The history of the separation of Church and State is the story of the consolidation and separation of powers. In the present context, the Church is that power which represents authority on matters of faith, duty, ethics, spirituality, morality, right and wrong; the State is that power which represents taxation, policy, military, rule and governance. There are many who think America has, had, or strives for the separation of these bodies– and all such people would be totally wrong. In fact, the very people who clamor the loudest for the separation of Church and State seem to be the biggest supporters of their consolidation. But I dare say we’ve never had a true separation and probably never will.
A proto-division of power can be seen in the Old Testament where the Levitical priesthood was not assigned any politically bounded territory. All other Israelite tribes had assignments, but spiritual authority belonged to the Levites. Theirs was an independent chain of authority as is a key attribute of separation. To subordinate one authority to the other in any way is a guarantee these powers will converge. Putting Levites into their own territory might isolate and marginalize their authority; instead the Levites were scattered all over the country to permeate political life and unify the culture.
Even when Israel begged for a political tyrant to rule over them and got Saul, there was still separation. The prophet Samuel was the spiritual authority making sure the king did not disobey the laws of God and become an absolute monarch to which he seemed to gravitate, as is the tendency of all human governments. In a key case of disobedience, Saul was effectively ousted from power.
It may have seemed that his successor David violated this separation of Church and State when he became King of Israel and made sacrifice—a task only the Levitical priesthood could perform. Did David disobey the Mosaic law? No, because as the new king of Jerusalem under which these sacrifices were authorized, David was the king-priest in the order of Melchizedek (not Levi). In this way, David succeeded Shem and prefigured Jesus Christ, the ultimate king-priest. But even David had to humble himself to Nathan the prophet when his power become great enough to think the ten commandments were optional. They weren’t, and he paid a price.
Between the reign of Solomon and the Christian era, the separation of powers varied with time and place and level of pagan regression. The separated Northern Kingdom under Jeroboam stood up its own places of worship outside the lawful Temple in Jerusalem to consolidate power. During the time of the Maccabees, the Greeks desecrated the Temple and compelled the Jews to worship their pantheon—but this met with rebellion. Roman rule was a bit more thoughtful, letting the conquered keep their religion as long as they paid imperial dues.
Nonetheless the Roman Caesars ultimately wielded earthly power while enjoying the attributes of divinity, coercing subject to worship them as gods—clearly not a separation of church and state. And this was typical of most pagan organizations (Aztec, Egyptian, Babylonian)–complete consolidation of temporal and spiritual authority in one body despite what the treaties said.
Things changed when Christianity grew in ancient Rome and the separation of these powers began to emerge in Western civilization. This became evident in the fourth century when the Christian emperor Theodosius retaliated against rioters in Thessalonica over the murder of a Roman general in 390 AD. In an act of deceit, the emperor invited the Thessalonians to the city circus only to have them slaughtered by armed recruits. Seven thousand people were killed in an act of self-appointed retaliation, something any capricious, pagan, Roman, emperor-god of centuries past would have done without batting an eye.
But times were different and St. Ambrose, the bishop that stood in spiritual authority over the emperor, barred Theodosius from receiving communion and demanded he immediately start a regimen of penance for the blood on his hands. Now this is remarkable–for the first time in the history of the Roman Empire, Theodosius bowed to the laws of God and the unarmed moral authority of St. Ambrose–the Church–and did eight months of penance, begging to be recommunicated with the one true faith.
From that point forward, the absolute rule of monarchs in Europe was basically unheard of until many centuries later. The Magna Carta of the 13th century illustrates the separation of the powers of state and church as it was understood by the medieval mind. The very first article states so much:
“FIRST, THAT WE HAVE GRANTED TO GOD, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.”
No doubt there was always a tension between lords spiritual and lords temporal when it came to earthly authority. The basic trend was to get rid of the Church so that monarchs would not have to be bothered with conscience and morality and right and wrong (reference the classic movie “Becket”). This tension was also exhibited in reverse by the Renaissance popes that led military campaigns to secure papal territory against political tyrants. Why? To keep the authority of the Church distinct and separate from the national powers that would control and direct its authority to their own ends. Certainly, monarchs in Spain, Portugal and France would leverage the Church for political ends; despite what many believe, the Spanish Inquisition was primarily the abuse of political power, not spiritual power, for, after all it’s not called an English, French, Catholic or Portuguese Inquisition as well.
The Reformation changed things considerably. Capitalizing on the usual tension, the Reformers coordinated with German princes and other heads of state to oust the authority of the Church from the national arena. And so we have King Henry VIII, now not only King of England but also the Head of the Church of England and anyone who disagreed with that edict lost their head (e.g., Thomas More). Likewise did the King of Denmark outlaw Catholicism in the provinces ruled by his throne, expelling the Church from such distant lands as Iceland and replacing it with a form of Christianity more suitable to his control. Even to this day we have the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Church of Denmark, the Church of Sweden and the Church of Norway—all of them quite indistinguishable from the state they belong to and, sadly, quite irrelevant to those societies as well. To this day Iceland is 90% Lutheran and not because Icelanders democratically thought it was the kind of religion they wanted but simply one their previous monarch coerced them into adopting. To change religions in Iceland still requires a notice to the government (but you can start your own pagan cult at any time).
Our founding fathers tried, once again, to segregate these powers through the rule of law. In a sense, the supreme court acts like the moral authority that judges right and wrong, at least as it can be discerned by constitutional intent. But this fails the independent chain of authority requirement since the president appoints judges that agree with his politics. When President Obama calls out to the Supreme Court to “do the right thing” it is clear that he is calling out to party appointees and the right thing is that which agrees with his political senses. And if there were a pure and true and independent “right thing” where would it originate? Without an immutable template of what is right and what is wrong and the independent authority to enforce it, there will never be a separation of church and state. Even now, as religious organizations, colleges and institutions, beholden to the federal government through funding, must heel to its temporal authority—what separation of church and state could there possibly be? If the government wanted to use the levers of power, it could starve the religious institutions it disagrees with and finance those it does through tax law, effectively bolstering a state religion—that which agrees with the state and that the state can control. Sound familiar?
And what does our judicial system hinge on? The oath? Late comedian George Carlin did a skit on the meaninglessness of using the Bible in court or swearing into office. But it’s really not funny. As Peter Hitchens says in his book Rage Against God:
Without the oath, where is the obligation or the pressure to fulfill it? Where is the law that even kings must obey? Where is Magna Carte, Habeas Corpus or the Bill of Rights, all of which arose out of attempts to rule by lawless tyranny? Where is the lifelong fidelity of husband and wife? Where is the safety of the innocent child growing in the womb? Where, in the end, is the safety of any of us from those currently bigger and stronger than we are?
So, I assert that there is no separation of Church and State in America and probably hasn’t been in Western civilization since the middle ages. Our state legislates morality and our president enforces the laws he agrees with and neglects the ones he doesn’t. When the state has decreed that a man can marry a man, and I must agree with it or suffer deprivation if I don’t (reference the Dissolution of Monasteries)—we cannot say we have a separation of church and state. The state and moral authority are now one.
Do we really want the government to decide the right and wrong on matters of faith and morals with the political and military power to enact it? With expediency and fashion being the motivation behind policy, one could expect that anything could be right or wrong at any point in our history depending on evolving attitudes. And so it has, for, consider:
- The massacre of Native Americans and the breaking of U.S. treaties.
- The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Our moral authority, the Supreme Court, ruled it was constitutional and have yet to retract this decision.
- Separate but equal decisions of the Supreme Court
- Institutional slavery in the south
- Legalization of abortion and selling of fetal organs
- Using citizens as guinea pigs in the testing of nuclear technology, birth control and electro-shock treatment.
- Unlawful search and seizures, physically and electronically.
Expect that our future policies to also include:
- Exploitation of minors
- Euthanizing the elderly, the handicapped and the psychologically disturbed
- Continued dissolution of marriage and families
- Outlawing the right to bear arms.
- Outlawing of religion and its practice.
- Outlawing of free speech, free press and the right to assemble.
How? Because without an independent moral authority, the government will be the one to decide what is personhood, free speech, religion, marriage, life, liberty, or happiness.
So the separation of church and state, as it is understood today means: no spiritual authority can tell the government the right or the wrong. What it is supposed to mean: the government is beholden to a spiritual authority so that it will not do wrong, but right.