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Church-State Separation: A Principle, Not a “Wall” (Part 2)

Previously on New Ideal, we published Part 1 of Onkar Ghate’s recently published chapter “A Wall of Separation between Church and State: Understanding This Principle’s Supporting Arguments and Far-Reaching Implications” from Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy, edited by Gregory Salmieri and Robert Mayhew.

In Part 1, Ghate outlines current confusions in the debate over how government deals with religious organizations and explains why the often-used metaphor of a “wall” separating church and state is no substitute for a grasp of the principle advocated by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.

Now, in the concluding portion of his chapter, Ghate discusses how philosopher Ayn Rand deepened, broadened, and rendered more consistent the Locke-Jefferson ideal of church-state separation. He also discusses the parallels that Rand drew between freedom of speech and economic freedom and why she thought that a free mind and a free market are corollaries.

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“A Wall of Separation between Church and State: Understanding This Principle’s Supporting Arguments and Far-Reaching Implications”

By Onkar Ghate

(Part 2)

Rand’s Development of the Locke-Jefferson Case for Separation

As Jefferson (and Madison) sought to deepen, broaden, and render more consistent Locke’s argument for church-state separation, so Rand seeks to do the same with theirs. On her account the principle rests, fundamentally, on the need to embrace reason as an absolute in both thought and action.

This means, first, that whereas Locke and Jefferson give supremacy to reason over faith and posit a supernatural realm governed by rational considerations, Rand discards all appeal to faith and the supernatural. Neither Locke nor Jefferson is able to demonstrate that God or a supernatural dimension exists, let alone that God is a rational overlord and that religious morality is an affair exclusively between “me and my Maker.” In the end, the existence of God and a supernatural realm must be accepted on faith. And as we have seen, someone like a Taliban warrior whose “faith” tells him something very different about the nature of God and of religious morality will reject the notion that God is constrained by reason and that He does not command us to intervene coercively when other people sin. Rand eliminates from the argument for church-state separation all appeals to the supernatural and to faith, even if it is only a faith that somehow “supplements” reason. She argues that the notion of the supernatural — of something “transcending” existence, identity, causality, and human consciousness, that is, of something “transcending” nature — is incoherent.1 And reason permits no “supplementation” by faith. On her view, it is never rational to embrace an idea or perform an action without some evidence supporting the idea or action. Faith, she maintains — “belief unsupported by, or contrary to, the facts of reality and the conclusions of reason” — “is the negation of reason.”2 Accordingly, Rand dismisses all knowledge claims that rest directly or indirectly on the notion of the supernatural as attempts to integrate the incoherent, and she places all faith-based assertions into the special category of the arbitrary.3

For Rand, therefore, even more so than for Jefferson, the issue is not religious freedom, as though there were some special freedom pertaining to a supernatural realm and to (supplementary) guidance by faith. The issue is intellectual freedom. The argument for freedom rests solely on the nature and requirements of reason to grasp and navigate this (natural) world. Nor does Rand appeal in her argument to the “rights” or “dictates” of conscience. Insofar as these dictates pertain to the supernatural and supposedly supplement reason, Rand rejects their existence. Insofar as these dictates refer to choice in accordance with moral principles and convictions, Rand regards this as an aspect of reason. Going further than Locke (and Madison and Jefferson), she views “the will” as an aspect of the faculty of reason and views moral knowledge as a species of scientific knowledge: ethics is a science that studies and defines the fundamental values an individual must seek and the fundamental virtues he must practice in order to thrive.4

From this fundamental perspective, Rand maintains, the arguments for intellectual freedom and economic freedom share the same root: the requirements of the rational mind to guide the individual.
Thus when Rand writes that reason and force are opposites — that a “rational mind does not work under compulsion; it does not subordinate its grasp of reality to anyone’s orders, directives, or controls; it does not sacrifice its knowledge, its view of the truth, to anyone’s opinions, threats, wishes. . . . Such a mind may be hampered by others, it may be silenced, proscribed, imprisoned, or destroyed; it cannot be forced; a gun is not an argument. (An example and symbol of this attitude is Galileo.)” — it is important to keep in mind that for Rand this principle encompasses both science and morality.5

It encompasses both, because for Rand, as I have said, reason and will are not two separate faculties. Rather, the faculty of reason sets an individual’s goals and values and determines the ways in which he will pursue them, all of which is done by a volitional process of thought and subsequent action:

Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses. It is a faculty that man has to exercise by choice. Thinking is not an automatic function. In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality — or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.6

The attempt to coercively override or bypass a person’s will is the attempt to override or bypass his reason. Or, looking at the same issue from a positive perspective, the choice to activate his conceptual mind and embrace reason — as against evading the facts of reality and the need for thought — is, according to Rand, the root of moral good and evil. The central principle of Rand’s philosophy is that reason is man’s basic means of survival. The essence of morality is the acceptance of reason as an absolute, the passionate quest for knowledge and the commitment to enact this knowledge in the pursuit of one’s own life and happiness. The root moral choice, the existence of which grounds a valid notion of conscience, is the choice to think or not. To betray one’s conscience is to betray one’s mind:

You who speak of a “moral instinct” as if it were some separate endowment opposed to reason — man’s reason is his moral faculty. A process of reason is a process of constant choice in answer to the question: True or False? — Right or Wrong? . . . A rational process is a moral process. You may make an error at any step of it, with nothing to protect you but your own severity, or you may try to cheat, to fake the evidence and evade the effort of the quest — but if devotion to truth is the hallmark of morality, then there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking.7

Coercion, then, for Rand is a negation of an individual’s reason, will, and moral conscience because these are all perspectives on the unity that is a properly functioning rational faculty. As Rand briefly summarizes her point, “Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.”8 On this approach, the concept of individual rights is formulated precisely to extract coercion from human relationships. The concept is grounded not in the supernatural, Rand argues, but in the “social recognition of man’s rational nature — of the connection between his survival and his use of reason” and thus “preserves and protects individual morality in a social context” by defining the areas in which the individual must be sovereign, free to think and act — free to reason and produce.9

All governmental controls over and interventions into the individual’s productive activities (and of his ensuing consumption and voluntary trading) are instances of penalizing or promoting ideas.
From this fundamental perspective, Rand maintains, the arguments for intellectual freedom and economic freedom share the same root: the requirements of the rational mind to guide the individual. In the realm of thought, this means that the government must not have the power to penalize or promote ideas. As Rand expresses the principle, in terms similar to Jefferson’s, “Since an individual has the right to hold and to propagate any ideas he chooses (obviously including political ideas), the government may not infringe his right; it may neither penalize nor reward him for his ideas; it may not take any judicial cognizance whatever of his ideology. . . . Ideas, in a free society, are not a crime.”10 Rand explicitly extends this principle to the entire realm of thought, including education, scientific research, and the arts, arguing that governmental schools, governmental funding of scientific research, and governmental funding of the arts violate the individual’s right to intellectual freedom.11 Thus she rejects both Locke’s claim that the government should not tolerate atheists and Jefferson’s desire to establish public schools in part so that the people would have the education necessary to safeguard their liberty. In order for the entire realm of ideas to be fully free from coercion, the government must have no power in any way to penalize or promote ideas as such, even if those ideas are necessary for proper government or civilization itself. A “proper government is based on a definite philosophy,” Leonard Peikoff writes in presenting Rand’s conception of intellectual freedom, “but it can play no role in promoting that philosophy.”12

The same essential point follows, Rand maintains, in the realm of production: the government must not have the power to penalize or promote any form of economic activity or organization. This is why she says that there should be a separation of economics and state in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of church and state. The root of industrial production, Rand argues, is abstract thought. “Production,” she writes, “is the application of reason to the problem of survival.”13 “Have you ever looked for the root of production? Take a look at an electric generator and dare tell yourself that it was created by the muscular effort of unthinking brutes. Try to grow a seed of wheat without the knowledge left to you by men who had to discover it for the first time. Try to obtain your food by means of nothing but physical motions — and you’ll learn that man’s mind is the root of all the goods produced and of all the wealth that has ever existed on earth.”14 For thought fully to be free, Rand argues, the realm of production must be free. Or, stating the same point negatively, all governmental controls over and interventions into the individual’s productive activities (and of his ensuing consumption and voluntary trading) are instances of penalizing or promoting ideas.

The job of the state is to secure and protect the individual’s ability to think, produce, and trade, not to try to curtail this activity or to direct it toward some allegedly noble goals that transcend the individual’s own life and pursuit of happiness.
Take the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an example. Among the FDA’s activities are determining which drugs a doctor can legally prescribe, which drugs a patient can purchase, and how a company must test and manufacture pharmaceuticals. What if an individual doctor thinks that a particular drug, although banned by the FDA and not without risks, is worth the risk for a particular set of patients? The doctor is not free to act. What if, within this set of patients, some of them judge that they would like to take the drug? They are not free to act. What if a company argues that the way the FDA wants it to test its drugs is wasteful? Or what if it concludes that there is a better way to test for safety or efficacy? Or what if it has invented a whole new process of manufacturing pharmaceuticals, unapproved by the FDA? It is not free to act. In prohibiting actions like the taking of an experimental medicine, the government is effectively banning the thought processes and ideas that generate the action and is discarding the principle that reason is the individual’s basic means of survival. And in promoting (commanding) actions such as how to manufacture a drug, the government is effectively proscribing alternative thought processes and ideas that could generate alternative productive actions. The freedom to produce is a crucial aspect of the individual’s rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. If the purpose of individual rights is to preserve and protect individual morality in a social context, the two realms that, above all else, must be protected are those of thought and production. Politically, there should exist a separation of church and state (the issue of intellectual freedom) and, for the same reasons, there should exist a separation of economics and state (the issue of economic freedom).

And the idea of “separation” designates the same thing in the economic sphere as in the intellectual sphere — that is, the spheres should be separated in the same way. To say that there is a separation of state from economics is to say that the state is walled off from taking cognizance of another aspect of man’s life-sustaining activities: not only of his abstract thoughts but also of his productive actions. The state neither tolerates nor persecutes nor promotes any form of production or trade. It is not the state’s prerogative to decide whether it should tolerate that Microsoft includes an Internet browser within its operating system — or to decide whether to persecute a firm because it consulted some competitors when setting what prices it would charge — or to decide whether to promote domestic automakers or individual homeowners. All of these activities should be left to the voluntary decisions of the individuals involved. And it is certainly not the prerogative of the state to act as a central planner, trying to “control” and “steer” the entire economy by, say, manipulating the money supply. The job of the state is to secure and protect the individual’s ability to think, produce, and trade, not to try to curtail this activity or to direct it toward some allegedly noble goals that transcend the individual’s own life and pursuit of happiness. Only if the state is so restricted is the individual’s rational, productive mind truly free.

Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom; political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom; a free mind and a free market are corollaries.”
From the other direction, to say that there is a separation of economics from state is to say that every economic actor — be it an employer or an employee, a capitalist or a consumer — is walled off from using the state’s coercive power to stop economic activity he dislikes or to promote economic activity he likes. No one can enact his economic doctrines into law. No one can declare that given my economic views, there should be tariffs on foreign steel producers and subsidies for US corn producers; or that a merger between AT&T and T-Mobile should be legally prevented but a merger between HP and Compaq should be allowed; or that gold should be outlawed as money. If a citizen wants to try to implement his economic views and theories, he must do so privately and voluntarily, seeking as necessary the agreement and cooperation of other individuals. He can stop buying foreign steel and try to convince others to do the same; he can donate his money to US corn producers; he can stop using gold as money and encourage others to do likewise; he can set up a voluntary socialist commune and try to persuade other people to join. But what he cannot do is use the power of the state to override the productive judgment and activities of others. Only if one’s fellow citizens are so restricted from gaining control of the coercive power of the state is one’s rational, productive mind truly free.

For Rand, therefore, freedom forms a unity whose roots are the full requirements of man’s rational mind. As she states her point in a crucial formulation: “Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom; political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom; a free mind and a free market are corollaries.”15 This principle, that a free mind and a free market are corollaries, Rand regards as the full philosophical extension of the reasoning that led, first, to the principle of church-state separation. Seen from this perspective, the principle that a free mind and a free market are corollaries is the culmination of the Enlightenment’s intellectual quest for freedom.

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“A Wall of Separation between Church and State: Understanding This Principle’s Supporting Arguments and Far-Reaching Implications” by Onkar Ghate from Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy, edited by Gregory Salmieri and Robert Mayhew, ©2019. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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Footnotes

  1. See especially Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Dutton, 2005 Centennial edition), 947–59; Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, expanded 2nd ed., ed. Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff (New York: Meridian, 1990), ch. 6; Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical versus the Man-Made,” in Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 2005 Centennial edition). See also Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), ch. 1.
  2. “Playboy Interview: Ayn Rand,” Playboy, March 1964, quoted under the entry “Religion” in Harry Binswanger, ed., The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z, (New York: Plume, 1986).
  3. On the attempt to integrate the incoherent, see Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, ch. 5; on the Arbitrary, see the entry “Arbitrary,” in Binswanger, Lexicon. See also Peikoff, Objectivism, ch. 5.
  4. See Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics” in Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition) and Ayn Rand, “Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?” in Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought, ed. Leonard Peikoff (New York: Meridian, 1989).
  5. Ayn Rand, “What Is Capitalism?,” in Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967 Centennial edition), 17.
  6. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 22. There certainly are precursors of the idea that reason operates volitionally in Locke’s writings.
  7. Rand, Atlas, 935.
  8. Rand, Atlas, 936.
  9. Rand, “What Is Capitalism?,”  9, and Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” in Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 108.
  10. Ayn Rand, “‘Political’ Crimes,” in Ayn Rand, Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, ed. Peter Schwartz (New York: Meridian, 1999), 176.
  11. See Ayn Rand, “The Comprachicos,” in Rand, Return of the Primitive; Ayn Rand, “Tax Credits for Education,” in Rand, Voice of Reason; Ayn Rand, “The Establishing of an Establishment,” in Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It; Ayn Rand, “Let Us Alone!” in Rand, Capitalism.
  12. Peikoff, Objectivism, 367.
  13. Rand, “What Is Capitalism?,” 17.
  14. Rand, Atlas, 383.
  15. Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual,” in Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition), 25.

Onkar Ghate

Onkar Ghate, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a senior fellow and chief content officer at the Ayn Rand Institute. A contributing author to many books on Rand’s ideas and philosophy, he is a senior editor of New Ideal.

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