Probing Question: Is the separation of church and state possible?

Terrible news pours in daily from Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and other violent hot-spots where religion intermingles with politics. Here in the U.S., a country founded on freedom of religion, there is fierce debate about religion's influence in government.

The U.S. founders' principles of no state religion and religious freedom introduced the world to the new idea of separation of church and state, says Roger Finke, Penn State professor of sociology and religious studies. Historically, governments had been closely tied to a state religion.

"What happens in the U.S. is viewed as a great experiment," says Finke, co-author with Rodney Stark of The Churching of America, 1776 to 2005: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy.

Finke argues that the American model leads to a "free marketplace" of many religions, which promotes religious freedom for citizens. But "When states attempt to completely separate church and state," he says, "they are faced with a new challenge: how to do so without violating the religious freedoms of the people." Thus, U.S. courts struggle to decide how institutions like schools allow an individual's religious freedom without promoting religion.

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As director of the Association of Religious Data Archives (ARDA), a database of international religion data housed in the Social Science Research Institute at Penn State, Finke oversees a collection of data on religious freedom in nearly 200 countries.

To gather that data, U.S. embassy workers all over the world asked local people questions about their government's openness to new religions, whether it imprisons people for their religious beliefs and how frequently people suffer religious-based discrimination when they look for a school, a place to live or a job.

"What we're interested in finding out is when nations have less regulation of religion, what impact does it have on religious persecution, the formation of democracy, and economic development?," says Finke.

According to ARDA, The Netherlands, Japan, and Brazil get the best scores for protecting religious freedoms and limiting religion's influence over state affairs. Countries that score poorly include China, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

The United States would place high among countries offering freedom of religion, says Finke. But the U.S. has not been scored because the State Department does not gather this type of data in regions under U.S. control.

Although nearly 90 percent of all nations with a population of at least 2 million officially guarantee religious freedom, Finke reports, in 50 percent of the world's nations, people are physically abused or forced out of their homes due to their religious beliefs. "People don't realize that a state constitution may guarantee freedom, but also can contradict itself by promoting a state religion," says Finke, pointing to Abdul Rahman, an Afghan citizen whose case drew international outcries this spring when he faced a possible death sentence for converting from Islam to Christianity.

The Afghan constitution both proclaims all religions "free to exercise their faith and perform religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law" and states that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."

This contradiction is fairly common, Finke asserts.

"If there is a lack of religious regulation, and when religions are free to exist and free to compete, that results in less persecution and less conflict between the religions," says Finke, citing both Voltaire and Adam Smith. "But when religion is given the power of the state, that's where a real danger occurs."

More than 4,000 people daily visit ARDA online. In July 2005, Penn State received funding to expand the database internationally and add the religious-freedom profiles of 195 nations, built from data collected in 2003 by U.S. embassies around the globe.

Roger Finke, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and religious studies in the College of the Liberal Arts. His e-mail is rfinke@psu.edu.

Last Updated September 18, 2006