Between Church and State
210 years ago today, on New Year's Day, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to a group of Connecticut Baptists who had been the unfortunate victims of religious persecution. At the time, Connecticut had established Congregationalism as the official religion of the state, and these Danbury Baptists had asked President Jefferson for aid. In what has become known as the Danbury Letter, President Jefferson responded to the Danbury Baptists by repeating the words of the First Amendment, which state that Congress shall "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." President Jefferson then added the words, "thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
This "wall" of "separation" between church and state is the fundamental issue at play in many a culture war today. Advocates in favor of a "Christian Nation" reduce the significance of the Danbury letter by revealing the fact that the phrase "separation of church and state" is nowhere to be had in our founding documents. Those opposed to the "Christian Nation" rebuke such a claim by pointing out that many of those same founding documents (particularly the Constitution) make no mention of God. And while both sides make appeals to different influencing factors that helped to bring about the formation of the United States (i.e. Christianity, Enlightenment, etc.) it is important for us to recognize that there is NOTHING uniquely American about this church/state battle.
To better understand the depth and the importance of this church/state conflict let us travel back to a time when it wasn't constitutions and congresses that made law but rather kings and popes. Of course I am speaking of Medieval times. This was a time of passionate religious and political bickering, as heads of state (or kingdoms) and vicars of Christ jockeyed with one another for ultimate control. The question of who possessed ultimate authority became the central theme of almost all Medieval politics. Pontiffs and princes, priests and politicians, spend centuries arguing over this singular issue in the futile effort to seize a measure of control over the other.
The analysis into the origins of this Church/State conflict could, if we let it, take us all the way back to Constantine himself. Ever since the day that Constantine the Great saw his famous vision and heard the voice "En Hoc Signo Vinces", the battle between church and state has been a raging fire throughout the Western world. Constantine's newly endowed Catholic Church, complete with imperial sanctioning and ecclesiastical authority, was a budding juggernaut of power that would eventually monopolize the governments of heaven and much of earth. Unlike its pagan predecessors, which required no major governing bureaucracy, Christianity (at least of the dominant Roman Catholic form) developed a hierarchical, authoritative governing body that eventually came to rival that of the Roman Empire itself (many historians, including the legendary Edward Gibbon, have hypothesized that this development was THE catalyst to the demise of the western Roman Empire). Traditional and simplistic rituals to the various gods and priests of paganism were replaced with dominant and influential representatives of the resurrected Christ who held all the keys to one's salvation.
As Christianity continued to rise upon the ashes of the dead western Roman Empire, various leaders of various lands hitched their wagons to the church in order to add divine sanctioning to their leadership resumes. Gothic lords and Frankish kings all saw the advantages that Christianity provided. It is therefore no surprise that so many of these former "barbarians" eventually became anointed kings and saints of the church. But these perks were not without their costs. As the Medieval world continued to evolve, monarchs found themselves at odds with their religious counterparts. Popes, abbots, bishops and priests demanded more control (and money) from their secular leaders, who were often found reluctant to acquiesce to those heavenly demands. And with Catholicism still in its infancy, secular leaders were able to put the early church in check by integrating themselves in with church authority. For example, most early popes relied upon powerful monarchs for not only protection but also for their nomination to the papacy. For centuries, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire wielded incredible influence over new nominees to the Holy See, and once in power, these same popes relied heavily upon the Emperor's authority. There is no greater example or precedent of this fact than Pope Leo III, who begged Charlemagne for protection and for reinstatement to his seat as Bishop of Rome. Charlemagne obliged Leo and restored him in Rome; a gesture that Leo rewarded by pledging his allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor and by crowning Charlemagne in St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Day, 800.
But this reliance upon monarchs was not held in high esteem by everyone within the church. For centuries church authorities had tried, with varying levels of success, to break free from the secular power. From the fraudulent Donation of Constantine to Libertas ecclesiae, examples of Ecclesia's quest to be on equal or superior footing with Mundus fill the archives. The best example of this quest to "break free" and assert the church's ultimate authority is the Investiture Controversy, in which several kings (specifically King Henry IV) and popes (specifically Pope Gregory VII) took center stage in a clash worthy of a Hollywood script. In a nutshell, the Investiture Controversy was a disagreement that arose when church leaders challenged those monarchs who had granted appointments (investitures) to bishops and abbots within their kingdom. Contrary to popular belief, the church did not always exercise its domain over the appointment of local leaders. In fact, almost all local bishops and abbots of the early Medieval period were appointed by their local secular powers. This was due to the fact that these positions were almost always accompanied with a large land endowment. In what became known as the practice of Simony, kings and lords profited substantially from the sale of these church investitures, which were usually granted to secular nobles who could both afford to pay for the post and would remain loyal to the crown. For obvious reasons, church leaders saw this practice as an affront to their sovereignty and authority and looked for ways to change the status quo. This effort, however, proved to be extremely difficult, especially in the wake of ugly affairs like the Rule of the Harlots and the Great Schism of 1054.
An opportunity for change finally presented itself 1056 with the death of Emperor Henry III. Henry's successor, six-year-old Henry IV, was obviously too young to govern, thus opening the door for the church to make its move. During Henry IV's youth, the church made three significant moves to help establish its supremacy: First, in 1059, Gregorian reformers helped to push forward the all-important Papal Bull, In Nomine Domini, which established the College of Cardinals and invested in them the exclusive power of electing future popes. Second, in 1075, Pope Gregory VII created the Dictatus Papae, which, among other things, stated that the Pope alone had the authority to depose an emperor. And third, in a Lantern Council of 1075, church leaders declared that the Pope alone had the power of investitures. With these three new mandates in hand, church authorities were finally armed with the justification for ultimate sovereignty that they had longed for.
But as was often the case with Medieval politics, many within the secular realm were not impressed. Now no longer a child, King Henry IV elected to continue with the status quo and appointed his own bishops and abbots. In addition, Henry revoked his imperial support of Pope Gregory and issued a stern warning to the Holy Father. In a letter to Pope Gregory (in which Henry addressed him as "Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk") Henry declared that his divine kingship came not from papal decree but from god himself:
And we, indeed, have endured all this, being eager to guard the honor of the apostolic see; you, however, have understood our humility to be fear, and have not, accordingly, shunned to rise up against the royal power conferred upon us by God, daring to threaten to divest us of it. As if we had received our kingdom from you! As if the kingdom and the empire were in your and not in God's hands! And this although our Lord Jesus Christ did call us to the kingdom, did not, however, call thee to the priesthood. For you have ascended by the following steps. By wiles, namely, which the profession of monk abhors, you have achieved money; by money, favor; by the sword, the throne of peace. And from the throne of peace you have disturbed peace, inasmuch as thou hast armed subjects against those in authority over them; inasmuch as you, who were not called, have taught that our bishops called of God are to be despised; inasmuch as you have usurped for laymen and the ministry over their priests, allowing them to depose or condemn those whom they themselves had received as teachers from the hand of God through the laying on of hands of the bishops.Unfortunately for Henry, his royal rebuking fell on deaf ears. Pope Gregory simply ignored the letter and responded by excommunicating the Holy Roman Emperor. Not only did Henry's excommunication please church authorities but it also excited a number of German lords who had longed for a justification to usurp the king and increase their own wealth and power. Faced with overwhelming opposition from the church and growing hostility from his nobles, Henry finally chose to swallow his pride and appealed to Pope Gregory for reinstatement (legend has it that Henry traveled to Canossa, adorned himself in hairshirt and stood barefoot in the snow). Pope Gregory eventually removed Henry's excommunication but did not declare him king. In 1080 German lords had elected a new king, Rudolf of Rheinfelden, and had petitioned Gregory to anoint him as Holy Roman Emperor. Gregory found himself at a difficult crossroad and decided to not anoint either man as king. This infuriated Henry who proclaimed Clement III as pope (or antipope if you are on Gregory's team). Henry then attacked and killed Rudolf of Rheinfelden and moved on Rome to forcibly remove Gregory from the papacy. Left with no choice, Gregory called on Normon allies to come to his rescue. And though the Normans were successful in driving Henry's forces back, they chose to sack Rome themselves, causing Gregory to flee for his life.
Eventually the Investiture Controversy was resolved by Henry and Gregory's successors. The Concordat of Worms, which essentially granted sovereignty to both the church and the state in their respective realms, became one of the first occasions in which a "wall" of "separation" was created. The Investiture Controversy, though a dramatic mess to say the least, had revealed the fact that mixing matters of church and state together would surely lead to an explosive reaction. Both entities needed a buffer from one another. As the great Medieval historian Norman Cantor put it:
The Investiture Controversy had shattered the early-medieval equilibrium and ended the interpenetration of ecclesia and mundus. Medieval kingship, which had been largely the creation of ecclesiastical ideals and personnel, was forced to develop new institutions and sanctions. The result during the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, was the first instance of a secular bureaucratic state whose essential components appeared in the Anglo-Norman monarchy.And though the tug-o-war between church and state would rage on for several more centuries, the Investiture Controversy was a landmark event for both ecclesia and mundus. It gave religion a greater measure of independence from secular authorities who had for too long meddled in affairs to which they did not belong. The Investiture Controversy also endowed the state with a very clear sense of legitimacy that would, over the next millenia, rely less and less upon ecclesiastical endorsement and divine right authority. In short, the Investiture Controversy became the launchpad for future reformers and revolutionaries, who battled against the powers of church and state, in an effort to legitimize the independent authority of both. While the Investiture Controversy (along with subsequent struggles over the next several centuries) didn't completely solve the church/state debate, it did lay some of the initial mortar for the "wall." And as we have learned, this "wall" is not made of bricks but rather is a semi-permeable membrane through which church and state are able to occasionally cross, though once crossed is navigating through delicate waters.
For me, the church/state barrier is like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: though very different in texture and flavor the two were made for one another, so long as they are applied in the appropriate proportions and nobody uses the jelly knife to scoop out the peanut butter (or visa-versa). And as everyone knows, though sticky and often messy, there is nothing better than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!