Separation of church and state? I can think of a couple of other things I’d like to see separated from the state, or connected with the state in only a slender and indirect fashion. One of them is the school. The other is the home.
A scene from Virgil’s Aeneid comes to mind when I think of the current relations between that most intimate of all churches—the home—and the state.
When Neoptolemus, the son of the dead Achilles, smashes open the doors to Priam’s palace on that last fateful night in Troy, the poet portrays him as committing at once sacrilege and rape. “Force makes itself a way,” says Virgil, and the inner home, the sacred place, the penetralia of Priam and the ancient kings is laid bare, and the hallways are full of the weeping and the pitiable moaning of women.
But Neoptolemus will not be stayed. He pursues the wounded Polites, one of Priam’s last surviving sons, into the penetralia. There, at last, he slays him with a spear, right in front of the old man and his wife, who have retreated to the house’s shrine for a final plea to the gods above. Those gods do not hear.
But they are not the only gods we are to think of. Virgil, employing a conscious anachronism for the sake of his epic on the founding of the Roman people, provides the Trojans with what they probably did not have—namely, the household gods. And these are what the crippled old Anchises is carrying when his son Aeneas carries him on his back and leads his little boy Iulus by the hand as they flee Troy forever.
A good Japanese devotee of Shinto would appreciate the scene. For the household gods are your ancestors. A Roman boy lived under their tutelary watch. Imagine figurines or death masks of an uncle, a grandfather, or your own father when he has passed away. Imagine them at the hearth on holy days. In more ways than one, they give you a place. You belong here, in this family not another. You belong to these people, who lived long ago. You have a history and a heritage, intimately bound up with the earth beneath your feet.
It is to the credit of the Romans that for many centuries they somehow managed to preserve that sense of the sanctity of the home, and that it persisted in the outlands well into the centuries of empire, as witness the shift in meaning of paganus, country bumpkin: the old farmers were the last to give up the ancient household pieties.
Perhaps it would not have been so, except that the technology for thoroughgoing intrusion into family affairs did not then exist. I do not simply refer to the television and the computer but to state-run schools and state-sponsored oversight of children. In any case, I believe there is no longer any clean distinction to be made between mass entertainment, mass politics, and mass schooling. The ravenous State and other State-like and State-symbiotic creatures have tossed everything into one general pot.
What is left for the family? Rather, what is left of the family? Americans have largely taken for granted a monstrous bit of historical nonsense, which is that the Constitution forbids the churches to have any influence upon public affairs, as if appealing to Jesus Christ were forbidden, when you will be celebrated for appealing to John Lennon or Margaret Sanger or many another blinkered male or female peddler of social slogans that go stale almost as soon as they are sold.
What they have not seen is that the influence of the home has faded along with the influence of the churches. I do not believe that that is coincidental. A strong sense of the sacred has this double force: it protects the church and the home from the intrusions of the state, just as it might protect any sacred area from profane use, and it subordinates the state to something beyond itself, something that helps to give it a proper aim in the world. It keeps Caesar from playing God, and it assists Caesar in recognizing what he is for and how he should or should not attempt to attain it.
It was Virgil’s hope that somehow the pieties of home, and of human mercy for the individual persons who suffer in our midst, could be reconciled with imperial Rome and her ambitions. His hope, I believe, was always guarded, and that is why his epic ends with a terrible impasse, as Aeneas, moved in opposite directions by the claims of piety, plays the part of the hated Achilles and slays the young Turnus, ignoring his pleas for mercy and yielding to an unappeasable rage. If only we had Virgil’s tender sense for human limitations and human error, and his admirable honesty.
For we now believe that the State, and those mass phenomena that function as extensions of the State, or that act in concert with the State, can do or are justified in attempting to do the work of the home and the church. We have been trained to be on guard, lest an occasional priest or bullying parent might straggle into the halls of State power through a back window someone has left open. Meanwhile, there is a regular superhighway running from those precincts into the home to assimilate it, to weaken it, to corrupt it, or to supplant it, and into the churches, to do the same.
The Trojan Horse is within the gates, and its hatches are open, and the city is burning. We take no notice. We worry that some Trojan citizen somewhere may be meandering among the Greek supply train, preaching to the bored veterans about the integrity of a people’s home and their folkways, while they laugh and shrug and toss kitchen slops at his head. For when was the last time an American politician, or an American school administrator, or an American entertainer, gave a passing thought to the sanctity of the home? I am not talking here about a warm tingly feeling. I am affirming an objective fact.
As soon as you enter the door of a home, you are in a sacred place, and you are subject to its proper authority. So long as no one within is engaged in behavior that immediately endangers or injures the welfare of those nearby—no one there is setting fires or playing loud music in the middle of the night—and so long as children, who are especially vulnerable, are not being starved or beaten bloody or raped or otherwise harmed in a clear and lawless way—the home is its own small parish, its own small county. And when homes come together to establish a village or a school, they extend and they delegate some of their authority, so that these enterprises are still to be considered as subordinate to the home and supportive of it. Think of the school, properly, as a general governess or tutor hired by a cooperative of homes.
What I am suggesting here is more than that the cancerous growth of the State has come at the expense of the home. It is that the unholy has grown at the expense of the holy, and that to do so, the unholy must arrogate to itself the authority of the holy. No one believes that Washington, D.C., is full of saints and angels and all the heavenly host. But we seem to behave as if it were because there no longer is any human problem that we believe is outside the purview and the legitimate authority of the State, which hustles us along and picks our pockets and fills our minds with confusion, from birth to natural death.
Nor is the State entirely to blame. The churches have cried out also, “Who is like the beast, and who can stand against it?” And parents have shrugged and said, “Who can live without the beast? Are our children ignorant? Let the beast teach them.”
The desacralization of the American state is long overdue. The Constitution is to be honored because it is a standing law, not because it is holy. Politicians are to be given the respect that skilled workers are given, if they do well the work they are hired to do. They do not make up a priesthood. Teachers of children are not wise men in Tibet. The Oscars do not canonize. News reporters are not oracles. Caesar is a fat, bald man who belches at the table. Every step he takes beyond himself either robs him of dignity or makes him downright perverse and pernicious. Let churches and homes remind him of what he is, and then he just might win our honor and our affection again.
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