The Secularist Argument for Establishment
Those who worry about the Religious Right or who fall over themselves in support of faith-based initiatives ought to consider that the last formally established churches in America were . . . the Unitarians. After Justice Lemuel Shaw’s decision in Stebins v. Jennings, which transferred state-owned churches from Congregationalists to Unitarians, they were functionally the state church of Massachusetts until disestablishment.
Now when people wring their hands about the coming theocracy or call believers to the ramparts to defend America from the forces of godlessness, I doubt that they have in mind an army of Unitarians marching into the breach. Religious stereotypes are dangerous things to deal in, but I can’t divorce Unitarianism in my mind from a vision of well-educated, exquisitely tolerant and liberal Volvo drivers who assiduously contribute to PBS and NPR. In short, it seems to me that progressives have very little to fear from a Unitarian theocracy.
There is a point here that is lost in many of our discussion of church and state. Good eighteenth-century pagans like Hume and Gibbon were supporters of establishment precisely because they saw it as an important way of moderating religious impulses. They wanted well-behaved and tolerant citizens, and they saw the enemies as dissenters like Methodists whose enthusiasm they regarded as unseemly and socially dangerous. England has an established church, as do a number of other northern European countries, yet we do not think of the UK or Europe as being hotbeds of theocracy. (Although to be sure, the treatment of religious minorities by some European states leaves something to be desired from an American point of view.) In short, Hume and Gibbon seem to have been right: establishment had a moderating influence on religion. Indeed, one might even push the argument farther, and argue that establishment was the hand maiden to secularism. Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, most of the cantons of Switzerland, and Norway all have formally established churches. Yet this is hardly a catalog of the planet’s most religious societies.
In American politics establishment is not a position that anyone can openly avow, and as a result the arguments in its defense have largely slipped out of our political and legal discussions. Somewhat, ironically, however, the argument for establishment should have greater appeal to the enemies of the Religious Right than to its supporters. Indeed, I suspect that in their heart-of-hearts many a glum surveyor of religious politics in America today would prefer a bit of state-sponsored Unitarianism to George W. Bush.