John C. Blakeman
Issues of church and state are an important element of American religious history and politics. Church–state issues frequently concern the extent of government regulation over religious groups and individuals, and they address fundamental issues, from the constitutional limits on government regulation of religiously inspired conduct to state and local government zoning of religious congregations and property owned and used by religious groups.
Space is often a part of church–state issues. Beginning with early debates over religious liberty in the Puritan colonies in the 1600s, and again during the American Revolution and framing of the U.S. Constitution between 1775 and 1790, spatial conceptions of the proper role between church and state, and between government and religion, are prominent. Two fundamental thinkers on American religious liberty, the Puritan minister Roger Williams and the constitutional framer James Madison, illustrate this dimension of church–state relations.
Disputes over space, church, and state are often resolved by the court system through litigation, or through the political process. Such disputes often stem from government policies and regulations that affect how a congregation or religious group uses its own property. For instance, zoning and other municipal ordinances may affect and burden how a religious group uses its property and even interfere with a group’s religious mission. Religious beliefs may compel a congregation to use its property to engage in charitable works, yet it may be prohibited from doing so due to government regulations on how its property can be used. Or when a congregation seeks to expand its facilities to attract more members, or even build a new worship center elsewhere, it may encounter government policies that regulate its ability to do so.
Other disputes over space arise when government regulation of public property affects a religious group’s use of it. For example, some religious groups stake a sacred claim to land or other space owned by the government. However, government regulations concerning how the land is used might interfere with a group’s ability to act upon its sacred beliefs. In some cases, religious groups may seek to use public property for religious purposes and activities, such as the display of a religious symbol or for proselytizing to the public, and government policies may prevent that in order to avoid violating the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion in the First Amendment.
A final view of space and church–state issues is more conceptual and less grounded in tangible space, land, and property. Some religious groups seek a more abstract, intangible space between them and government regulation. Groups such as the Old Order Amish that seek to separate from the world will erect a buffer space between themselves and government regulation, so as to preserve the purity, and sanctity, of their way of life that is inextricably linked to their specific religious beliefs.
Intellectual debates and sociopolitical changes in Arab societies have brought about new political outlooks and consciousness, and have resulted in profound political change and restructuring of state institutions. Reform efforts successfully introduced modern political institutions, but failed in effecting a broad and systematic transformation of political culture, as the latter continues to be guided by notions and practices rooted in the premodern models of authoritarian (“sultanic”) governance. The drive to political reform under the rubric of Tanzimat started around the turn of the 19th century as a matter of necessity by both Ottoman rulers (sultans), and their governors in Egypt and Tunisia, in response to European imperial expansion into Africa and Asia. By mid-20th century, political institutions and state bureaucracies were restructured in the mold of modern political ideas. Yet these ideas, and the ethical foundations on which they stood, failed to mature in post-Ottoman Muslim societies. Conservative forces resisted the new ideas. With the increased disenchantment of Muslim youth with postcolonial states, conservative thinkers reintroduced Islamic notions and values into the debate over the proper form of government in contemporary Muslim societies. The push to modernize society has been intense, empowering Muslim modernists to move ahead to reshape societal institutions. The zeal to bring about quick development effected indeed rapid modernization but led to the rise of autocratic governments, and further polarized Muslims societies. Notions of popular sovereignty and equal citizenship were countered by the sovereignty of Shari`ah and the need for religious differentiation and religious autonomy, thereby demanding the revival of the historical institutions of caliphate and dhimmis. The debate gradually moved toward compromise, whereby Muslim intellectuals and scholars attempted a creative synthesis on the common ground found in both traditional Islam and modern democratic liberal ideas. The transformation into a model that aligns Islamic values with the principles of democracy (or shura) and equal rights of citizens, while profound and increasingly broad, is still incomplete, as current struggles in Muslim societies demonstrate; intellectual and practical battles for the soul of Muslim societies continue to rage. The push back in the last two decades against modern notions of state and citizenship, and the rise in popularity of groups that aim at reviving the premodern institution of caliphate underscore the debate between old and modern notions of political organization and allegiance, and require deeper understanding of the nature of the tensions between premodern and contemporary political ideas and institutions.