In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association written on New Year’s Day in 1802, President Jefferson wrote what, especially in recent times, has become his most often quoted words. In offering an interpretation of the First Amendment he said,
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State” (emphasis added).
The Catholic Church invents the Separation of Church and State
Jefferson was offering nothing novel. Christians have been preaching the separation of Church and State for millennia. If we look at the great cultures throughout history, the idea of a separation between the State and Religious powers was anathema. Whether it was Egypt or Rome, the Emperors were believed to be gods themselves and religious veneration was due to them. When Christ uttered His famous “render unto Caesar,” He did so in a culture in which Caesar thought himself divine and the High Priest or Pontifex Maximus of the official Roman pagan religion. This was the norm throughout the ancient world, except for a single country—Israel. In Israel, the role of king was distinct from either the priests or the prophets. The first king, Saul, was anointed by the Prophet Samuel (1Samuel 10) and even King David himself was beholden to the Prophet Nathan who accused him of murder.
Christians have always interpreted Christ’s admonition to “render unto Caesar” as a call to keep this Jewish tradition of separating the governance of the State from the governance of the Church. On the one hand, we can see why Our Lord thought this necessary simply by looking at man’s nature as both spirit and body. We live two distinct, although related lives—temporal and eternal. His utterance baptizes these two distinct powers to govern each of the lives. Like the body and soul, there is a certain precedence of the spiritual governance over the temporal governance, but still the two should work in a complementary fashion.
Why We Need the Separation
Why the Church and State should remain distinct is not entirely clear until we add into the mix man’s fallen nature. As an effect of man’s prodigious fall, the body tends to drag the soul down and corrupt it. When the Church and the State are essentially one, it is the Church bears the brunt of it. History reveals this repeatedly, especially if we look to the Middle Ages, culminating in Henry VIII’s foundation of the Church of England. The circumstances may change but the Church always becomes corrupt when it gets too closely tied to the temporal power.
To use an American parlance, the Church/State distinction is a form of checks and balances. The temporal authority, because he is first and foremost is trying to save his own soul in addition to his subjects, is always subservient to the Church. The Church would, in turn, make itself the servant of the Imperium in her conduct of temporal affairs. Each serves to keep the other in line—when the Church oversteps her bounds and gets too caught up in temporal affairs, the State is there to remind her of her mission to souls. When the State oversteps its bounds and puts the souls of its residents at stake, the Church is there to remind it of its proper place. While this practice may have been abused, the power of the Pope to excommunicate a rogue Christian King was very effective in bringing about conditions that were good for the soul.
When the two function in this way the citizens of the State thrive and are holy. The culture becomes Christian, rather than a mere State that happens to have a majority of Christians in it. The Church recognized the importance of building a Christian society—one in which being a Christian is made easier by the culture—and therefore worked out her understanding of Church/State relations shortly after the time of Constantine. Pope St. Gelasius I (492-496) who is often credited with “inventing” the separation of Church and State said:
“Christ, mindful of human fragility had discerned between the functions of each power… His reason for so doing was twofold. On the one hand, it is written that no one warring for God should be entangled with secular things. The raison d’être of the royal power was to relieve the clerics of the burden of having to care for their carnal and material wants. For the temporal necessities the pontiffs indeed need the emperors, so that they can devote themselves to their functions properly and are not distracted by the pursuit of these carnal matters, but the emperors, Christian as they are, need the pontiffs for the achievement of eternal salvation.”
The Jefersonian Distinction
Even if Jefferson did not invent the notion of the Separation of Church and State, he did endorse an important twist to it. What was new about Jefferson’s position—which was subsequently read into the Constitution by Justice Hugo Black—was his belief that a wall of separation had to be erected. In other words, he thought Church and State should remain completely separate.
Returning to the analogy of the human person, you can no more put a wall of separation between the Church and State than you can between the soul and the body. To sever the one from the other leads to death—be it the death of the person or of society as a whole.
When the complementary role of Church and State is denied, the State will go unchecked in its power. When the State finds no authority above it then it simply does as it sees fit without any regard to the moral law or the eternal salvation of its citizens. In order to pull this off though the State needs to promote “bread and circuses” to keep the populace from focusing on their souls. The “bread and circuses” can take various forms, but the form of choice today is sexual license. It is not as if the Church merely disappears in this setting. The State sets up a new Church, one that is merged with the State. In other words, when you set up a “wall of separation” it will always end up merging the two.
Return of the Church-State of Paganism
Much of the West is returning to paganism in the form of liberalism, worshipping the god of freedom. Like all pagan gods, it demands child sacrifice, even if is cleaner this time because it is done in utero. Its churches are universities (really all public schools) and its high priests are the judges. The State will “tolerate” other religions and grant “freedom of worship” but any public expression, especially when it comes in conflict with the State Religion, will not be tolerated. The Little Sisters of the Poor may have ultimately won their lawsuit, but that is only a harbinger of things to come. The next battle will likely come for not complying with the demands of the law for gay marriage. You must be willing to profess the new pagan creed which many Catholics, even bishops and priests, have shown themselves willing to do.
This is really a project of the Enlightenment, it simply took a few centuries for the Christian roots of Western society to actually die out. Those roots are now, for all intents and purposes, dead. We are living in Rome in reverse and the only way we can act redemptively is the way of the Church—martyrdom or an appearance by Our Lady. Throughout history those are the only two ways that a society has been saved from the clutches of paganism. Let us pray that as we ready ourselves for the 100th Anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima that it is the latter.