Great philosophers · political philosophy · Political Theory · politics

Civil Religion

First semester of PhD in Political Science and International Relations absorbs me completely and I do not have time to write book reviews regularly. Therefore, today I am going to share with you a bit of my world instead.

Devotion and loyalty of citizens to the state have always been the subject of political philosophers’ concerns. They have seen love for one’s country as a power maintaining its unity. While the importance of the so-called civil religion is widely recognized, some thinkers have tried to reconcile the religion with politics so that people would stay devoted only to state authority. Others have offered more political idea about commitments to the state and community.  I will focus on three outstanding philosophers: Rousseau (Social Contract), Montesquieu (The Spirit of Laws) and Hamilton, Madison Jay (The Federalist Papers).

According to Rousseau (p. 148), in republic everyone gives himself whole and entire to the state; everyone becomes indivisible part of the whole and the private needs are sacrificed for the common good. To keep individuals devoted to the common good, the civil religion is necessary because it maintains special union of all citizens. People always have short-sighted selfish perspectives and civil religion would be the power to limit them and would help to create the ideal citizen who thinks about the common good rather than his private needs. Further, civil religion is necessary to shape the identity of every individual, to change the thinking about himself as “I” to thinking as “we”. Only then the republic is preserved and prosperous.web15-siteimages-religiousliberty_0

In Book IV, chapter 8 of Social Contract Rousseau offers his ideas about civil religion. He recognized the historical importance of religion and the potential of it to establish the legitimacy of republic and strengthen the ties and loyalty for the state. According to the author, no state has ever been founded that did not have religion at its base (p. 223). First and foremost, Rousseau refers to pagan religions which actually were compatible with the state. Each state had its own cult and its own government, the gods were not distinguish from its laws, and the god of one people did not have power over other people (p. 220). Although he shows sympathy for paganism, he rejects it because it is historical anachronism.

However, the situation changed when Christianity established spiritual kingdom on earth and it spirit won everything (p. 222). The unity of the state ceased, the theological system was separated from the political system and people’s devotion to otherworldly kingdom became more important (p. 221). The perpetual conflict appeared about to whom people should be devoted, to the priest or the state ruler (p. 222). If priests usurp the power, the authority of the state might be at stake. To show Christianity’s incompatibility with the state, he refers to Mohamed who was able to tie together his political system with religion, which resulted in unity of the state and people (p. 222). Rousseau admits that the authentic Christianity of Gospel was religiously true but useless in political terms (p. 223). The republic needs fully devoted and loyal citizens but Christianity is incompatible with it because it detaches people from all earthy concerns and this is the greatest threat to social spirit. Instead of bringing people close to the state, it disengages people from worldly things and commitments. The lack of union bond has destructive power (p. 223). Christians cannot be perfect citizens because earth is not their real homeland and republic needs people who love their state (p. 224). In case of war, they fight but without passion because they believe the death will be the beginning of divine life, which is true victory for them. Furthermore, because the earthy life has little value for them, they are made to be slaves (p. 225).

Nevertheless, Rousseau stresses (p.223-4) that the religion where it has its own dogmas and rites prescribed by law, where it united people inside particular state territory it might be of usage for the state because it makes the homeland the object of its citizens’ admiration and the service to the state is a service to the god. To die for the country is a privilege, and breaking the law means being impious. However he saw the flaws in it such as making people intolerant and blood thirsty.

After discussing why Christianity is not compatible with the republic he elaborates on why civil religion is of great importance for the republic. Civil religion makes every citizen to love his duties. The author focuses on dogmas that are related to political needs: justice, punishment for crimes, sacredness of laws and social contract (p. 226). Further, the sentiment of sociability makes people a good citizens.  He calls it “a purely civil profession of faith (p. 226). Other way speaking, the loyalty people have for their God, should be replaced by civil faith leading to unconditional devotion to the republic and common good.

However, while his idea of civil religion is appreciable and of great importance for the republic, he shows illiberal approach to atheists. The state cannot force people to follow particular faith but it can banish them from the state because they are not “sociable”, because they are unable to love the laws and justice and would not sacrifice their own life for common good (p. 226).  One should consider the time when Rousseau lived and created the Social Contract. Atheists were perceived as bad citizens because they did not believe in ultimate divine punishment for their wrongdoings, therefore, they were perceived as not trustable and immoral. Rousseau’s words might be sticking for modern critics because he claimed that those who did not did not have love for the laws could be sentence to death (p. 226).

At the very end, Rousseau offers the most liberal and pluralist approach to religion. He says the thing that cannot be accepted in religious intolerance. The religious rights and civil rights are the same, they are inseparable. Religious intolerance will have the negative effect on civil rights, which leads to disruption of republican unity. Therefore, those who are tolerant deserve to be tolerated because they do duties of good citizens (p. 227). The most important message that Rousseau sends is that the religious toleration is a mean to minimize social divisions.

One might get the impression that Rousseau did not offer perfect vision of civil religion that is full civil devotion and love to the republic. He rather based the love for the country on the religious devotion. He was Christian himself and probably did not feel courageous enough to offer something that would completely break with religion.

Montesquieu offers a virtue as an ideal for republican citizenship. The virtue, the love for one’s country, that is the love for equality (p.16) is an outstanding account of civil religion. He says that this not a moral, not a Christian, but a political virtue, which allows republic to prosper. The honest man, who is a good citizen has a love for laws of his country and is driven by those laws (p. 17).  The love requires sacrifices of individual interest for the sake of preferences of the public- the common good.

While the virtue is necessary in republic, it is not necessary in monarchical or despotic state because prince or despot hold the whole power and direct people. However, the popular state needs a virtue (p. 37-8). The virtue, like religion, is arduous and painful. It means self- renunciation for the sake of common good (p. 51). It gives the sense that the general good is everyone’s interest.  The perseverance of republic depend on establishing the virtue and rooting it in the citizens (p. 51). Only love for the country can change the motivation of its citizens so that they will reject their passions, greed and ambitions. This is the way to preserve order and law will prevail. Common good must become sacred thing for the people. Patriotism might appear in any kind of state but in republic the citizen identified himself with whole community. A love of the republic is a love of equality that is why citizens must limit their desires to serve better to their country (p. 60). Montesquieu argues the love of equality and frugality must be previously established by law (p. 61). The equality must be created by the equal distribution of properties. A single man should not be allowed to possess more than other man (p. 62). If all citizens possess the same and have the same interests, it is easier for the people to have consideration for the common interest.


Finally, The Federalist Papers from the very beginning refer to tolerance as a way to maintain American federalist state. Hamilton in Paper No 1 (p. 3) refers to toleration and moderation. He says that there should be spirit of mutual toleration between political parties. He explains that nothing comes out good from resolving problems by “fire and sword” as it happens in religion. On the other hand, in Paper No 10 (p. 25), Madison stresses the danger coming from the factions in the state. Factions happen everywhere under different circumstances of civil society. One of the causes of the faction can be a zeal for different opinions concerning religion. So he understood that religion might cause conflicts and some groups might want to take over the power. Therefore, the great object of the government is to secure the public good and private rights against the faction and at the same time to preserve the spirit of a good government (p. 28). One of the ways to deal with factions would be existence of the same passions and interests in a majority. The situation that oppression would occur should be disabled. Neither moral not religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They do not work well to prevent injustice and violence of individuals. However, in republic small group of qualified people represent the rest of society. Their knowledge and wisdom make them do what is the best interest for the country. They have great patriotism and love of justice, and they are least likely to sacrifice the common good for temporary or partial considerations (p. 30).


Further, in Paper 10 Madison explains that the great social and religious diversity of the United States is a factor in diminishing the possibility of majority tyranny against minority groups. The greater the diversity of political interests or religious sects in a society, the lesser the possibility that a permanent majority would form a single interest or sect and use its power against minorities. In other words, that great diversity creates countervailing power against the possibility of a single established church that would dominate all other churches. He explains (p. 33) that religious sect might spread in particular state, however it does not pose a serious treat for the country because it cannot spread on large scale. It is important to note that they do not suggest United States of America as irreligious state but rather peaceful state with its rich religious diversity. This diversity and mutual tolerance can serve to unite people and help them to feel a sense of connection.

In Paper No 51 (p. 96-7) Madison emphasizes that security of both civil rights and religious rights must be the same because this is the fundamental of free and well prospered government. The only solution for peace and stability is the shared principle of justice and consideration for general good. All parties must be protected, the weaker as well as and more powerful.

Lastly, from Paper No 10 (p. 33) we can conclude that civil religion is the attachment to republic, being proud of being republican and having the zeal to cherish the spirit of federalist states. Therefore, civil religion does not mean to include one religion and exclude the other; it means the share system of beliefs and opinions about justice that will bind the people together. Civil religion in American terms won’t be based on particular religious truths and beliefs, but on public sentiment. Importantly enough, in Paper No 14 (p. 40), Madison highlights the unique and outstanding character of the federalist system. Americans should celebrate their union, creation of a new country, which highly values liberties and promotes people’s happiness. The American pursues “a new and more noble course” and nobody before accomplished such a things (p. 41). Moreover, through all papers authors refer to “the people of this country”, “united people”, “the people of America”, or “the people” which emphasizes the unity of republic and devotion to each other and the common good. The civil religion is mutual attachment that shapes the republic.

To summarize, Rousseau, Montesquieu and author of Federalist Papers had the same political aims. All of them wanted to create ideal state where citizens would enjoy equality and would be fully devoted to it because without love for the country the republic cannot exist. All of them argue that civil religion is of great importance for preservation of the republic. Equality, loyalty, tolerance and bonds between people make the republic more prosperous. Rousseau offered civil religion that makes utility of religious devotion, while Montesquieu created a more political virtue which motivates people to act towards common good. Lastly, Madison, Hamilton and Jay produced outstanding attachment to the great diversity, which bring people together.



Hamilton A, Madison J, Jay J (2012) The Federalist Paper. USA, Canada: Penguin Books.

Montesquieu CS (2001) The Spirit of Laws. Kitchener: Batoche Books.

Rousseau JJ (2009) On the Social Contract, or Principle of Political Right. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

43 thoughts on “Civil Religion

  1. Obviously these men were a product of their times. All completely ignore slavery; abject poverty of nascent US cities peopled by immigrants; politically powerless women and the great murderous drive then in progress that would decimate millions of native Americans in a gross genocide, steal 2/3 of the territory of the Mexican state and impose an intolerant WASP type of government over the entire area, regardless of existing races and beliefs. The historical claims to the US being a pluralistic and tolerant society are patriotic and religious propaganda and today the world is witness to the unravelling of that massive lie.

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  2. Hello, thank you for your comment. It is believed that those philosophers produced the foundations for modern nation states. They talked about equality, rights and freedoms. People should not forget that they meant equality, rights and freedoms for white men. Moreover, many of philosophers like authors of Federalist Papers owned slaves and they saw it as a normal thing. You are totally right about US. The place that is believed to be fair for all is a place of extreme discriminations and violations of human rights.

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  3. I’m only familiar with Rousseau’s The Social Contract which was seismic in its day and still makes for a fascinating read. I will have to check the other two out, I look forward to picking up a lot of reading tips from you in the near future!

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  4. Yes!!!! Book written like a novel rather than academic study. I chose him because he had very good judgement. He was able to see both advantages and disadvantages of young American democracy.

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  5. definitely, today’s status is one of many “grey areas” – and as you have stated in a reply to a commentator, many early books written only with the white human as the true subject…

    I’m not completely up with many governing bodies but most seem to swear in the new governing body with some type allegiance to “something” – in New Zealand, it’s a swearing in with our colonial Motherland, Britain and I believe we follow many of their customs in government stances…

    An example in recent times was the idea to change the “flag” to reflect more of NZ…many $$ later, a public vote and “no change” emerged.

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  6. I found your article informative and very interesting. I guess the early Catholic Church fit right in with the church and state being one entity. That was until the reformation and the many groups that emerged from the resistance to that theory. Without the virtues of valuing the common good the republic is lost.
    Interesting also is the idea of developing the values of virtue over specific religious values for the Republic. Perhaps that is what our problem is with the aftermath of the election. We have lost our dedication to espoused virtues and gone toward anarchy!
    Can a republic espouse diversity and yet be governed by a majority that includes that diversity. It seems like diversity is being valued over the coming together for the common good of all. Each group wants to have their demands fulfilled at the expense of all others. That leaves the minority ruling the majority. Don’t think that is what a republic is intended to do.

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  7. Unity in diversity looks beautiful and right on the paper. In reality, fulfilling needs of each group is very hard. It seems possible to do this when groups are sects of one religion, say Christianity. When we want to make happy the groups that belong to different religions, problems start. I do not say liberalism is wrong but I believe liberalism with “common sense” is something that all countries need. Let’s not forget that it happens nowadays that in the name of liberalim illiberal rules are accepted. There are basic principles such as equality, womens’ rights, freedom of speech ect that should not be sacrificed because some groups want to govern themselves with different principles. If someone decides to be a part of the “republic” he or she needs to have in mind the common good. The common good in modern state means having a respect to the basic rights and freedoms stipulated by law.


  8. I believe you are right. The problem I see is when one group wants to insist that every other group has to believe their way instead of just doing their own thing.

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  9. Hello Patrisya! This is a nice topic and a nice exercise for your studies!

    We like Madison in his essay on religious tax (remonstrance), saying that what is a duty to God- to act according to conscience in matters of religion- is a right in relation to the government. Jefferson too has that saying, “it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg…” The right to the pursuit of happiness is spelled out in the First Amendment, where the two religion clauses prevent the establishment of and interference with the exercise of religion. Montesquieu writes that political liberty is to be neither prevented from doing the good nor compelled to do the bad. Civil Religion is a joke, taken as complete, and must be artificial, though before us, the U. S., no one seems to have been able to do without one. Rousseau presents one in the Fourth Book of the Emile. Even Great Britain has an established church, while allowing others too to exist. The human ignorance of divine things, taught by Socrates, fits perfectly with the liberty taught by Jefferson and Madison, and is even an image of the liberty God is said to have given to man from the beginning.

    St. Martin Luther King is like our civil religion now, along with the religious aspect of Thanksgiving and Christmas. These keep the political and visible part of religion where it belongs, while leaving our roofs open to the higher things.

    Here is an essay question for the question of Church and State: What is the similarity and difference between the Biblical Kingdom of God and the end envisioned by the Totalitarian ideologies, the “thousand year” reich or the envisioned Communist Utopian condition?

    Have fun and good luck in your studies!

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  10. Thank you for your comment! The essay question you suggested is really interesting. I will make some research to find more information on the subject.
    In my opinion, the subject of religion and state is one of the most interesting in political theory. Currently I am preparing paper on religion and democracy in Tocqueville ‘s On Democracy in America so I will post some part of it here.
    Best regards!

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  11. Yeah! I just found my copy of the Old Regime and the French Revolution, to consider the pre-Marx emergence of “Socialism” surrounding the French Revolution. We confuse the aim at the “common good” with State control. Bradford, in the 1624 Mayflower Compact, works in terms of the Aristotelian “common good,” way before the French Revolution. Religion flourishes in Liberty, and nations flourish from the proper decentralization. What fun! We are pulling up Liberty to stand again beside Equality- all good ‘Tocqueville!

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  12. Yes, “common good” might seem confusing. According to Montesquieu people with virtue should put common good first. They compromise their individual needs and desire but in exchange they gain social equality. It might sound beautiful but for me it has element of state control. It is top down, which means impossed by the sovereign. On the other hand, in Tocqueville’s works we see more pragmatic and bottom up patriotism or loyalty towards community.

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  13. My Montesquieu is a bit weak this morning, and you have me reaching for the Spirit of the Laws…Going back to the ancients, government is either by the one, the few or the many. The Socratic philosophers distinguish three good forms and three bad, depending upon whether the ruling element aims at the common good or the private interest of the ruling element. So Socrates was the first to distinguish in theory between kingship and tyranny, aristocracy and oligarchy. The legitimate forms do not aim to empower, enrich or please the ruling element, but rather look to the good of the whole political body. So the three forms are set in a table of six forms of government, and this table has been like an archetype to understand both characters and regimes. Aristotle in his Politics and Plato in book VIII of the Republic go through the six basic forms, and Polybius has them turning one into another, as we see democracy turning into tyranny. I am very excited about your studies! Tocqueville was teaching me yesterday, looking at our inner cities here in the states, where he says to empower the people in the localities to care for their own governance. We wish France would read him today, as they too seem indifferent to a turn toward tyranny.

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  14. Ahhh, you challenge me with Antiquity philosophers while I am more into French thinkers 😉
    Different forms of tyranny is another great and important subject. This was Tocqueville who said that democracy brings new forms of tyranny, the tyranny we have never seen before. He put it in the following way: in democracy people do not realize that they are in chains because the end of the chains is in hands of people, who are the sovereign. I agree with him that we are used to see tyrants in one or few people, we do not see that society as a whole can become tyrant too. How many times the individual rights are sacrificed for the sake of society. Tocqueville said that individuals are lost in the crowd in democratic states.
    You are right, French people should read Tocqueville because through observations of Americans he actually judged his own nation. They could truly benefit from the philosophical treasure they have.

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  15. Soon you will get to do those ancients, an absolute marvel we would not have found were it not for certain teachers. We say the people are like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz- all she has to do is click her heels three time (or right click the love button), and she will be back home in Kansas. Where is that Spirit of the Laws book, anyway…my shelves are a mess….the guys at Hillsdale had me digging for my Harrington like months ago, then the wave of practicality went over….Do not fail to appreciate having time for study. It IS luxury…

    Tocqueville is the guy for decentralization and self government, because he saw the centralized French system replaced by the reign of terror, the first time the new sort of tyranny emerged. Left and right in politics referred to the sides of the French assembly, and the extreme of one is Communism, the other fascism. Aristotle teaches about the middle class and the mean. We are “Centrists,” trying to take the good points of each, for the good of the nation. It is not in the common interest to violate the Bill of Rights (Let alone, we threaten, in the inteest of the tyrant).

    Jefferson: “For I have sworn on the Altar of God eternal hostility toward every form of the tyranny over the mind of men.” (He means girls too!).

    You have a nice essay developing there, with an A concluding paragraph emerging!

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  16. forgive me for being permanently “enigmatic” but reading this reminds me to imagine Patrick Henry setting up a Hemlock Smoothie stand with Aristotle first in line. -Aristotle’s chief damnation i believe was something like not believing in the “gods” and Patrick Henry has a quote set, “give me liberty or give me death…patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”

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  17. Hi, thank you for your comment. Patrick Henry’s famous quote “give me liberty or give me death”speech has a special meaning. He contributed to limitation of state power and the preservation of people’s rights. I wonder what would he say about America today…


  18. to put it mildly, I wonder less whether our founding fathers would approve of the new america still based under the words they left us, but how much they could be awed at how more dynamic we have chosen to let their words be. it’s up for debate whether I am truly freer today versus in an america of just having been founded – there are far more restrictions in law to my today than there were then. however, it’s just as amazing with a nudge here or there that I have quite the life to live at all when it would be imossibly less – say being blind to have a limited educcation not within a mainstream school thus a narrower social experience thus opportunity- I am legally blind that is but moving along. I loved understanding the constitution would have failed without the bill of rights – yet this very necessesity to have it spelled out is interestingly a thorn – protests are allowed but not if one is ANGRY in action- that is interesting to see played out over and over. next might be how taxes while very similar across this usa, there is so very much less from it in certain areas. I would bet the eyebrows would be raised to see so many popular votes differ from electoral college results…probably be a bit pleased how education and information is choked upon nearly by comparison yet traditions in namesake exist . how certain crimes even despite all ethics do not legally exist as crimes…that might shock them. yet against so many vast crowds the threats exist that only see a mild bit of more safety argued out under almost a complete privation of freedom to correct against some possibility. it’s a far different vaster world/america.


  19. James Madison and Benjamin Franklin both thought what would enable the new republic of the USA to continue was competition between all the religious groups. With such competition, no one group could dominate the rest, as happened where church and state were united. Over the past fifty years this situation has changed drastically, the clearest illustration being various religions forming a united political view in opposition to abortion. This unity is as much a rejection of feminism as it is a belief that abortion is murder. In any case, this gathering of religious groups into a common political bond rejects the view of Madison and Franklin and undermines the view that competition between religious bodies supports the republic. I have mentioned only the issues of abortion. Other issues could be added.

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  20. Knowing the history of Europe and involvement of Church in state matters, they should have known that sooner or later religions or sects start to impact state policies. Religions always try to infuence public and private spheres, it is just a matter of time. Therefore, their view of competing religious groups that contribute to preservation of republic seems quite naive.


  21. They had just designed a new political toy for themselves which they hoped would take over the world, spreading their new brand of civilization everywhere, not unlike what happened to Russia after the Reds or Bolsheviks won that revolution. How many change agents allowed their dreams of change blind them to reality and history? Until the day when change agents learn that it always comes back down to individual programming, nothing will substantially change. The programming underscores everything and until that is cancelled or eliminated by a self-empowered individual, everything goes back to the dictates of the programming. Who/what is behind the programming? At our level, three basic forces: religion, the state, money. These are the permanent rulers of mankind as a collective.

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  22. Franklin and Madison weren’t naive at the time. They assumed the competition of the many religious denominations, They were will aware of religious groups’ efforts to affect state policies, but they assumed none would succeed. They would cancel each other out, so it’s best to let them have free play. Hence, the celebrated freedom of religion. The competition worked pretty well for a century and a-half. What Franklin and Madison did not foresee was that in time numerous religious groups would coalesce around one or two ideas and then become a major force in the body politic. This happened on a national level mainly with abortion and feminism in the latter third of the 20th century.

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  23. A nice summary. The problem w/ civil religion is that it is untethered from ethics or morality. The Nazis were very loyal to the state. Devoted to it, in fact. Yet they committed what most of us would consider atrocities.

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  24. The great philosophers intended to create civil religion in order to foster loyalty to the state and good citizenship, but as you said, Nazi’s devotion to the state resulted in unbelievable atrocities. It seems it depends on the circumstances of the particular country: economic and social situation, people in the power etc. I think it is very hard to create “moderate” civil religion because often people have a tendency to go into extremes and always there are groups or individuals who are savy enough to use it for their own purposes.

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  25. Christians would say that the sin nature of mankind has been a concern throughout the ages. Institutions and governments (even theocracies) are corrupted by it. The persistence of war and are just two examples. The best we’ve come up w/ as moderating forces are a balance of powers, among the branches of government, and a moral, informed, and engaged electorate. Young people like yourself will get the chance to try and craft something better!

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  26. Informative and relevant in today’s troubled climate where intolerance of all kinds seems to be the world religion. Abject adherence to any authority, nation, religion, whatever, in my view, is fraught with danger. Someone needs to decide. Does that someone become more powerful? The world experimented with communism in the first half of the twentieth century. Eventually the lie of “community benefit” was discovered. Human beings are all the same. Looking for personal gain of some sort.

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  27. I consider myself a born again Christian but believe in well defined separation of Church and state. Jesus never went before Jewish Sanhedrin or Roman Senate for legislation. Elected officials should be sworn in on copy of Constitution not Bible.

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  28. Yes, you are right. This should be the fundamental principle of any country, full separation of the state and the Church. Religion thrives when it remains a private matter. Politicized religion harms rather than help. However, the religious rules can be very helpful to create positive national mores that foster good citizenship and make people think about the common good.

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  29. Preventing intolerance is important but making people attached to the state and community is even more crucial. Religious principles can be very useful in building bond between people and positive patriotism. More importantly, religion makes people to respect and follow the rule of law. However, some religions put more attention to other world life and diminish the attachment to things, people and values of this world.

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