members of their own community to be bound by that religion's beliefs, practices, and laws. In making these proposals, Locke was in effect articulating the religious--not secular--principles for the just governance of a religiously plural society. The theocracy of the Israelite Commonwealth, Locke pointed out, was the source of the concept of "separation" he was arguing for, and he cited this fact as the highest possible warrant of its justice.

Locke also argued against the use of physical punishment or deprivation of property, whether imposed by religious or civil authorities, on anyone at all in matters of belief and worship, primarily because it was unwarranted in the Christian scriptures, and secondarily because it was ineffective anyway as coercion could never procure belief. But it would distort him out of context, and collapse a crucial conceptual distinction, to read this classic argument against coercion in matters of religion as an extension of rights of conscience specifically pertaining to the civil domain, into the domain of the voluntary religious community, as if its internal life were also, like the civil sphere, a space undefined by any commitments to particular beliefs or a distinctive way of life. To do this, as Locke correctly saw, would condemn any association based on belief to dissolution.

It is important to recognize that for Locke, and, for example, the framers of the U.S. Constitution, the fact that the revealed social laws of religion were the moral foundation of the civil order was never in question. In the U.S. constitutional era the "disestablishment" issue primarily concerned doing away with public tax support for churches, which amounted to extracting compulsory contributions to religious funds from nonbelievers. Yet introducing that explicitly financial "disestablishment" did not contradict the general expectation by all that government ought to operate on the basis of the moral principles of religion. Thus it can be said that, in a broader sense of the term, the "establishment"--that is, institutionalization--of those religious laws and values with civil application was never in question, nor even mentioned, except affirmatively, because it was the indispensable foundation of the society.

And it still is, for the deep structure of the Western legal system in general remains the biblical moral code and even church canon law, although the religious origins of the civil law have been largely effaced. According to sociologist Mattei Dogan, in spite of a decline in religious belief "in Europe, Christian morals have been absorbed into the State. The philosophy of the Ten Commandments, the prophets and the apostles is embodied in the civil legislation of the whole of Europe." In the sense that a society's governmental structures, processes, and laws represent the institutionalization of the moral values of its people, no state can exist without an "established," that is, institutionalized, set of beliefs that define its moral orientation. Those beliefs, implicitly, are prior to the institutional structures; without them, "institutions" are a hollow shell. And, inescapably, the moral authority of civil laws depends on an underlying belief in a legitimating conception of good that makes those laws right.

Wendy M. Heller explores the religious origins of the organizing principles of civil society, tracks their secularization in the modern era, and examines the prospect of an inclusive global moral order based on the enduring concept of covenant. This article appeared in the 1995-96 edition of The Bahá'í World, pp. 185-222.

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