Rebuilding the Wall


Rebuilding the Wall

John Campbell

07 Feb 2014

Where multiple faiths share a political space, deeply held beliefs can divide societies. The answer is to keep faith out of the public square, writes John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations

Tony Blair should be congratulated for facing head-on the uncomfortable fact that terrorism is often motivated by religion. For the former British Prime Minister, terrorism is "a perversion of faith." But, for the perpetrators, it is often at the heart of their faith.

Mr Blair acknowledges the misgovernance, the economic, and social roots of much of modern terrorism. But, he also highlights an important reality: the role of education and technology in disseminating hate and division.

Mr Blair is also right when he says that democracy is a way of thinking, not just the act of voting. Cultural and religious differences require open-minded and tolerant respect and behaviour. And here, education is key. Given the saliency of religious and cultural issues, Blair observes that education is a security issue. That is why he should be applauded for the establishment of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which seeks to encourage greater knowledge and understanding among those of different faith traditions.

Perhaps the former prime minister's op-ed could also be a starting point for reconsidering the role of formal religion in public life. Of late much is said about the need to accord religion "space" in the "public square" as intrinsic to religious freedom. However, it is said that when New Amsterdam became New York in 1665, there were already seventeen different religions being practiced by the inhabitants. There were legally established churches in colonial America that persisted in New England until the era of Andrew Jackson. Nevertheless, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, among others, came to see that rigid separation of church and state was essential to keep the peace and promote individual liberty in a venue of bewildering diversity such as New York. That conclusion might be a valuable lesson for other religiously divided societies and where terrorism makes use of religious faith.

Thomas Jefferson's resulting "wall" between church and state became an important characteristic of the American republic. Even today, the only Federal holiday associated with religion is Christmas Day. No other holidays of any religious faith are officially recognised. Parallel to the American tradition of making "no law respecting the establishment of religion," the United States has been the most fervent in private religious practice among the nations of the developed world. At present, the "wall" is developing cracks, and it may not be coincidental that as religion is becoming more salient in the "the public square," so too is the rise of more militant secularism and the decline of faith elsewhere.

A restoration of firm boundaries between church and state in the United States may become even more important in the future than it was in the past given increasing religious multiplicity in "the public sphere." This boundary might also be worth thinking about in religiously divided countries such as Syria, Iraq, or Nigeria.