Will Charles-Camilla marriage spark church-state divorce?

Sunday, April 17, 2005

While in Britain last week, I was heartened by an editorial in The Independent with the provocative headline: “Time to put church and state asunder.”

A couple of centuries late, perhaps. But thanks to the remarriage of Prince Charles, the Brits may finally be waking up to the benefits of that great American invention known as “the separation of church and state.”

The Prince of Wales, it appears, may remarry under civil law. But as future Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Charles may not remarry in the church. Hence the civil ceremony (which the current supreme governor, his mother the Queen, would not attend) was followed by a “blessing ceremony” led by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

All of this has been accompanied by much hand-wringing among the faithful about whether or not the civil marriage alone can be considered “marriage” for the man who will someday head the Church of England.

In a strange twist of history, the royal wedding had to be postponed a day so that the divorcee Protestant  prince could attend the funeral of the Roman Catholic pontiff — leader of the very church that excommunicated the English King Henry VIII in 1533 over the issue of divorce. Henry then became head of the Church of England so that he could make his own rules. But royal power isn’t what it used to be — and today poor Charles cannot be remarried in the church.

If you view the plight of Charles and Camilla as much ado about nothing, you’re not alone. Many of the prince’s own subjects find his dilemma more than a little ridiculous. “If proof were still needed,” opined The Independent, “that it was time to disestablish the Church of England, this was it. The attachment of church and state in this country is long out of date; it needs to be abolished.”

But wait, you say. Surely the British “establishment” is harmless enough. Beyond the potential embarrassment of having a head of state as head of a state church (George W. Bush? Bill Clinton?), what’s the harm? After all, the United Kingdom is a land of religious toleration, a nation where people are free to practice any faith or — as is increasingly the case these days — none.

In fact, the British establishment is so tolerant that the government gets entangled in many faiths, not just the established church. State money, for example, now goes to a variety of religious schools — Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh.

If you advocate state funding for American religious schools, the British arrangement may be tempting. But before you call for a repeal of the First Amendment, take a closer look.

With an established church, the government may decide to “tolerate” any number of religions. But religious toleration isn’t religious freedom. What the state has the power to grant today, it has the power to withdraw tomorrow.

Moreover, government funding is a decidedly mixed blessing for religious schools. Earlier this year, Britain’s chief school inspector urged more regulation of the private religious schools selected for funding by the government. “This growth in faith schools needs to be monitored by the government to ensure that pupils at all schools receive an understanding of not only their own faith but of other faiths and the wider tenets of British society.” In other words, with shekels come shackles.

Government support for religion in Britain or anywhere else, however well-intentioned, is inevitably bad for religion. If you don’t believe this, visit the great English cathedrals on Sunday mornings and whom do you see? Mostly tourists.

Religious toleration had arrived in England by the late 18th century, but that wasn’t good enough for Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and some (but not all) of the other American founders. Religious freedom, they argued, required full disestablishment — an end to the entanglement of church and state that had been a leading source of oppression and conflict throughout history.

With the Revolution came the birth of religious freedom, American-style. “All possess alike liberty of conscience,” wrote President George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Rhode Island in 1790. “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”

Few Americans want a return to the days of an established church (when, for example, Baptists in the colony of Virginia were imprisoned for preaching the Gospel). But some argue that “separation” has gone too far — and they may be right in some cases. Attempts to remove all references to religion from the American public square have given the First Amendment a bad name. The establishment clause is supposed to separate church from state, not religion from politics or public life.

Despite our ongoing debate about how high or low a wall is needed to separate church from state, most Americans still strongly support separation as a core principle of religious liberty.

Is this principle of separation finally ready to cross the pond? After his muddled remarriage, Prince Charles could well become the king who finally erects a British wall between church and state. He has already indicated (by word and deed) that he has little stomach for “Defender of the Faith,” one of the titles he is set to inherit. He prefers, he says, to be “defender of faiths.”

Better still, Prince Charles could lead the charge for disestablishment — and thereby become defender of religious freedom for people of all faiths or none.

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