Church and State; Simply a Gong Booming or a Cymbal Clashing
Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association in Conneticut that he interpreted one of the 1st Amendment’s many facets to mean, in essence, a ‘separation of Church and state.’ He certainly wasn’t the first to say so, John Locke seemed to say much of the same thing if in a less pithy form. The idea had existed since the ultimate diarchy of religion and state: the Byzantine Empire. “The domain of royal power,” declared Saint John Chrysotom, “is one thing and the domain of priestly power another; and the latter prevails over the former.” Whatever the tradition of Jefferson’s words like most quotes taken out of context it has come to mean many different things to many different people. But that isn’t the point of this post.
Christianity was, is and will likely be a perfect adaptor. It integrated and redirected its pagan past. It has also fiercely repudiated it, and according to the latest Pope attributed the Holocaust to its influence. But walk through the streets of Rome today, and you will see any number of pagan buildings and pagan monuments transformed into Christian places of worship. Auditors of indeterminate skill have grafted Christian symbols to the pagan foundations. In many cases the addition does little to change anything at all, the addition of a cross or the etching of one is a favorite tactic. Or the image of a saint.
Standing near the Coliseum in Rome is Trajan’s column. It was erected in 113 C.E. to mark the emperor Trajan’s triumph over the Dacians (modern Romanian fame). Winding in a spiral around the shaft of the column are stone images of defeated barbarians. Originally they made their way to bow and thank Emperor Trajan for their incorporation into the civitas of Rome (i.e. the civilized world). Today, the Emperor Trajan has been removed. In his place, today, it looks as if all those toiling barbarians who struggle upward around the column had, all along, been moving toward not only incorporation but also, unknown both to themselves and their conqueror, toward absorpotion into the Church of Christ. Saint John has replaced Trajan. Is there a more powerful image of Christianity Triumphant? Perhaps. I have not seen a rival.
The point being, lost in the wave after wave of conflict between ‘traditional’ values and whomever has decided to be this week’s defender of the oppressed, is how adebt Christianity has been at incorporating the most ‘effective’ arguments into the continuance of Christian influence on the common topics of the last decade (school, marriage, taxes). Like the pagan Emperors of Rome, or any institution that called upon travelers in a distant land amid the ruins to look upon him the mighty, notable political tactics have been (no pun intended) converted. Many are now the mainstay of Protestants within America.
The chief volte-face, in this altogether unhumble blogger’s opinion, is the break from whether God or Christians would like a certain policy. Policy proposals are not, except in a few fundamentalist circles, considered on the basis of how God would view the policy. Instead, as many religious groups now argue, it does not matter whether or not atheists or homosexuals or whomever happen to like a certain policy. Instead, the modern world, as prominent theologians now argue, requires Christian policies to stay a functioning society. Certainly, sometimes the form of this argument is simplistic and not terribly convincing (see: homosexuals are going to destroy the world if they’re married). But even if these titillating political arguments are amusing, they are an easily identifiable adoption of the same basic structure that we saw going the other direction (e.g. the world is destroyed if homosexuals aren’t married).
In short, to turn our attention back to Jefferson, we have a perfect example. There has been a recent movement in jurisprudence circles that a separation of church and state allows for room for an explicit religious influence within civil society (e.g. Goodnews Club). Now is not the time or place to explore those dynamics. It is enough to acknowledge.
Atheists, ardent secularists and fundamentalists would agree on one objection: these advancements represent a weakening of Christianity. Secularism has worked, all three would declare, with different interpretations of those results. I’m sure something similar happened when the pagan symbols became new Christian ones. Pagans sniffed that Christianity couldn’t compete and was forced to accept these influences denounced by fundamentalists. They, on the other hand, would point to the same evidence as the degradation of belief. There’s a reason we don’t hear either of those viewpoints.
This is not to doubt the persuasiveness of any side in the political arena. Simply, when the first law scholars and political ‘scientists’ popularized the argument midcentury, I doubt any thought that it would now be used (approaching seventy years on) as an argument for allowing Christian groups greater access to public facilities. Now Christian intellectuals are quick to point out, if there is an absolute wall between the activities of Church and State (notice those capital letters) how is a president justified in using the word ‘God’ at all? How is the Supreme Court justified in its prayer, or its use of a Christian Bible at the inauguration of the President? How can Bibles be passed out in classrooms, or religious newspapers printed by universities? Well, it’s the separation of church and state they reply. Any other interpretation is a gong booming or a cymbal crashing (it means nothing). Trajan has been nudged off the pedestal labelled church and state and I would not be surprised to see Saint John put in his place.