Classical liberalism recommends, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “a wall of separation” between church and state. In his case for religious toleration, John Locke argued that separation protects people from the “compulsive force” of individuals trying to inculcate “certain doctrines” through “fire and sword.” Robert Audi later added that “if the state prefers one or more religions, its people might well find it hard to practice another …”
These thinkers recognized that state sponsors of religion unfairly disfavor dissenting citizens by forcing them to buttress religious programs that they oppose. We can extend this observation to say that state discrimination against certain theists — the sort of discrimination that existed in the Soviet Union, for example — also subordinates citizens on the basis of religion and therefore weakens the separation of church and state as well. Classical liberalism generally grapples with these realities by prescribing a state system wherein peaceful groups, both religious and non-religious, may operate freely.
The problem with this prescription is that no such state has ever existed or can ever exist. To understand why, we must remember that a state is defined by its coercive monopoly on the use of force in a particular geographic area. Although states can theoretically employ lotteries, user fees, and other arguably non-coercive mechanisms to survive, actual states tend to sustain themselves through taxation instead. Two of the most widespread features of states, then, require the use of force against innocent people.
We will quickly find that these types of state coercion preclude the unimpeded practice of peaceful religion. Consider a case in which this fact is abundantly clear — the case of a theocracy, for instance, wherein each citizen must give 20 percent of her income to an established state church. This legal arrangement plainly violates the separation of church and state, as it requires every religious dissident to run afoul of her conscience by bankrolling a church that she does not support. In assisting a single religion at the taxpayers’ expense, it thwarts the religious exercise of dissidents who, with 20 cents of their every dollar devoted to a religion that they reject, have 20 cents fewer to donate to organizations that they actually embrace.
Let us now consider a tougher case: a liberal democracy in which the government maintains a nominal separation of church and state and uses taxpayer dollars only for such secular purposes as the creation of public roads, public bridges, public schools, police forces and courts. Because it does not explicitly endorse any particular religion, this state might appear unobjectionable. No Catholic taxpayer, the state’s apologists might note, ever has to subsidize directly the salary of a Protestant minister. But suppose that a neo-Luddite citizen approaches this liberal government and refuses to pay taxes for roads. Suppose that this neo-Luddite’s objection to automobile use (and the roads that enable it) is just as sincere as a neighboring Catholic’s objection to Protestantism. If the state opts to arrest this neo-Luddite tax resister, the state is respecting Catholics over Neo-Luddites and is thereby contravening the separation of church and state.
Next, let us envision a minimal state that taxes citizens only to protect their bodies, to safeguard their property, and to enforce their contracts. This arrangement is also exceptionable. Although the state now has fewer opportunities to compel people to violate their consciences, some opportunities remain. For example, an atheist taxpayer still has to pay for the police force that a local church uses to fend off belligerent protestors. That subsidy is not insubstantial, as it frees up other funds for the church to devote to its religious activity. Remember also that whatever tax dollars the atheist involuntarily hands over to the local church are dollars that he cannot spend on an organization he actually favors.
This subsidy problem runs in the opposite direction as well. In a minimal state, Christian taxpayers must finance the state’s protection of an art gallery full of anti-Christian images. That too is unacceptable, as it also forces peaceful people to violate their moral codes.
There is still another state arrangement for us to consider. In this final arrangement, the state retains a police force and legal system but eschews taxation in favor of lotteries, user fees, and other non-aggressive methods of generating revenue. The taxation problems therefore disappear, but another set of problems remains.
Assume that a woman living under this minimal government belongs to a church that prohibits its members from speaking to men. Now assume that this woman gets assaulted and decides to seek some form of restitution from her assailant. We find that this victim, who has aggressed against nobody, here must make an unenviable choice. She can, on the one hand, call the state police, run the risk of interacting with male police officers, and thereby run the risk of violating her religious beliefs. She can, on the other hand, hire a female co-religionist to drag the assailant to the community’s own “court of law.” If she chooses this latter option, she and the co-religionist, both of whom are initiating a strictly retaliatory use of force, could very well face legal repercussions for subverting the government’s monopoly on violence.
This example shows us that even a bare-bones state, winnowed down to a state’s most basic functions, cannot exist without restricting the non-aggressive exercise of religion. Locke hinted at this reality but made clear that, no matter how fervently he believed in separation, he could not bring himself to endorse a system in which people may “deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince. For by this means the magistrate would give way to the settling of a foreign jurisdiction in his own country …”
Though it might be discomfiting at first, we must allow Locke’s dreaded “jurisdictions” to arise. Unalloyed, peaceful religious and philosophical exercise can occur only if people have the freedom to govern themselves. Indeed this means that “the separation of church and state” is impossible without getting rid of coercive states entirely and replacing them with “free and voluntary societ[ies]” that people join as they see fit.