Noah Smith: Render unto Ceasar

Rembrandt’s etching “The Tribute Money,”  depicting the moment Jesus said “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s.”

Rembrandt’s etching “The Tribute Money,” depicting the moment Jesus said “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s.”

I am pleased to be able to put up another guest religion post by Noah Smith. I find this post especially interesting because it raises deep issues of individual libertarianism vs. group libertarianism vs. Utilitarianism.

This is Noah’s 8th guest religion post on Don’t miss the other seven days’ worth of Noah’s creations!

  1. God and SuperGod
  2. You Are Already in the Afterlife
  3. Go Ahead and Believe in God
  4. Mom in Hell
  5. Buddha Was Wrong About Desire
  6. Noah Smith: Judaism Needs to Get Off the Shtetl
  7. Why Do Americans Like Jews and Dislike Mormons?

Here is Noah:

Recently, the radio show This American Life had an episode called “A Not-So-Simple Majority,” about Hasidic Jews is a town called Ramapo, about an hour north of New York. Apparently what happened was that the Hasidic Jews moved in until they were a majority, then threatened to strip funding for public schools unless the local school board didn’t investigate what was being taught – or not taught – in the religious private schools the Hasids were running. Naturally, the school board takeover was accompanied by copious references to Hitler and the Nazis.

Another incident I noticed recently was an incident in which a Hasidic Jew refused to sit next to a woman on a flight – ultra-Orthodox Judaism requires that men view women not in their family as “unclean,” because they might be menstruating – which caused the flight to be delayed. I realized that if this disruption had been caused for other, non-religious reasons – say, because someone refused to sit next to a fat person, or a person of another race – the offenders would likely have been thrown off the plane. (Because the airline is a corporation, this may not sound like a church/state issue, but the airline was no doubt worried about legal issues, which brings in the state. And separation of church from public corporation is important for some of the same kinds of reasons that separation of church and state is.) 

These incidents illustrate the importance of separation of church and state, even in the case of religious minorities. The U.S. and other Western countries have a tendency to enforce separation of church and state more forcefully when the “church” in question is the nationally dominant religion (Christianity). This is a bad policy born of a good impulse – it’s important to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority. But national dominance doesn’t equal local dominance, as the case of Ramapo shows. Another example is the battle over whether to allow Muslim communities to enforce sharia law in Canada.

This is a bad road to walk down. If religious minorities are given special license to violate the separation of church and state, there will be a number of negative consequences. First of all, it will provoke resentment among the religious majority, potentially leading to violent backlash or to the election of right-wing, intolerant politicians.

Second of all, it incentivizes the creation of more and more religious minorities, since these can expect to enjoy special rights and privileges. That in turn would lead to a Balkanized nation, in which religious communities rule everything, and very few people have a stake in civic life – imagine the airline brouhaha described above, but writ large, so that splintered religious communities simply refuse to allow public, cosmopolitan spaces to exist.

Finally, the Western value of equal treatment of individuals under the law is utterly violated if rights are accorded to groups rather than individuals. Affording rights to groups removes the government’s ability to protect individuals from “local bullies.” (In fact, I’ve argued that this is the big mistake modern American libertarianism makes.)