The separation of church and state isn’t always clean

HA Hellyer explores the complex relationship between relgion and government

Norway has a long tradition of respecting fundamental rights of religion and worship. Torstein Boe / Reuters
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From January 1, a significant, if relatively unnoticed, event took place in northern Europe. The Kingdom of Norway officially disestablished its state church, leaving the continent of Europe with eight state churches in 2017.

Shortly before that, Huston Smith, a don of western religious studies and a very universalist academic in terms of religion and religious truth, died in the United States. His universalism was one model in the realm of engaging with religion. The Norwegian disestablishment – in policy terms rather than in academic terms – is another model entirely. At a time when religion continues to play a large and controversial role in international affairs, both in the West and in the Arab world, the questions that both models raise are not about to disappear.

Europeans have fought many decades of wars based on religious identity, so the Norwegian disestablishment is not trivial. It is quite poignant in seeing how supplications to secularism are now managed in the public arena. While anti-Muslim bigots and Islamophobes in the West frequently chastise Muslims for dissipating Christian values, as they were somehow an alien fifth column, these challenges to Christianity are coming not from the Muslim community. Those demanding church disestablishment across Europe come from Christians themselves, from other non-Muslim faith communities and from atheists.

What is even more substantial is that calls for disestablishment often take place with little to no support – and sometimes even opposition – from Muslim communities.

In the United Kingdom, for example, calls for disestablishing the Church of England have often been met with a great deal of antipathy from Muslim communities. Muslim community organisations and noted figures, it seems, would rather engage with the Church in a spirit of an interfaith way of life – and as part of a larger collective of faith communities – than act in opposition to it. Moreover, as a community that is hardly interested in the invisibility of religious commitment, there are few within it who seek a hardline interpretation of secularism. And if there is to be a reminder of the sacred in public life, then – a number of prominent Muslim British figures argue – it is fitting and appropriate that an established church represents that.

Of course, not everyone agrees – and considering the history of religion in public life in Europe, it’s not hard to see why. Quite apart from the considerable and growing anti-Muslim sentiment that exists in Europe today, there are those who are convinced that the record of engagement between the state and religious establishments over the centuries of intra-Christian conflict and anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe is proof enough that it is best that there is a firm distance between the two.

Different states in Europe have come to very different models – ranging from France’s strict and uncompromising secularist model – though the original laws of laicite are actually more liberal than some French politicians’ statements would have us all believe – to state-church establishment. In between, there are countries such as Spain and Italy that enter into agreements with religious communities, establishing rights and responsibilities between state structures and representative bodies of the faith body-politic. Other models also exist.

It would be comfortable and easy if we were able to say that this model or that model in Europe were the “best” one for protecting pluralism. Indeed, we could expand beyond that – the South African model, for example, or the Singaporean one. These are very different from each other, yet they protect religious freedoms and pluralism.

In the Muslim world, there is no “established church” because Islam does not admit a hierarchical ecclesiastical structure that could be “established”. But in many, if not most, majority Muslim countries, Islam is the “religion of the state”. This formula is in itself a remarkably modern idea – but that’s another discussion, perhaps, for another day.

The reality is that protecting pluralism in the most cohesive of fashions is not dependent purely on the model that is employed, but in how that model is interpreted in very real-life policies.

Huston Smith’s kind of pluralism might be more translatable in one model than in another, but a model itself does not necessarily specify a final outcome. It allows for options and it is down to societies to choose what options they wish to have.

Norway has just decided it wants to alter its model. In the final analysis, it simply remains to be seen if Norwegian society will be more or less pluralistic as a result. The changing of the model itself isn’t necessarily the biggest issue at all – it’s how the political powers of the day decide to interpret it. This Nordic country has a long tradition, nevertheless, of respecting fundamental rights – and there is every reason to believe that that respect will continue to extend to believers as well as non-believers. One hopes that on the rest of the continent, and far beyond, respect for fundamental rights remains paramount.

Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in ­London

On Twitter: @hahellyer