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Separation of Church and State

Separation of Church and State

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will provide an understanding of the concept of the separation of church and state.

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Source: Music by Edie Murphy:

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Hello, and welcome. Today we're going to talk about the separation of church and state.

The idea of religious life and civil life being very connected and related goes back quite a long ways. And the separation of church and state as an idea and concept goes back quite a ways also. The separation of church and state as a phrase, as an ideology, is really the distance in the relationship between organized religion and the affairs of the nation state. In this sense, it's a relatively modern term.

The principle of separating the powers of the church and the powers and the jurisdiction of the state has been adopted in a number of countries. However, there's a lot of variation as to how it is recognized and instituted depending on the applicable legal structures and the prevalent views of the proper role of religion in society. There are many modern countries which have adopted this position. For example, the US and Turkey, whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim, yet an officially secular country. And historically, there are also many countries which have rich religious histories yet today are characterized and can be described as secular.

One example of this is China, which during the era of the Han Dynasty in the third century had established Confucianism as the official state ideology. Another example that we're about to look at more closely is France. France is also a country with a rich and tumultuous religious history which is today strongly secular, though with a commitment to understanding the balance between freedom and equality.

The principles of the French Revolution-- liberty, equality, and fraternity-- were principles that were manifested during a time of great discontent, discontent with what was called the Ancien Regime, the old regime, the aristocracy and disproportionate political and social power and control. These principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity guided the overthrow of King Louis the XIV. The throne of the King was particularly tied to the power of the Roman Catholic Church, which owned large amounts of land and therefore had control over much of the country's resources and finances.

The revolution of 1789 sought to reorient this relationship of power by demanding that the clergy yield to the authority of the government. Not long after the overthrow Louis the XIV, Napoleon Bonaparte signed an agreement called the Concordant, an agreement that brought the Roman Catholic Church under direct control of the new French government, the first Republic of France.

The structure of this agreement outlined some of the first formal separations between church and state, church and state powers. For example, the state would pay church salaries and clergies swore allegiance to the government. And the church agreed to yield all of its lands within the borders of France. It also stated that Catholicism was the religion of the majority of the population of France and would allow and subsidize certain freedoms of religion and their institutions, including Judaism and some branches of Protestantism. However, the issue of state neutrality with regard to religion continued to be a concern. And with the second and third Republics, you see a movement toward a very strict secularism.

For example, in 1905 under the third Republic of France, secularism was officially instituted. Freedom of religion was acknowledged, but it was not supported. It was not subsidized in the way it had been in varying degrees in the past. The extremes, then, that France has gone through with regard to its understanding and support of church and state relations in a relatively short period of time from 1870 until the mid 20th century is truly a radical form of secularism. It's now called Laicite. It's a strict policy of Laicite. This form of secularism is most noticeable in the institutions of education, which have also gone through the turbulence of trying to make good sense of the role of religion in modern life.

Now we can review and summarize. The relationship between religious life and civilian life is a complex one, and it goes back a very long ways in history. If we look at ancient Greece, for example, the affairs of the state and the affairs of religion were very much involved in the trial of Socrates, who was accused for offending the gods. His philosophy and his Socratic approach to questioning was a challenge to the state religion. And the trial of Socrates was an implementation of state power based on religious beliefs and understandings. Therefore, we see throughout history a struggle with this idea of how religion plays a part in civilian life or not.

We talked about China, which has a rich religious history yet today is considered secular. Religion in other countries is allowed, and there is freedom of religion in many countries, yet the country is defined as a secular state. We used Turkey as an example of that, where the population is predominantly Muslim yet the country defines itself as a secular state.

Then we talked about a European country, France, which has a very rich and complex relationship between church and state. But we spoke specifically about the French Revolution and how that precipitated a strong separation of church and state. The term Laicite was our final vocabulary word. It's not an official vocabulary word, but it really defines a radical secularism that is still alive and present in the modern day and has been a model-- and particularly after the French Revolution was a model for separation of church and state in other countries, most notably the US, perhaps.

So with that, we'll move on to the next one. Look forward to seeing you next time.

Notes on "Separation of Church and State"

 Terms to Know


Separation of Church and State

The creation of separate religious and secular spheres in a society.


Pertaining to the world; not linked to religiosity.


Music by Edie Murphy, Public Domain, 

Terms to Know

Pertaining to the world; not linked to religiosity.

Separation of Church and State

The creation of separate religious and secular spheres in a society.