The Separation of Art and State

August 14, 1997 • Commentary

Congressional Republicans’ 1995 commitment to phase out the National Endowment for the Arts is coming under strong attack, with Senate Republicans in particular–notably New York’s hellbent‐​for‐​reelection Al D’Amato–trying to reverse their previous vote. Even the strong‐​minded House Speaker Newt Gingrich was temporarily charmed by Alec Baldwin, president of the “Creative Coalition.”

In a Washington speech, Baldwin expressed dismay at my statement that “government should stay out of art and ideas.” He responded that Americans must “define ourselves by our commitment to our cultural heritage, to the arts, and to ideas.” Maybe so, but he makes the common mistake of assuming that everything important must be planned, sponsored, subsidized, or licensed by government. And if the United States is defined primarily by the idea of individual freedom and limited government, then a commitment to that idea would seem to call into question the very existence of a national endowment for the arts.

Ironically, Baldwin’s argument was echoed by Gingrich, who told the National Religious Broadcasters that we need a constitutional mandate allowing prayer in government schools because it is “vital that we reassert the centrality of faith in the definition of America.”

Both Baldwin and Gingrich misunderstand the role of government. Government has an important role to play in a free society: to protect our rights to life, liberty, and property. But many other important areas of life, from economic prosperity to religious truth to family values, are best left untouched by government.

The American Founders observed the social and political conflict created by Europe’s intertwining of church and state and established a new principle for a new world: separation of church and state. The Founders thought that religion should be left to civil society because it was so important to individual dignity and social harmony.

More precisely, it is wrong for the coercive authority of the state to interfere in matters of individual conscience. If we are individual moral agents, we must be free to define our own relationship with God.

Furthermore, social harmony is enhanced by removing religion from the sphere of politics. Europe had suffered through the Wars of Religion, as churches made alliances with rulers and sought to impose their theology on everyone in a region. Religious inquisitions, Roger Williams said, put towns “in an uproar.” Far better to make religion a matter of persuasion, not coercion.

If individual rights and social peace are furthered by putting religion beyond government’s reach, this has implications for art, which — like religion — expresses, transmits, and challenges our deepest values. As the managing director of Baltimore’s Center Stage put it, “Art has power. It has the power to sustain, to heal, to humanize … to change something in you.” Because art is so powerful, we dare not entangle it with coercive government power. That means no censorship or regulation of art.

It also means no tax subsidies for arts and artists, for when government gets into the arts funding business, we get political conflicts: Conservatives denounce the National Endowment for the Arts for funding erotic photography and the Public Broadcasting System for broadcasting Tales of the City, which has gay characters. Civil rights activists make the Library of Congress take down an exhibit on antebellum slave life, and veterans’ groups pressure the Smithsonian to remove a display on the bombing of Hiroshima. To avoid political battles over how to spend the taxpayers’ money, to keep art and its power in the realm of persuasion, we would be well advised to establish the separation of art and state.

Baldwin and other supporters of the NEA make the point that the agency’s current budget of just under $100 million is a pittance in a $37 billion industry. He’s right. So couldn’t the wealthy leaders of that industry come up with enough money to replace the NEA budget? Then they wouldn’t have to worry about Jesse Helms’s objections to whatever they fund; the First Amendment well protects privately produced art. They wouldn’t even have to take time away from their art to visit Newt Gingrich.

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