I have said for some time now that religion does not respect boundaries, that it is about power and control, and that the ideal of freedom of religion is deeply flawed. Imagine, then, my reading Shadia Drury’s Op-Ed piece in the current issue of Free Inquiry, entitled “Is freedom of religion a mistake?” This is first paragraph of her Op-Ed:
Freedom of religion is a hard-core American value that is rarely questioned. It was supposed to be the ultimate solution to the grisly wars of religion that ravaged Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But religion is rarely satisfied with liberty. It invariably seeks dominance. It is akin to a wild beast that cannot be tamed; the brute is always there and ready to turn on its benefactor. 
The pull-quote on the page is this:
… Religion is rarely satisfied with liberty. It invariably seeks dominance.”
Well, you can’t say truer than that. Religion does not respect boundaries. It is about power and control, and will not be content until it achieves it. Religious people are jealous of every sign that other religions are being more successful than theirs, and they will do everything possible to compete for dominance. The ultimate dominance, of course, is control over the springs of political power.
It is not for nothing that the Roman Catholic Church has had a hissy fit about the American Department of Health and Human Services announcement that all institutions funded by the federal government will be required to make contraception and other reproductive services a required part of health insurance for employees. The conference of bishops immediately issued their non placet, and had their obedient lackeys out in force to reinforce the bishops’ hold on political power, showing that, by fair means or foul, they were quite prepared to force the government to back down on something that was not only a just demand attached to federal funding of sectarian institutions, but to acknowledge the right of the church to govern itself by a law of its own, without appeal to the law of the state. This was, undoubtedly, the primary reason for a response which was completely out of proportion to any offence that could be thought to have been caused, and it was based, almost exclusively, on a supposed right to freedom of religion.
But freedom of religion was never supposed to create conditions in which religious institutions should be recognised as a law unto themselves, such that they could subvert state law in favour of their own governing principles. The point of freedom of religion, as Shadia Drury points out, was to short-circuit the forces which led to civil unrest and the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the course of making her point, Ms Drury puts her finger on the nub of the issue. Who shall be in charge: the church or the state? The Reformation settlement in Britain, in terms of which the church became subject to the crown, as the head of the church, rather surprisingly prepared the ground, in the end, for a subordination of religion and religious law to the state and state law. As Drury puts it, reflecting on the separation of church and state in the United States:
The state is prohibited from interfering in religious faith by creating an established church akin to the Church of England, which was established by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as a means of preventing the Catholic Church from making the states of Europe the … instruments of its nefarious commands: Kill these heretics! Segregate these Jews! Burn these witches! The newly established church was subordinate to the Crown — and still is. In contrast, American churches are free. It is no wonder that they are so much admired by the pope, who applauds the way they use their freedom to reestablish the dominion over the state that he believes is rightfully theirs. 
Drury does not make her point clear. It seems, at first glance, that her reference to the church by law established in Britain is made in a critical spirit; on the other hand, it seems that having an established church has made it less likely that religion will be tangled up in the nations affairs, since the church is subordinate to the state (the Crown), and responsible to it. Like the old saw — “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” — the church, while having a modicum of influence of power in governance through the “Lords Spiritual” in the House of Lords, is also required to argue for its position, and cannot, in the end, play a dominant role in matters of law and state policy. In the United States, on the other hand, by being free, churches are able, by competing in the political market place, to exercise a control over government that can only be dreamed of by successive archbishops at Lambeth. Religious influence is at one more general and more insidious. It is less able to be checked, for freedom of religion seems to imply that, in the absence of an established religion, those who aspire to political office can use religion to attract votes, and even, it seems, to demolish basic principles of democracy in their quest for power.
As Drury says, “there is nothing in the [American] Constitution that requires the state to be secular.” (44) The clause that states that there shall be no establishment of religion does not support secularism, she points out, but nonsectarianism, which turns out to be a very different thing. Indeed, she carries on from this point to show that, in fact, the founding fathers of the republic, though they were enlightenment men at heart, also had a fairly soft spot for biblical iconology, and thought of the American Republic in terms of election and destiny, even going so far as to say that
Faith in America’s election was not restricted to radical Puritans or supposedly enlightened Founding Fathers. It is still rampant among the staunchest American Atheists. 
Regarding the latter point, I do not have evidence either way; those who know will have to judge whether what Drury says is right on this point. However, the point she draws from this, I think, is probably a valid one:
… if the freedom of religion is to be renegotiated [as she thinks it must be], then both sides must respect the wall of separation. The wall of separation must be understood as a pact of mutual forbearance and non-interference that goes both ways. The state offers the churches freedom, but in exchange, the churches must mind their own business where political affairs are concerned. 
About the likelihood of that I am not in a position to comment, though it seems, on the face of it, unlikely. The American civil religion, upon which the doctrine or idea of election is premised, is too intermeshed with the sectarian religious beliefs of Americans for it to be abandoned in favour of an effective wall of separation. Indeed, most Americans doubtless think that the possibility of founding a state on secular principles is doomed from the start, since many have no (or very little) conception of the possibility of founding a nation as a moral community of equals on anything less than belief in God and that god’s purposes for the nation. How this interdependence of religion with the American sense of being a light to the nations, with a mission to bring freedom to others in favour of a secular America, can be undone, is very difficult to see. But until the divorce is made, religious imperatives will continue to be central to the American political consciousness, and Catholic bishops and Southern Baptists and other religionists will continue to play a central role in determining the outcome of elections, and the making of law. And with the marked intrusion of other religions and their priorities into the American political landscape, the urgency of making this separation becomes even more important. What part the new atheists can play in this process is still undetermined, but it is of enormous importance that American atheists be clear that the wall of separation between religion and the state is of crucial importance to those who do not wish to be governed by religious laws and priorities.