One of the foundational principles put forth in the early decades of the American experiment was the notion of separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” Jefferson and others recognized that when the state promotes a religion, political freedoms, in general, and religious freedom, in particular, are diminished—at least for those who wish to practice a different faith. Moreover, a state such as this, we might also imagine that religious and state leaders will work together to maintain the religious hegemon, which will accompany greater power and privileges for the state’s religious figures and their followers. Of course, Jefferson was concerned primarily about religious freedom of U.S.’s citizens, believing that the wall would protect religious freedom and diversity of religious expression (leaving aside the persecution of Native peoples, Mormons, and other non-Christian peoples). When the state weds a particular religion the wall of separation becomes porous, diversity and freedom are weakened. I add here that the union of state and a religion is accompanied by disciplinary and justificatory organs of the state and dominant religion, which operate together to discipline, punish, and, in some cases, rid the body politic of transgressive religious individuals and groups. Put another way, when the state promotes one religion it tends to be preoccupied with producing and maintaining one brand of religious identity and practice, collapsing political subjectivity into a religious subjectivity.
Just to be clear, those who supported the wall of separation did not mean they thought religious people would not exercise their freedom to vote for individuals who represented their religious views or to influence local, state, and federal policy makers. Clearly, Christian denominations have had a significant impact in the political arena, which only confirms for me the necessity of the wall for people of other religious faiths and for those who are agnostic or atheist. The wall, then, is crucial to keeping the state from identifying with and supporting one religion.
There is another reason for a wall between church and state. When a sole religion becomes state sanctioned, its leaders tend to serve in positions of power within the state or have undue influence in making policies and laws that favor their religion. Theocracies are the obvious examples (e.g., Iran), yet parliamentary states can do this as well (e.g., Britain and the Church of England). The wall between church and state also protects the state and citizens from the undue influence of religious leaders.
We are used to hearing about the separation between church and state, but what about the new religion that has taken root in the United States since the 1970s? Frank Thomas (2000), Robert Nelson (2001), and Harvey Cox (2016) have argued that neoliberal capitalism possesses some of the attributes of religion. The laws and policies of economics are the new word of God, spreading the good news about unrestrained profit and wealth. The prelates of the Federal Reserve Board are the new magisterium, developing a code of canon law for the faith and practice of neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberal beliefs are dogma, promulgated by the theologians of neoliberal capitalism. The dogma is unquestionable, but is endlessly discussed and elaborated on.
Nelson, Thomas, and Cox are not simply making an interesting analogy for readers to consider. Instead, they note clearly the close relation between religious faith and faith in capitalism. For instance, the etymological root of religion is ligare “bind, connect.” Re-ligare, then, is re (again) + ligare or “to reconnect.” In religion, what binds is one’s relation to the transcendent, the sacred. Harvey Cox argues that the Market as God is transcendent, all powerful and mystifying or beyond one’s ken. The devotion to the mystical belief in the occult hidden hand of the market is an apt illustration of this new religion. Margaret Thatcher’s campaign theme “there is no alternative” to capitalism suggests that the market will have no gods before it. Like a devout religious believer who knows of other religions, but believes there is only one true religion, neoliberal capitalists “know” other alternatives are false gods. Their mantra is that other gods have been defeated (e.g., communism, socialism). Alternative gods are hardly threats to the omnipotence and omniscience of the hidden hand.
We mustn’t imply that religious devotion means that believers are unintelligent or unimaginative. There are plenty of present and past theologians who are both highly intelligent and wonderfully creative, even though many cannot seem to imagine believing anything other than what they do. Their intelligence and creativity are, however, bound to the language game they are motivated to support and advance. The market as god has its economic theologians, who claim to be operating as scientists, while they build systems that confirm there is no alternative. (We should not forget that systematic theology is considered the queen of the “sciences.”) When alternatives are mentioned, they are either exiled from the dominant corporate media landscape or derided as unrealistic fantasies. To some degree, this makes sense. The market as god binds people together in the covenant of neoliberal capitalism. Alternative “religions” are threats to what binds us together and, therefore, must be opposed. By protecting market faith from these threats, entrepreneurial-consumer subjectivity and faith in the market are safeguarded. We remain bound in a single market faith.
The religion of neoliberal capitalism is a state religion. By this I mean that elected and non-elected government officials have worked closely with neoliberal capitalists, developing and enacting laws, programs, and policies that further the practice of neoliberal faith. The state (executive, legislative and judicial branches) serves as justificatory and disciplinary regime, insuring the promulgation and practice of neoliberal faith. The resulting market society operates like a theocracy or a parliamentary system that identifies one particular religion with the state. The state is meant to serve neoliberal capitalism and its clergy—the capitalist class. There is, then, no wall between the state and neoliberal capitalist faith. The result is a malformed state. By this I mean the state, instead of protecting political rights and serving the common good, advances the economic and political interests of Market’s clergy.
All very well, but some astute person will note that there are alternatives or other “religious” practices. What about co-operatives? What about companies that adopt democratic capitalism as a way of organizing themselves? These are businesses that operate in the market society, but do not adopt the dogma of neoliberal capitalism (expansion, profit maximization, preoccupation with economic self-interests, privatization of all things public). The state is not greatly concerned about cooperatives, largely because they pose no threat to the dominance of neoliberal capitalist faith. Also, cooperatives may operate out of a different creed, but they still have to play by capitalist rules. Moreover, the rules and imperatives they choose not to accept are not a threat precisely because cooperatives are such a tiny section of the economy. The state and capitalist class are determined to have them remain small by insuring legislation protects the dominance of the Market and large corporations. Put differently, the state does not develop legislation to favor the development of cooperatives. This is analogous to states that identify with a dominant religion, while a tiny percentage of the population practices a different faith. State institutions and laws are aimed at maintaining the dominance of the state-sanctioned religion and the fact that smaller religious groups survive is no threat to the state or the dominant religion.
Today, it is difficult to imagine a wall between the religion of neoliberal capitalism and the state, because they are so intertwined. But this difficulty will not pose an obstacle. The first building block in the construction of this wall is to articulate clearly in a constitution that the state’s primary reason for being is to serve the needs of the people and their common welfare. The separation between church and state is, in part, a statement that the state’s primary aim is not to serve a religion or religion in general, but rather the common good of citizens—religious or not. Similarly, a wall between neoliberal capitalism and the state does not mean that the state is not concerned about the economy and passing legislation that addresses the economy. However, the state’s focus is first and foremost the welfare of the citizens and this means assessing the economy in terms of how it facilitates citizens’ welfare.
A Constitutional amendment(s) would also provide the premises and ideals associated with a wall between capitalism and the state. For instance, the legislature should make no laws that establish capitalism as the de facto or de jure economic system. All economic systems are legitimate to the extent they demonstrate that they serve the common good of all citizens. The state and the people do not serve the market, nor does the market serve the state. All markets are to serve the well-being of the people. Corporations are created entities and therefore have no rights of free speech, only persons do. More specific measures would need to take place. For instance, to begin to insure this happens, the legislative branch would need to pass laws restricting and reducing lobbyists and cutting off the practices of businesses and business persons financing local, state, and national politicians. The capitalist class, in other words, cannot have undue influence on government. More positively, laws could be enacted that would facilitate the growth of alternatives to capitalism—such as cooperatives and companies that operate out of a democratic socialist perspective. Taxes on corporations could be used, in part, as funds for investments, especially funding companies that operate out of alternative “faiths.” The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) could examine legislation in terms of impact on workers’ benefits, wages, and health. If there is legislation regarding the minimum wage, there can be legislation on maximum wages, for those companies that are not democratic cooperatives. The CBO or some other institution could examine corporations and how their practices serve the common good. The local, state, and national governments could establish educational standards where children would learn that there are other economic systems/faiths and that there exists a wall separating these faiths and the government.
Even a Constitutional amendment(s) and laws would not necessarily secure a wall between the state and the religion of capitalism. Just as there must be vigilance regarding the wall between the church and state so that religious freedom is preserved, so too ongoing vigilance would be needed to keep capitalism from corrupting the government and making citizens serve the market. The road to serfdom is precisely this.
This may all seem pretty fanciful given the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism. But that is the problem when a religion dominates the culture and state. Hegemon’s crush imagination and hope (There is no alternative.). Put another way, imagination and hope are threats to the hegemon of neoliberal capitalism. Imagination and hope sparked the fight to end slavery and Jim Crow laws, though it took centuries. Imagination and hope sparked decades of struggle to win the rights of women to vote and run for office. If there is no vision for change, the status quo will continue to prevail and, in this case, the marriage of the state and the religion of neoliberal capitalism will endure.
Cox, H. (2016). The market as God. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Frank, T. (2000). One market under God: Extreme capitalism, market populism, and the end of economic democracy. New York: Anchor Books.
Nelson, R. (2001). Economics as religion. University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press.