The Demise of Christendom, 1
“Political society is instituted for no other end, but only to secure every man’s possession of the things of this life. The care of every man’s soul, and of the things of heaven, which neither belongs to the commonwealth nor can be subjected to it, is left entirely to man’s self.” John Locke, Letter concerning Toleration. (1690)
“Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God … a wall of separation [should] be erected between the Church and the State.” Thomas Jefferson, Address to a Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, in the State of Connecticut, Washington, 1802.
The West, as a society and civilization, has lost its way. Once upon a time, not so long ago, the democratic Western nations were proud of who they were and certain they had a place and a mission in the world. Now, not so much. Instead, we find the governing class fumbling to excuse the core values and identity that gave the West cohesiveness in the past. We find the intelligentsia pleading mea culpa to every sin and misdemeanor the rest of the world chooses to throw our way.
In the next series of “Worldvyou” posts, we will examine some of the history behind this moral collapse, which is also a collapse of morale and self-confidence. Individuals lose their mojo, so too do civilizations. The West is there now.
One of the greatest concepts contributed by the West is the separation of church and state. It is a bedrock doctrine of the social, political, and economic order of the West. It is cited over and over in jurisprudence and as justification for many decisions taken by both public and private administrators. What does it mean, and how did it become the ‘law of the land’?
Gaining a grasp of the history of this key principle will act as a sort of compass in tracing the demise of Christendom, which was a key component in the West’s old mojo. We have found nothing comparable to replace the Christendom motif, and the dogma of the Separation of Church and State, for good or ill, has played and continues to play, a major role in stripping it away. We will start with two of that principle’s pioneer advocates. We will retrace the history behind them, come into the present, and offer some projections as we conclude. A number of posts over the next weeks will be required to make this journey.
In our first citation, John Locke, one of the great English ‘philosophes’ of the Enlightenment, was commenting on the then recent ‘Glorious [Bloodless] Revolution’ of 1688-89 in which King James II of England was dethroned and exiled by a cabal of Lords and wealthy commoners. James’s offence? He had converted to Roman Catholicism, hardly a wise choice when an important part of his official job description was earthly Head of the Anglican Church.
Locke wrote a public, open letter to the English ruling classes (the nobles, or ‘Lords’, and the gentility, or wealthy commoners who sat in the House of Commons). He was attempting to bring some rational balance to a situation teetering on the edge of a renewal in religious-political Civil War. England was then a ‘Great Power’ in Christendom, one of the leading Protestant nations. The West was recognized as unquestionably ‘Christian’, although divided between Catholics and Protestants. Religion was very much part of public and private life, just as it had been for thousands of years.
Jefferson was in his first term as President of the United States when he made his comments as quoted above. He was the first major politician to clearly articulate governing a major democracy under such a guiding principle. Since then, the US approach to it has evolved to something he would have great difficulty recognizing. But we will return to that much later in this series.
Archeology and ancient writings show us conclusively that all ancient societies were religiously rooted and that the elders, leaders, and rulers expected the populace to participate in and support the group’s religion. Neither government, law, nor any other aspect of life could be separated from the group’s common religion. If you belonged to the clan, tribe, city-state, or kingdom, you were expected to recognize, honour, and respect whatever deities or spiritual powers the clan, tribe, city, or kingdom worshipped. There were penalties for not doing so, possibly even death or exile.
Conquering another place with its own gods and religious forms complicated matters. The Romans resolved this by simply assimilating the gods of conquered peoples, re-identifying them as local names for the imperial gods Jupiter, Juno, Mercury, Mars, Venus, etc. They attempted (usually unsuccessfully) to ban some ‘foreign gods’ which did not assimilate readily (Isis, for example). The Romans prided themselves on tolerance, as long as the supremacy of Jupiter and a few other key gods and goddesses was accepted. The Romans began all official functions by honouring, however perfunctorily, the presiding Roman deity, and everyone present had to observe this. Only the Jews won a grudging exemption.
No society before the modern West deviated much from this pattern. There was a national or tribal pantheon, and all citizens needed to adhere to it. Settled civilizations historically enact laws to enforce and sustain the system. Legal systems typically claim divine sanction and guidance, even revelation. The Romans were no exception. Even the much admired, philosophically ‘advanced’ Greeks had laws about blasphemy and ‘impiety’ (disrespect for the gods). That is why Socrates was famously sentenced to death.
In 381 CE, ‘Christian’ Rome outlawed paganism, and Rome became a constitutionally Christian Empire. Religion was still rooted in public life, and courts still asked God for wisdom and guidance; blasphemy was still a crime.
Christian rulers of the Middle Ages had no notion of separating law and religion, let alone of dividing the Church from its intimate connection to social and community life. The concept of the ‘Three Orders’, or ‘Estates’, as they were called in France, recognized that each section of society had an important role to play, and that this order was ordained by God. Each of the three ‘Orders’ must recognize the duties, privileges, and responsibilities of the other two or society would break down and God’s judgement could be expected.
The Church’s role was to support the secular authority by promoting moral behaviour, civil obedience, and conformity. The civil government’s role was to maintain peace and order and sustain the Church’s moral and spiritual authority. The civil government was in the hands of the King and nobility, the class anointed and appointed by God to govern on earth.
The third Order, or Estate, was that of the ‘Commoners’, or the People – all the rest who did the labour and practical tasks, and paid the taxes to support the other two Orders. The People were instructed that this was their divinely appointed role in God’s economy.
This ‘regime’ lasted from the reign of Charlemagne (768-814) until the twin upheavals of the Renaissance and Reformation shook the cultural and ideological unity of Europe, excluding Russia. A number of other factors undermined it over time and eventually awakened demands for change and reform in all three ‘Orders’. If the system was divinely anointed and appointed, how could it be changed and questioned? In the ‘High Middle Ages (1100-1300)’ some scholars began to quietly question what part God’s will actually played in this whole scheme which seemed to conveniently protect and benefit only two of the three Orders.
The Nobles footed the bill for endless wars and some local improvements and finding manpower to fulfill their obligations. But the heaviest burden fell to the Third Estate or Order, who were taxed and levied other tasks of labour and kind by both the top two Orders. Five percent of the population received 95% of the public revenue and any trickle down to the other 95% of the population was dependent on the liberality and goodwill of the 5%. Across Europe, the tax and duty exempt Clergy possessed 20-25% of the land as time went on.
Flaws and cracks in the system appeared. The Kings resented Papal and Episcopal competition for the loyalty and purses of the People. The Holy Roman Emperors, followed by the powerful Kings of the emerging nation-states of France and England, began to question the Pope’s claim to sole control over the appointment of senior Church Officers (Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops) and the heavy burden of sending tithes and special offerings outside their realms.
The ‘Second Order’ (Royals and Nobles) resented and questioned the Church’s owning of massive properties if the ‘First’ or ‘Spiritual Estate’ was supposedly primarily concerned with the spiritual and eternal aspects of life, yet interfered incessantly in ‘secular affairs’. Church officials paid no taxes and were not even subject to the regular laws, but were tried in separate, ecclesiastical courts. Yet, the ‘Spiritual Lords’ did not hesitate to call on the ‘Secular Lords’ to enforce orthodoxy and bring ‘infidels and heretics’ to judgment and even death if the Church so decided. The whole business appeared more and more self-serving and less and less spiritual.
It took centuries for the tangled web of these interlocked interests to begin to break apart, with the power of the Secular Authority gradually shedding Papal and Ecclesiastical domination. But subjecting the Sacred to the Secular and making the ‘Lords Spiritual’ subject to the ‘Lords Temporal’ was no better a resolution to the intermingling of God’s concerns with earthly civil concerns.
We will take up the tale in the next instalment.