Separation, States and Secularism

“There is as yet no liberty if the power of judging be not separated from legislative power and the executive power” (Montesquieu)

Somethings should just be kept separated, apart and distinct. Undoubtedly there are things that do improve for being together, tea and biscuits, for example. Then there’s blue and green that apparently should never be seen!

So what about separating the different powers of a nation’s government?  Do people understand and agree with where and how-well the walls of separation are constructed? Most modern constitutions, written or otherwise, call for their national powers to be, in some way, separated.

In the United Kingdom there is a tripartite system, the Legislative (House of Commons and House of Lords) and the Executive (originally the Monarch, but now effectively the Cabinet) and finally the Judiciary are required to operate separately and to keep a check on each other’s powers. This is rather a simplification as things are more complex following the devolution of powers to regional Governments and bodies, however the principle remain the same.

This arrangement is not perfect, there is some cross-over with Prime Ministers who head the Executive  but who are there because they are the leader of the largest political party in the Legislative (Parliament).  Generally speaking the Judiciary are more distinct.  The process of the Legislative producing Statutory Laws and the Judiciary interpreting them and producing Judge-made law (precedent) is not perfect, but it works reasonably successfully.

Most countries have a variation of this system, some more complicated and some completely unformed.  France, in common with the UK has a tripartite system and was notably the birthplace of one of the greatest exponents of the need for the separation of powers; the political philosopher, Baron de Montesquieu, author of the seminal book The Spirit of the Laws (1748).  Montesquieu believed that no sector of a state should hold too much power and that there should be ‘checks and balances’ to guard against any centralisation of influence.

Understanding the different ways that powers are separated within different European countries helps you appreciate the challenges of imposing of a Supranational Polity, such as the European Union.  The EU has separated its own powers into 6 distinct realms, so these on top of the differing member states’ variously separated powers does create a potential minefield.

We know that democracy is a fragile and illusive concept.  So what happens when we add to the mix an established church guiding our political leaders’ belief structure?  Following, the UK’s decision to deny the EU’s influence on its domestic politics; will a light now be shone on the UK’s unelected established church?  Should modern countries be secular and keep all religions matters, private and separate from their governance.  This is not a question designed to undermine individual religions or beliefs.  It’s just that if transparency, democracy and due process are required from governments it seems like this is a critical question to consider. 

Furthermore, can only one religion be part of a nation’s governance? Where does that leave other believers and atheists? Should our political leaders be openly declaring their beliefs, what about leaders that believe in creationism when many Christians do not?  To an atheist, a leader that believes in Father Christmas is as viable as one that believes in the resurrection.  It is almost impossible to resolve these issues and so maybe the whole subject is best left entirely to the private sphere.  I suspect that if you were designing a nation’s administration from scratch you would have to decide to leave all religions completely out of political and legal life.

Modern nations have evolved through centuries of religious power-struggles, oppression and self-interest.  Churches have controlled, inspired and devastated in equal measures and most religions have long out-lived most political parties and ideologies.  But the world is so now much more global, complicated and diverse than ever before.  

Interestingly, France is a secular state with a complete separation of its state and church.  The principle of Laicité (which translates as secularism, but actually has a much more profound meaning to the French) was set in law by the 1905 law on the ‘Separation of the State and the Church’. However, this principle has driven and guided the country since its revolution.  Back in 1789 the population was as keen to overthrow the shackles of the Roman Catholic Church as it was keen to dispatch its nobility.  The Roman Catholic Church lost its lands, money and virtually all its influence and there’s been no established French church since then. 

People of all religions and none are welcome in France, but no religious doctrine can form part of the running of the Republic. Individual religious beliefs must be kept private and never enter public life.   

The Government of the United Kingdom has always had an alliance with a church, originally the Roman Catholic Church and then the Church of England established by Henry V111 (in 1534) which remains in place today (not Scotland and Wales’s  national churches  and Norther Ireland has no national church).  The British monarch has the constitutional title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The canon law of the Church of England states, "We acknowledge that the Queen's most excellent Majesty, acting according to the laws of the realm, is the highest power under God in this kingdom, and has supreme authority over all persons in all causes, as well ecclesiastical as civil."

Currently, in the House of Lords there are 26 senior English Archbishops and Bishops who sit as the 'Lords Spiritual'.  Then in the House of Commons there’s the Second Church Estates Commissioner (generally a Member of Parliament from the majority political party) who guides church legislation and answers MP’s questions on church matters. There’s a Parliamentary Ecclesiastical Committee, made up of MPs and Peers, it scrutinises Church of England legislation, before it is sent for approval by both Houses of Parliament.  The Speaker of the House of Commons also appoints an Anglican Chaplain, whose then leads the House of Commons in prayer at the start of each day.

In France when there are matters before the Legislative (such as, for example, same-sex marriage) religion cannot be brought into the discussion or decision-making process.  God(s) have no say in what is good for the people of the Republic.  Citizens of France are seen as members of the Republic above and beyond any other affiliations, including religions.

In the United Kingdom issues of legislation, particularly those that may affect matters such as ‘family life’ or ‘ethics’, can end up being convoluted with issues of faith, perceived morality and the religious belief of decision-makers who are actually making decisions on behalf of people of the same and different faiths and none.  

One of the reasons given for the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU was its unwelcome interference in British legislation; so how does the presence of an established and unelected church within the Palace of Westminster remain effectively unchallenged?

It is interesting to note that, in theory, the United States of America has separated its church and state, however its banknotes suggest that ‘in God we Trust’ and all Presidents repeat ‘God bless America’.  President Bush was a regular partaker of prayer meetings in the White House.  Could an atheist be elected to the White House? This does not seem like particularly efficient separation of powers.

So why does all this matter? Well, to understand how countries react to situations you need first to have some insight into the influences behind their reactions.  Consider the European reactions to the public wearing of Islamic dress.  In France, history suggests that this reaction may be to prevent anything from obscuring that essential first alliance to the Republic.  An upholding of the principle of Laicité and a belief that religion is a private matter which should not visibly extend to those around you.  Perhaps in the UK the instinct is to maintain the supremacy of the Church of England.  Maybe neither is the case, but it is worth thinking about and when did you last here anyone discussing this?

A solution is not obvious and maybe the status quo is entirely acceptable.  It is however crucially important that in order to grow and to understand national differences and to help encourage national cooperation we all become more aware.


By Anna Atkinson

published 11/16