The consecration of the state, by a state religious establishment, is necessary,” wrote the political philosopher Edmund Burke, “to operate with a wholesale awe upon free citizens” because “all persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust.”
In democracies such as ours which invest the people with the power to elect their government, all citizens must fully comprehend the gravity of their political responsibilities to ensure a just and moral commonwealth. For more than a millennium, the great states of the West communicated such gravity with clarity and vigor from the altars of established churches. While many were representative democracies, political institutions that maintained order and dispensed justice have always relied on the public’s general moral consensus in executing their functions. Justice and order cannot be obtained in a society which does not agree on the meanings of those concepts. A commonly-professed religion provided that moral consensus for most of our civilization’s history.
Religion has since been banished from the public sphere throughout nearly every Western country and reduced to the realm of individual conscience. The minimal formal role that religion today plays varies from the de jure establishments in disempowered European monarchies like Britain and Monaco that belie the de facto condition of traditional religious strictures, to the abundance of religiously steeped rhetoric in American political language which varnishes an otherwise secular regime. Religion is all around us-in our history, in our social traditions, and in the churches that dot our cities-but yet one cannot help but feel that it is nowhere to be found in our democratic public life.
The relationship between religion and the state looms large in contemporary political debate. Yet it is an issue of acute concern for the Christian, especially one that lives in an ostensibly secular commonwealth like the United States. America in many ways represents a repudiation and a reaffirmation of the traditional role of the church vis-à-vis the public authority. Despite the deistic or atheistic sentiments of founders like Franklin and Jefferson, America was constructed as a country of Christians, whose national and moral prosperity depended on the general adherence to long-established codes of religion and morality. Yet by explicitly forbidding the official establishment of a national church, the Constitution anticipated the purging of all religious expression which is directly or indirectly supported by public revenue-a purging which presently plagues our country. If to be American truly requires the conviction that religion has no role in public and political life, the faithful Christian cannot-and must not-be a loyal citizen.
The doctrine of the “two swords,” which states that the separate sabers of secular and sacred power jointly govern man, gained ascendancy early in Western history and dictated the political and religious structure of pre-Reformation Europe. While much controversy punctuated the development of this thesis, most disputants generally assumed that both the state and the church would be public and complementary entities, although the consensus quickly collapsed in deciding which of the two merited preeminence. As the fifth-century pontiff, St. Gelasius I, outlined, “There are two powers…by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests (auctoritas sacrata pontificum) and the royal power (regalis potestas).” St. Gelasius elevated the clerical auctoritas over the regal potestas, but still clearly discerned a distinctness and independence to each of those corresponding jurisdictions. The king-the public authority-was charged with the governance of peoples’ actions, while the priests-the representatives of God-with the governance of peoples’ souls. Ideally imagined, there could be a harmony between these two swords and their separate responsibilities, one that would not devolve into tyranny.
St. Thomas Aquinas added to this debate by comparing the theocratic state-the Mosaic state ordered by God Himself in the Old Testament-with the present condition of man after the birth and resurrection of Christ. The Hebrew kingdom of the Old Testament was founded upon laws which God Himself delivered to Moses. The principles which governed the Hebrews were singularly and indistinguishably religious, a seamless union of the secular and sacred. Yet, such a unity could not be similarly realized in the New Testament world, posited St. Thomas. The Old Law given to the Hebrews dealt with outward actions, often ruling through fear of punishment and conducement of reward because salvation could not yet be obtained until the sacrifice of Christ. The New Law of the Gospel was instead promulgated primarily upon men’s hearts and extended into internal actions. The sway of the state, despite its contemporary largesse and administrative capabilities, is not potent enough to penetrate into the inner workings of men’s minds and hearts. Thus, such matters must belong to the purview of the church.
Where, then, is the place for religious authority in modern public life? The answer, at least for Americans, is very difficult. Though it requires individual conviction and personal faith of each of its adherents, Christianity presupposes a community. As Christians, our own relationship with God is inextricably connected to our relationships with our neighbors. While we are still a generally Christian nation, America professes no institutionalized creed; state-subsidized action that can be construed, however indirectly, as an endorsement of a particular faith has become constitutionally anathema and is considered a constraint on those with alternative beliefs. But to assume that public religious expressions infringe unacceptably upon the rights of others implies that, in a just nation, faith may not figure at all into decisions about political and social issues-a fundamentally undemocratic tenet. Christianity informs our attitudes about ethics, morality, and justice, all of which necessarily influence our opinions about politics. Faith shapes the way we look at the world and everything in it: to completely divorce our private morality from our conception of public policy is to commit a fraud of the highest order. Eliminating all moral assumptions rooted in Judeo-Christian civilization for fear that they are chauvinistic threatens the idea of objective truth in our political system. A Christian cannot tolerably live within a system that draws no distinction between right and wrong.
The solution for the crisis of public morality is not to support a theocratic Christian regime. Disestablishment, as articulated in the Constitution, can actually exist alongside a public affirmation of general ethical principles. American Christians must therefore affirm and vigorously defend the notion that disestablishment does not mean secularization. Christian morality has defined and shaped the political institutions which we have inherited and by which we continue to abide. While church attendance continues to decline in Western countries, the cultural and social heritage of Christianity still remains visible and vibrant. As Christians, we can and still must practice tolerance toward those with other beliefs; yet tolerance does not mandate that all viewpoints-while equally permissible and expressed-possess an equal claim to truth.
Christopher Lacaria ’09 is a History concentrator in Mather House.