From public faith to “private” belief: an introduction

A short and helpful history of how religion went from the heart of Western culture to the edges of society

David J. Theroux, Founder of The Independent Institute, Publisher of The Independent Review, and Founder and President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California, reflects on the historical shift that has moved religion from the center of Western life to the private fringes of society:

However in the Renaissance, religion became viewed as a “private” impulse, distinct from “secular” politics, economics, and science.[7] This “modern” view of religion began the decline of the church as the public, communal practice of the virtue of religio. And by the Enlightenment, John Locke had distinguished between the “outward force” of civil officials and the “inward persuasion” of religion. He believed that civil harmony required a strict division between the state, whose interests are “public,” and the church, whose interests are “private,” thereby clearing the public square for the purely secular. For Locke, the church is a “voluntary society of men,” but obedience to the state is mandatory.[8]

The subsequent rise of the modern state in claiming a monopoly on violence, lawmaking, and public allegiance within a given territory depended upon either absorbing the church into the state or relegating the church to a private realm. As Cavanaugh notes:

Key to this move is the contention that the church’s business is religion. Religion must appear, therefore, not as what the church is left with once it has been stripped of earthly relevance, but as the timeless and essential human endeavor to which the church’s pursuits should always have been confined…. In the wake of the Reformation, princes and kings tended to claim authority over the church in their realms, as in Luther’s Germany and Henry VIII’s England…. The new conception of religion helped to facilitate the shift to state dominance over the church by distinguishing inward religion from the bodily disciplines of the state.[9]

For Enlightenment figures like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who dismissed natural law, “civic religion” as in democratic regimes “is a new creation that confers sacred status on democratic institutions and symbols.”[10] And in their influential writings, Edward Gibbon and Voltaire claimed that the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were “the last gasp of medieval barbarism and fanaticism before the darkness was dispelled.”[11] Gibbon and Voltaire believed that after the Reformation divided Christendom along religious grounds, Protestants and Catholics began killing each other for more than a century, demonstrating the inherent danger of “public” religion. The alleged solution was the modern state, in which religious loyalties were upended and the state secured a monopoly of violence. Henceforth, religious fanaticism would be tamed, uniting all in loyalty to the secular state. However, this is an unfounded “myth of religious violence.” The link between state building and war has been well documented, as the historian Charles Tilly noted, “War made the state, and the state made war.”[12] In the actual period of European state building, the most serious cause of violence and the central factor in the growth of the state was the attempt to collect taxes from an unwilling populace with local elites resisting the state-building efforts of kings and emperors. The point is that the rise of the modern state was in no way the solution to the violence of religion. On the contrary, the absorption of church into state that began well before the Reformation was crucial to the rise of the state and the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Read his entire essay, Secular Theocracy: The Foundations and Folly of Modern Tyranny”, on Ignatius Insight.


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About Carl E. Olson 1117 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.