by Brian Bergen-Aurand
To censor comes from the Sanskrit śamsati, with its references to “recites, praises,” and śasa “song of praise.” To censor something is to praise it, to recite its praises as a thing worthy for its affect and effect. To censor is to give credence to the idea that things, ideas, books, and art can and will change people. To censor is also to make overt the usually covert theocratic authority that founds the political, that gives authority to the political, and that the political then deploys in exerting its authority. It is always a question of authorship and authorizing one’s own existence.
The argument is a simple one: Anyone who has faith in religious freedom must stand for an absolute separation between religion and the state, an absolute separation of religion from the state, for they are never equal partners under the current regime by which the state takes on the theocratic aspects of religion, takes the place of religion in the public sphere.
Anyone who has faith in freedom of religion must demand freedom for religion.
As Jacques Derrida explains in Islam & the West (with Mustapha Chérif, University of Chicago Press, 2008):
It is essential that everywhere, and I am not just speaking of the Arab and Muslim, or Arab-Muslim world, I am also speaking of Europe and the United States and South America, that people take responsibility for this democratization; in order to do this, they have to become committed to the secularization of the political, without the need to renounce faith or religion. I do not believe that the secularization of the political presupposes a denial of religion. On the contrary, I believe that authentic believers, if that word has a meaning, are the first, or should be the first, to demand the separation of the political and the religious, because this is also the condition for the freedom of religion. It is the condition that enables the State to guarantee freedom of religion, so that religious communities can live according to their wishes and desire. (My emphasis added.)
Anyone who has faith in the authority of religion should demand the separation of religion from the state in order to maintain the boundary between religion and the state, in order to keep the state from taking on the aura of religion.
What appears to be a comingling or cooperative arrangement is always already the taking on by the state of the trappings of religion. Even in the most theocratic of societies, the state takes from religion, not the other way around. Theocracies become theocracies through the state’s acquisition of the founding authority of religion, not by religion acquiring the state.
By adopting its language, its gestures, its rituals, its iconography, and its aura, the state siphons religion’s source. By appropriating the concepts of unity, indivisibility, wholeness, and identification, the state assimilates the authority of self-justification, of self-authentication, of self-positing and self-positioning that constitute religion. In adopting religion’s theocratic foundation, the state constitutes itself to claim itself as the source of its own authority, its own origins, its own ineffability, impenetrability, and impermeability. In taking from religion, what authorizes religion the state constitutes itself on religious principles.
In this way, a text such as the “The Preamble to the United States Constitution” comes close to prayer in its invocation of unity, inviolability, and futurity:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
We the people do ordain and establish ourselves as this exclusive union. We are who we are—a prayer to ourselves, in essence, of self-determination.
And this proximity to religion is made more overt in a text such as “The Pledge of Allegiance,” with the words “under God” added in 1954—a literal textual adoption of theocratic roots, of the state proclaiming itself theocratic:
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Of course, this theocratic adoption is part of the process of state formation, far beyond the United States of America. We see it in “The Singapore National Pledge,” which also stresses theocratic authority:
We, the citizens of Singapore,
pledge ourselves as one united people,
regardless of race, language or religion,
to build a democratic society
based on justice and equality
so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and
progress for our nation.
And in the opening to the Ethiopian national anthem, “March Forward, Dear Mother Ethiopia,” roughly translated from the Amharic:
Respect for citizenship is strong in our Ethiopia;
National pride is seen, shining from one side to another.
For peace, for justice, for the freedom of peoples,
In equality and in love we stand united.
These are only a few examples; there are as many more as there are, as there have been, states.
Freedom of religion demands a separation between the state and religion. It demands a separation of religion from the state. This break interrupts the state’s assimilation of the theocratic foundation of religion, interrupts the state’s assimilation of the roots of religion and returns what the state has borrowed—the authority, the very strength to rule the regime. This must be the demand for anyone who has faith in freedom of religion. Democracy—Demo-cracy—the rule of the common people—cannot take from theocracy—theo-cracy—the rule of god—without a diminishing of what gives religion its very authority and guarantee. Anyone who has faith in freedom of religion must demand freedom from censorship, freedom from songs of praise outside its own authority.