How Christianity Invented the Separation of Church and State …
(but has never really believed in it)
This entry was inspired by a fairly insightful editorial by Conservative Steve Chapman for the Chicago Tribune. While I think that, in his analysis of modern politics, he’s pretty spot on, there’s one fundamental problem with his article:
An unspoken assumption that religion and politics united is somehow new. The article discusses the left-wing politicization of religion in the '60s and '70s, and right-wing politicization of religion in the '80s, '90s and 2000s – which is correct – but he seems (subtly) to imply that this politicization is somehow a recent deviation from the more usual separation in American history. Perhaps this was a choice on the writer’s part to focus on the recent past, but if so, a nod to history might have been in order, as the church has long danced a tango with political powers dating back to its very beginnings.
The notion of a separation between church and state is popularly assumed to be an invention of the United States Constitution … but it isn’t. The basic idea has its roots in antiquity when Christianity was outlawed for its first 300-or-so years, making it really hard (if not necessarily impossible) to get ahead in government/state and be a (good) Christian.
This early history created a fundamental theological outlook that would – much, much later – evolve into the theory of separate realms for state and church.
That’s where Chapman is off. It’s also where Christianity separates from both Judaism and Islam, its parent and cousin religions. The idea that church and state should BE separate is not, historically, part of those traditions. So why do we (from a Euro-Christian-Western viewpoint) see it differently?
First, for a huge chunk of history, “atheism” as we now define it didn’t exist. In the ancient (and medieval) world, “atheism” = “not my gods.” Religion was an intrinsic part of life, not to mention the health of governments (whatever the government might be). In a few cases such as Egypt’s pharaoh, the ruler was a god. More often, the ruler was seen as having divine sanction or approval, and acted as divine representative. God/the gods were on his side. (Or on her side in a few cases.) Be that as it may, the king ruled by the will of the gods, and a perceived loss of divine favor could result in being deposed. The Assyrians even developed an elaborate “scapegoat” ritual to deflect divine wrath and allow the king to return to his post. Many kings were also high priests of whatever religious cult was paramount. There were exceptions (Israel notably among them), but overall, this held true.
Among the things a king might be expected to do involved appointing other priests, building new temples/restoring old ones, building other religious structures, officiating at specific rituals, and performing sacrifices for the well-being of the people he ruled. Just to give an example of HOW seriously a king could take this, on his deathbed, among the very last things Alexander the Great dragged himself up to do? Make the morning sacrifice to Zeus (and Herakles) for the well-being of the Macedonian people. YES, it mattered that much. He stopped only when he could no longer stand.
Was he exceptional? Not really. He was notably devout, but his choice wasn’t peculiar. It was EXPECTED – the most fundamental part of his “job” as king: keep god/the gods happy.
Also, when the Greeks of the Iron Age ditched the old wanax (Great King) of Mycenaean times and even outgrew the basileus (mayor/glorified chieftain/king) of the dark age to adopt oligarchies and (eventually) democracy? The role of basileus (king) DID NOT DISAPPEAR. Instead, it became a year-long elected office (or one chosen by lot, depending on city-state) so the basileus (and his wife) could perform the RELIGIOUS duties traditionally assigned to the “king.”
So yes, even when there was no POLITICAL king, they still had a RELIGIOUS king. Because performing certain civic rights were, well, civic – essential to the health of the STATE (and its citizens). Later, when Rome evolved from republic to empire, the emperor (Imperator) took the role of Pontifex Maximus, the highest priesthood in Rome (literally the high priest of the College of Pontiffs; pontiff = priest). And he would continue to hold it, yes, through Constantine (supposedly a Christian), up till Gratian, arguably in 376, more likely 383. Theodosius I is the one who truly killed its use. “Pontifex” continued in the Christian church as the term used by priests. And THAT is why the pope is called the “Pontiff.” It’s Latin for ‘priest,’ friends.
My point is this: religious activity as a priest was assumed to be part and parcel of government and the duty of a king/emperor throughout most of the Ancient Near East and the Mediterranean Basin. THAT IS THE WORLD THAT BIRTHED NOT JUST JUDAISM, BUT ALSO CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM.
Now … why are people surprised that religion and politics might go hand-in-hand?
They always have.
It’s an ANOMALY when they don’t – an anomaly owing to the fact early Christianity was a religio illicita, or illegal religion. Without digressing into a full survey of early church history, from the time of Trajan on (see Book 10 of the Younger Pliny’s letters), being Christian could be deadly. There were no wide-spread persecutions and pogroms, à la Hollywood pop flicks, but there were periodic cases of Christians put on trial and convicted as Christians (“on the name alone,” to quote Pliny). Because many public offices involved RELIGIOUS celebrations for traditional Greco-Roman cult (see above), Christians could not (usually) aspire to political office – certainly not HIGH political office – and remain good Christians.
As a result, a chasm developed between “the world” and “the church.” In “the world,” there was the cursus honorum – the Roman “Race of Honor” – while the Christian church developed an alternative path of a cursus sanctum, or “Race of Holiness.” One had to CHOOSE. Become a Prince of the Church, or a Prince of the World. As Paul himself insists, one could not be both. Well, not until after Constantine. Then the chasm began to close …
… except it never really did, especially in the West. With the tradition of celibacy growing among priests and the obvious need for kings and emperors to marry and produce legitimate heirs, a priest could not also be a king. That division remained. Instead, the question became, “Who holds the REAL (ultimate) power?” Popes or kings? It fueled all sorts of medieval controversies, most notably the Investiture Controversy, but hardly limited to that. I will, however, bow out of further medieval discussion, not being a medievalist and recognizing my limits.
Yet this unique history allowed an idea to ferment that “church” and “state” should be different realms, separate. When church and state get in bed together, it breeds subversion of both Christian ideals AND good government … at least, according to traditional Christian theology.
So the peculiar development of Christianity as “illegal” for its first few centuries set the stage for the eventual concept of “Separation of Church and State.” That notion isn’t just a product of the Enlightenment and rise of science, or even a logical result of divisions that arose during the Reformation. The fundamental assumptions that support it go back much further, to the very birth of Christianity.
Judaism doesn’t share that history. Islam doesn’t share that history. A lot of other world religions don’t, either. We, here in the west, need to RECOGNIZE they don’t, not ask why they insist on religion and government together as if it’s some sort of strange, mutated beast.
WE are the strange, mutated beast.
I may, personally, believe in separation of church and state, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand it’s atypical in human history. Only when we consider how such separation developed can we begin to formulate an intelligent – not assumptive and biased – discussion with other religions who have other histories.
Judaism’s history assumed Theocracy for the nation of Israel, with the Davidic King acting as a human stand-in for Yahweh (e.g., God). Likewise, Muhammad was both the religious and political leader of the early Ummah, or Islamic Community. And while the emphasis was on religion over politics at least initially, nonetheless the notion that “religion” and “politics” should be separate was never a part of Islamic history, either. Any such concept in Muslim countries is pretty recent, owing largely to exposure to Western religions/philosophies and the increasingly cosmopolitan world where not all citizens belong to one belief system, or to any belief system at all.
That’s where the BIG EFFIN’ CHANGE LIES. With the Communication Age, and an increasingly mobile society with large immigrant populations from really different ethno-religious backgrounds – and also the rise of (modern) atheism (or at least agnosticism) – it can no longer be assumed by most First-World (and many Second- or Third-World) Countries that all, much less a majority, of their citizens will share the same beliefs. Obviously “Immigrant” countries like the U.S. see this demonstrated most profoundly … which is WHY separation of church and state got a kick-start in immigrant countries … but it’s becoming increasingly common in countries that still maintain an official state religion (however “technical” it may be).
I think it important to understand the very long, very convoluted history of religion in government in order to recognize that it really is not that strange for them to go hand-in-hand. Even an “illegal” religion like Christianity wanted to influence the government. No sooner did the Christians have the upper hand than they began to outlaw OTHER religious expressions, starting with “heresy,” then moving on to traditional Greco-Roman religion (e.g., “paganism”), philosophy, and even their cousin religions, Judaism and (later) Islam. Despite her troubled and fractional history with Roman government, Christianity did not give up on the idea of influencing rulers and lawcodes. And it still hasn’t.
As the original article noted, Christians today span the political gamut from ultra-conservative to very, very liberal, as much as it might surprise some to hear that there are ultra-liberal Christians. But several Christian denominations lean Left, from the Quakers to American Episcopalians to subgroups of other mainstream protestant churches (Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist, and even American Baptist). We should also include the Metropolitan Community Church, the first not just to welcome but to ordain gay and lesbians pastors. Likewise, everything from Liberal Theology (yes, it’s a theological school, not a political term) to Liberation Theology are very much on the LEFT.
This Left is usually perceived as less “pushy” than the Right, due in part to a theology/philosophy of tolerance that tends NOT to make headlines. Yet these groups are still politically active. Rewind a couple of decades to the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and it was a different story as to which type of Christian was in the news the most. The “Born Again” movement began on the West Coast and was considered fairly liberal in its early days. Christian Rock and other forms of Contemporary Christian Music – particularly popular in Evangelical churches today with a strong emphasis on outreach – were born in the then-radical musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, and the Street Gospel songs of Larry Norman … “Jesus Music.” Similarly, the Civil Rights Movement had a number of religious leaders (Martin Luther King being obvious), and the Sanctuary Movement of the ‘80s had a number of Left-leaning ministers and other church workers as active participants. So while the Left may not have a theology of theocracy or Dominionism, they certainly do seek to influence political life in accordance with their beliefs, and vote by their conscience.
So whether the matter is seeking to make abortion illegal (Pro-Life), or to establish government-funded agencies to aid the poor (Social Gospel), both the Right AND the Left do seek legal and political change based on ethical codes derived from their own interpretations of Christian scripture.
Thus, when we talk about separation of church and state as an ideal today, it needs to be a more nuanced conversation. First, we must recognize that “church” – or more properly religion – in political life is not restricted only to the more conservative voices, or solely the purview of extremists (be they al-Qaeda or the Westboro Baptist Church). Believers – whatever the belief – are all over the theological, and political, map.
Second, and more importantly, we need to remember that separating religion and government is not somehow “historically correct,” or “the way it used to be, and ought to be again.” The “way it used to be” would, actually, unite religion and government.
I would propose that consciously separating the two has become necessary in our increasingly diverse world. That hardly precludes individuals from voting based on their conscience – nor should it – but the State (and the states) should avoid any clear preference for one particular faith, or one sect/denomination/theological paradigm within that faith.
We no longer live in a homogenous world, ethnically or religiously, and must come to terms with this reality. Diverse societies have real advantages. They tend to be more intellectually vigorous, more innovative, and less stagnant. But they also require a higher level of tolerance towards others. These societies only last when difference is perceived as interesting, not a threat.
So separation of “church”/religion and state is – to be completely honest – artificial, historically speaking. But it’s also important to a modern, civilized society in the Communication Age.