February 12, 2017
I was listening the other day to a discussion between a trio of ‘evangelical’ types discussing the appropriate relationship between ‘church’ and ‘state’, or ‘religion’ and ‘politics’. Until the Reformation, this was never an issue. The gods of the nations and the nations of the gods were always the same. When one nation conquered another, things could get dicey as the natives and their religion found themselves crowded out by the new-comers and their foreign gods. The ‘old gods’ might be assumed to be hostile to the ‘new’, but syncretism proved a marvelous tool to resolve such conflicts.
Even into the Middle Ages, in the West, what we think of as ‘church/state’ issues did not arise. The Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope of Rome strove fiercely against each other to achieve dominance of the one over the other. But the Emperor understood that he ruled by divine right as much as did the Pope, and vice versa.
The late Middle Ages brought changes though. The HRE began to break up into what we call ‘countries’ and cries for ‘reform’ in the Church led to major divisions in the once monolithic thing called ‘Christendom’. As popes called on emperors and new-minted kings to enforce their religious standing with military action, reformers took shelter behind the urban fortifications and patronage of ‘the princes’. A new policy was declared by these princes: cuius regio eius religio – my bailiwick, my church. This is why we think of the Irish as catholic and the Germans as protestant, etc.
The superiority of the nation state system over an imperial one is not mine to argue. But the constitutional fathers of the USofA realized that if religious differences were to become political differences, then, ‘domestic tranquility’ would be forever hostage to theological unanimity. And so, they decreed that there would be no national religion in the New World. Believers could slug it out amongst themselves … but without police aid and without governmental endorsement or funding.
This, of course, meant that the nation would carry on its business and conduct its affairs with no official reference to religion or religious values or religiously endorsed morality. While minority religious groups took comfort from the knowledge that they could not be pro-scribed, the majority groups found themselves frustrated that they could not take part in the work of pre-scribing. And those who have found themselves chafing under the ‘cultural’ incarnations of religious dictates have had only to go to the courts to have one morality/religion based statute after another quashed and overturned as representing some sort of ‘establishment’ of religion.
Did the constitutional founders intend that a nation with no established religion would be one which forbade religion and religious groups to take part as such in the processes of government? That certainly is what they have spawned! Even as their successors regularly crank out ‘god and country’ rhetoric and push and shove to have their photos taken with as many religious leaders as will accommodate them!
Politicians have clear ideas of the role of religion in their sphere. It is only the clergy who are flummoxed about their role in the nation.
Really and truly and religiously yours,