The idea of religious life and civil life being very connected and related goes back quite a long ways. 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 and 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 that have adopted this position, such as the US. Turkey, whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim, is also an officially secular country. There are many countries that have rich religious histories yet today are characterized as secular.
The principles of the French Revolution—liberty, equality, and fraternity—were principles manifested during a time of great discontent with what was called the Ancien Regime, the old regime. This was the aristocracy and disproportionate political and social power and control. These principles 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 of Louis the XIV, Napoleon Bonaparte signed an agreement called the Concordant. This agreement brought the Roman Catholic Church under direct control of the new French government, the first Republic of France.
The structure of the Concordant agreement outlined some of the first formal separations between church and state powers. Some components of this agreement were that the state would pay church salaries, and clergies swore allegiance to the government. 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, but it would allow and subsidize certain freedoms of religion and their institutions, including Judaism and some branches of Protestantism.
The issue of state neutrality with regard to religion continued to be a concern. With the second and third Republics, you see a movement toward a very strict secularism. 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 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 Laïcité. 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.
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Ted Fairchild.