dinsdag 15 januari 2013

Church and State

It is, apart from the hostilities that there may be between Muslims and Jews, remarkable how much these two cultural-religious groups have in common. This can appear when it comes to parallel rituals and customs such as circumcision and dietary laws. It also appears to apply to a completely different field, that of the constitutional question of the extent to which it is desirable to separate religion and state. Anyway, neither Islamic States nor Israel just let themselves be squeezed into the straitjacket of an absolute separation of church and state.

I arrive at this parallel after hearing a lecture by Joseph Weiler, an expert on constitutions of countries around the world. His lecture starts from the question whether, if Israel wants emphatically to be a Jewish state, the separation of church and state would be jeopardized. And if so, whether that would be bad.

It actually looks like being bad. Because at first sight, says Weiler, there seems to exist but one proper view on the relationship between church and state. Namely, the one according to the French and American constitutions. In them religion and state are considered to be fully detached from each other, so to be things which can very well be absolutely separated and should be so. France and America don’t want to be nation states, but rather states of their citizens regardless of their faith or group identity.

That paradigma served as an example and has become normative for much thinking about the separation between church and state. And that's weird, Weiler thinks, because except for France and the U.S., there are in fact no other countries in the world with such absolute separation. For most of the cultures, there are not only the state on the one side, and the individual on the other side. If that’s the case, religion and group identity could indeed very well disappear behind the frontdoor and the state would be absolutely religionfree.

But for most countries, there is also such a thing as a national sentiment, a collective identity. Coupled with the belief that this identity should take shape in the establishment of a collective fundamental right. This is for example what the Egyptians want at this time, by adopting a constitution with references to Sharia. This is what Italy wants when it comes to crucifixes on the walls in classrooms. And it is what the Israeli people want by emphatically stating that Israel should not only democratic but also Jewish in character.

Besides these empirical observations Weiler suggests that a neutral position in these matters is, even from a theoretical point of view, an impossibility: those who want neutrality, form an ideological group alongside other ideologies or religions. So opting for neutrality is not neutral, but is favoring that particular group. In a society where the main dividing line is not between religious groups such as Christians, Jews or Muslims, “but between religious people and irreligious people, there is no luxury of neutrality. Laïcité is not a neutral position”.

It should be taken for granted, he adds, that there must be religious freedom, “freedom of religion and freedom from religion”. But actually, a country with a fully-fledged parliamentary democracy and respect for personal freedom may very well have a religious identity. For that reason Weiler fought before the European Court of Human Rights for Italy's right to hang crucifixes in the classrooms.

By the way, in this identity struggle Israel does not only resemble Egypt and some other Islamic countries. It runs, except with Italy, also in line with most other European countries, says Weiler. Look at England, where the Queen is head of the church, or to Greece where a government is ordained by the Orthodox Church.

And conversely: France, although striving to strict neutrality, is not always successful in curbing French chauvinism. As Geert van Istendael wrote: the gift of Fraternite was only granted to those who spoke French.

Also see Progress after all