The Secularist Argument for Establishment

unitarian.jpgThose 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.

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6 Responses

  1. Tom Cotter says:

    I noted in a recent work Hume’s argument that establishment was a social good, precisely because (in Hume’s view) establishment would tend to dissipate religious enthusiasm. The basic idea is that competition among religious sects provides a wider range of “products,” i.e., religious denominations, to satisfy virtually any taste. Monopolies, on the other hand, don’t feel as much pressure to satisfy consumers (in this instance, consumers of religious faiths). Hume’s friend Adam Smith favored religious competition precisely because he thought small competing groups would be more effective in enforcing compliance with those groups’ moral codes. More recently, Rodney Stark & Roger Finke have made similar observations about competition among religious denomnations in Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. I’m not sure if the point is universally true. Even with established churches stil existing in much of Europe today, there are competing religious denominations from which people may choose, and yet for the most part religious practice is much less widespread there than here. But it is an interesting concept to consider: the Establishment clause as a sort of Sherman Act for religious denominations . . .

  2. Pete Alces says:

    And it is comforting that not all Unitarians believe in a God, in any supernatural sense. (But then, 1 out of 33 Anglican ministers are, if I recall correctly, closet atheists — What the heck, it’s just a job!)

  3. Chris Bell says:

    The separation of church and state is meant to protect the church AND the state.

    Maybe Unitarians have something to fear from us! From people who will bend and stretch church doctrine to please a different constituency….

  4. Eric Alan Isaacson says:

    Evangelical Christians would do well to remember what they once said about the union of Church and State in Massachusetts.

    The committed evangelical historian, Robert Baird, wrote in 1856 that “it proved most disastrous in its consequences to the interests of true religion,” because “in many places societies, for it would be improper to call them churches, of Universalists and Unitarians began to be formed, and false preachers found support where, but for this law, no such societies or preachers would ever have existed.”

    Baird thought liberal religion foremost among “the accumulated evils which grew out of the connection between the Church and the State in Massachusetts,” and insisted that “[t]hose evils became so great that the friends of evangelical religion, in other words, of the orthodox faith of every name, resolved to unite in urging an amendment of the Constitution of the State, by which some better results might be obtained. Their efforts were crowned with success. The amendment having been voted by the Legislature in three successive sessions, 1831-33, became part of the organic law of the State, and the union of Church and State was brought to a close.”

    “On no point, I am confident, are the evangelical clergy of the United States, of all Churches, more fully agreed than in holding that a union of Church and State would prove one of the greatest calamities that could be inflicted on us . . . .”

    “In Massachusetts, which was the last of the States to abolish the union of the Church and the civil power, the change was adopted from a conviction of the evils, on the one side, resulting from the union in that State, and of the advantages, on the other side, that would accrue from its dissolution: a conviction that led all the evangelical denominations to combine for its overthrow. In fine, after nearly a quarter of a century of experience of the change, I apprehend not one person of influence in all their ranks will be found to regret it.”

    Robert Baird, Religion in America (New York: Harper & Brothers, rev. ed. 1856) (excerpts from pp. 193, 228, 234).

    A century and a half later, I guess America’s evangelicals have simply forgotten the lessons of history.

    Eric Alan Isaacson

  5. Susan S says:

    On Unitarians I always defer to my dear friend John S. “What can you resist?” he asked, when we were talking about his recent Sunday visits to the Unitarians. “No more than an hour for the service. A book sale. And food every Sunday.” That sounds pretty good to me too.

  6. Johan Richter says:

    Sweden doesn’t have a state church anymore, at least officially. It was abolished a few years ago.