What Ireland can teach the U.S. about separating church and state
I never thought I'd find myself living Rick Santorum's dream, but here I am. After all, I live in Ireland, where there has never been any of the "absolute separation of church and state" that Santorum and a politically significant, passionately committed bloc of like-minded religious conservatives abhor. Far from limiting state involvement in religion, the Irish constitution enshrines it. There isn't just prayer in most public schools; there is full-on Christian — almost always Catholic — education. (Just last week, on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, my 6-year-old skipped in from her government-funded school with a cross of soot on her forehead.) Government agencies sometimes give cash to poor families to help cover the costs of First Holy Communion and Confirmation finery; recently, when the continuation of this practice in fiscally strangled times caused a public outcry, the objection was that such grants were unaffordable, not that they were religious.
Even if the U.S. were to embrace official piety, it would not remotely guarantee any of the wider moral or social benisons that the religious right dreams of.
Statues of and shrines to the virgin Mary dot the public landscape and no one makes a peep. Nor does anyone try to soft-pedal the "Christ" in "Christmas": In December, everyone just naturally says "Happy Christmas" and not the all-purpose "Happy Holidays" that gets so many faithful American knickers in a twist every year. The school concert always features lots of sacred carols and no one tries to sue. Abortion is illegal. Divorce has been permitted since 1995, but remains a very difficult and drawn-out business that no one undertakes lightly. Granted, birth control, legalized in 1978 and broadly available since 1985, has definitely caught on, as one might guess from the fact that the average number of births per woman has fallen to two. But otherwise, to the degree that religious conservatives believe that America can scale the heights of greatness if and only if it will let God loose in the public square, Ireland would have to look an awful lot like the promised land.
Unless, of course, America's religious conservatives actually came here. If they did, they would come face-to-face with an uncomfortable, but uncontestable, reality: Even if the U.S. were to embrace official piety to a degree that not even the furthest reaches of the religious right could imagine, it would not remotely guarantee any of the wider moral or social benisons that the religious right dreams of.
Make no mistake, Ireland is a wonderful place full of wonderful people. It's just not a place, or a people, that makes much of an advertisement for official religion as the key to social rectitude. Having been born, baptized, schooled, and often employed in institutions closely tied to a Church that forbids sex outside marriage, do Irish people eschew sex outside marriage? Apparently not: Approximately one-third of all births here occur out of wedlock. As of 2008, Ireland was tied with Latvia for having the highest rate in the European Union of children living with a single parent, likely because Ireland's social benefits to such parents are among the most generous in Europe. It turns out that when faced with a choice between sanctity and solvency, very few people pick sanctity, no matter how many years of taxpayer-funded catechism they have been obliged to take.
How about other dangerous indulgences? With teachers who are paid, in part, to talk about the lives of the saints and the states of children's souls — and certainly not fired for doing so — do Irish children find it easier to resist drugs and alcohol? Again, no. According to most studies, rates of alcohol and cannabis use are about the same among youth in Ireland as in the rest of Europe, while the rate of heroin addiction is somewhat higher. What about the sins of greed and material excess, on either the personal or national level? Here again, people seem to have been consuming something more than loaves and fishes. As of 2010, Irish households owed twice as much as they earned. And with a national debt that breaks down to more than half a million dollars per capita, or slightly more than 1000 percent of GDP, Ireland is the number one debtor nation in the world.
In fact, the state's promotion of faith has failed even to generate a positive effect on the practice of faith. Here, as elsewhere in the West, vocations to religious life are in the basement and falling. Not too long ago, I had the incongruous pleasure of hosting a dinner party for some young priests who had come from South America to serve in Holy Mother Ireland — as missionaries.
Again, the point is not that Ireland is a bad place — or even that, given its history and demography, Ireland's official relationship with religion is an entirely bad thing. But viewing the Republican primary race from here, I can't help but look at the right-wing urge to mingle church and state and ask: If all-pervasive, entirely constitutional, and widely accepted state promotion of religion can have such a limited impact upon a society as small and as homogeneous as Ireland, how on Earth does anyone believe that America can be transformed by such far-punier efforts as its Constitution might be construed to allow?
For all the differences between the sole superpower and the Emerald Isle, the most salient point on this whole issue rests upon something the two countries share. Like America, Ireland has seen unquestionably positive developments — the empowerment of women, the elevation of living and education standards, the advent of the internet, the democratization of travel — which carry some very troubling practical and moral implications. Like Americans, the Irish are wrestling with the problem of how to maximize the good in all this, while minimizing the bad. But as they do, at least the Irish will be able to skip over the step of kidding themselves that there is a simple fix to be found in setting the government up with God. They already know that it's a lot more complicated than that.
Americans need to know that, too.