Church and State

Thanks to the irruption of Christianity within the history of this planet, the question of Church and State will not go away. It might have done, had Charles Martel failed to stop the Umayyad conquest of Europe at the Battle of Tours; for there is no equivalent distinction between “Mosque and State” in Islam. Or, had the old pagan Roman Empire succeeded in wiping out the earlier Christians; for their emperor was divine, and that was an end to the question. The Church-State question might never have arisen had the missionaries sent by India’s Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, converted all the peoples to the west; for Islam is hardly alone in neglecting to list the things that are, and are not, Caesar’s.
Nor, I should add, nervously, should we expect the question to disappear if the “Enlightenment” project finally succeeds, and Christianity is suppressed along with all other religion by the agencies of a universal Nanny State. For while such a State will always be nominally atheist — the one common feature of Revolutionary France, Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, Maoist China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia — it must nevertheless claim the mandate of history. And as the hundred million starved and butchered victims of strict secularism discovered, a parody of the claim to divine authority knocks the hat off any bishop, sultan, or bonze.
Yet Christianity has survived all this, and we daresay it will survive more of it. Christianity alone has posed and continues to pose this question: of where divine authority yields, voluntarily, to “civil society” and makes space for those who do not share the Faith.
More than that — for Christianity alone has postulated this civil space, and persistently recreated it where and whenever it has lapsed into extinction. Christians alone have, even within overwhelmingly Christian societies, created the institutions through which representatives of Church and State may negotiate the common good.
To do this, not only once but again and again, Christian thinkers (whether Catholic or not) have had to plumb deeply into the nature of “natural law.” How is the world constructed that, even without Scripture and Tradition, there remains a perceptible natural order of things, such that reasonable men may still descry right and wrong, the better and the worse? How, even without the pure gifts of Faith, Hope, and Charity, do we still find our way lighted by the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage?
Especially today, when the tyrannical edicts of “political correctness” must be met and managed in the public square, it is incumbent upon us to know the history and understand the principles animating this explicitly Christian distinction between Church and State. For it created the very possibility of Western Civilization; and without it, our future must be very dark.
We must grasp that, where “Church” is extinguished, the State necessarily assumes a quasi-divine authority and wins a monopoly on virtue as well as force. And we must grasp that it is a direct line from this monopoly to the death camps.
To this end — the end of grasping that is at the heart of politics — I can unambiguously recommend a kind of textbook, The Contested Public Square: The Crisis of Christianity and Politics, by a Calvinist friend, Greg Foster (recently published by InterVarsity Press). The book actually benefits from not having been written by a Catholic, for Foster does a wonderful job of showing the common provenance of ideas that tend to be felt-marked “Catholic” today. Far from being exclusively Roman, they have been the common coin of Calvinists, Lutherans, Lockeans — and of the Fathers of the American Constitution.
I call it a textbook, because it presents itself in just that way, right down to illuminative sidebars offering a “dummy’s guide” to key philosophical and historical events, from “Politics in the Old Testament” to “John Stuart Mill.” Foster is concerned to show that at each juncture in the labyrinth of history, there were reasons for taking the path selected, and thus a thread exists to follow the long journey back.
And, like a good textbook, The Contested Public Square does not go out on limbs; it climbs the trunk of its subject and stays balanced. Hence it has been puffed even by such solidly Catholic reviewers as Rev. James Schall, S.J., and Michael Novak.
Alas, it would be pulling hen’s teeth to make today’s ardently Obamaniac post-Christians even look at the book, for they don’t believe in history any more than they trust in God. Which is all the more reason we must learn and remember the history: for we’ll need it to clean up the mess, when the latest secular moondance is over.

  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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