There are ideas that are so common, so oft-repeated, that they are critically examined only with great difficulty. Among the most powerful such ideas is the concept described as the “separation of Church and State.” The history of the phrase is its own study (it’s not actually in the Constitution, much less the Bible). It is repeated, however, as though it were not only obvious but morally obvious. Thus, it has come to be far more than a particular arrangement within American constitutional thought. Hidden within the sentiment, however, are assumptions about both the State and the Church that are not only not obvious, but from a classical Christian perspective, not even true.
The concept posits two entities, Church and State, as though they were givens about which everyone agrees. The modern construction called “the State,” is, just that, a modern construction. The nation-state is a fairly modern notion. It exists as an entity authorized to collect money, make laws, conduct war, and negotiate on behalf of all people living within a defined geographical area. It operates in this manner through mutual recognition and agreement with other similar states, behaving according to stated rules and norms. “Primitive” peoples who were late to the table of statehood, were treated as though they had none, needed one, and now they’re ours!
The Church, in the modern period, has been reduced to a minor institution that exists for agreed religious purposes. By definition, it is one of many similar such institutions, none having any particular claim towards people, culture or other public matters. Church has assumed an existence more or less parallel to a business, though sometimes enjoying certain taxation privileges (as do some other businesses).
For the purposes of our thought, I will suggest a different model. Suppose this thing called “the State,” decides to contract out all of its various services (this is indeed taking place increasingly). The military, the police, construction, social services, etc., would all be different private corporations. Prisons in some states are already managed in this way. The private contractors working for the military toeday even includes some who exercise a military function (i.e. they kill people and blow up things). In this contracted arrangement, what would remain would be a concept called “the State,” but, in reality, was only a collection of businesses doing various jobs. What would “State” mean? To what would people belong?
Such an exercise is useful in teasing out the notion of “belonging” to a State. “I am an American; I am a Canadian,” etc. In my thought experiment, you would be a person who lived in a territory serviced by some collection of companies.
Let’s turn to the Church. The classical Christian teaching is that the Church is the mystical Body of Christ. It is never described as a business or a corporation. It doesn’t have to have buildings. Properly, it is not simply a manifestation of the “religious” sphere of our lives, for there is nothing in a Christian life that is not rightly united to God. “Church” is not an affiliation – it is an organic communion and belonging.
What is interesting to me is how much the modern nation-state resembles the Church. We “belong” to it; we are “members” of it; we can even speak of the “Body Politic”; we identify with it (in a manner than supersedes free-will). You are a citizen of the nation-state by birth – no one asks you to join. You not only allow this arrangement, but accept that, like it or not, you have some sort of nation-state connectedness with everyone else born here (or otherwise “incorporated” as a citizen). The State has become the one natural entity whose demands supersede all others and can regulate all others. That’s quite something!
The rise of the concept of the nation-state gradually reduced the Church to its present existence as a free-will association, organized for religious purposes –similar to a hobby group. Both the reduction of the Church and the rise of the nation-state are unintended consequences of the Reformation. Indeed, the most lasting and profound result of the Reformation has been the State’s usurpation of the Church’s role. The State is the de facto Church.
This brings me to the matter of the “separation” of Church and State. My suggestion is that they are never “separate.” Rather, they are locked in a fearful battle until the end of the age. They do not and cannot co-exist simply because they offer mutually contradictory claims. The Church might endure the State (as constituted in modernity), but it should never agree to the claims and assertions of the State.
The State (particularly in its modern manifestation) represents a rival claimant to the Kingdom of God. In its concept of secularism, it declares that there exists a space in which God has no claims. It boldly and clearly proclaims that it has no God but itself. The various civil proclamations concerning God (“In God we trust,” etc.) are but echoes of a time when the Church and the State were differently conceived. At present, it is language without content, a hollow mocking of an earlier time.
The battle is eschatological in nature and is clearly describe in St. John’s Apocalypse:
Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” (Rev 11:15)
This proclamation does not say that the kingdoms of this world disappear. That, perhaps, would be more in line with the secular claims of present modern theory. Rather, it declares that the battle is finished and what the kingdoms of this world wrongly claimed for themselves has been rightly restored to the only true and living King.
What does this mean for Christians in this world?
It does not make us into anarchists. Christians are the ultimate monarchists: we believe that Christ is King and God (cf. the service of Holy Baptism). It does not mean that we refuse to obey just laws and respect leaders. We do not, however, agree to their ontological demands. They do not own what they claim – particularly when it comes to the lives and loyalties of human beings. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” There are not two owners.
We tolerate the pretense of the nation-state in patient forbearance. However, the modern narrative of the nation-state as the locus and means of progress, justice, indeed the Kingdom itself, must never be accepted by the faithful. The State is, at best, a convenience.
In our daily lives, it means we refuse to embrace the anxieties of the modern project. The convenience of the state is not the arena of the Kingdom of God. Its justice and injustice are not the righteousness of God.
Historically, the Church has lived in a clear tension with the State. Though it has become common for many to tout the so-called “Constantinian Shift” as some major turning point in the life of the Church, the Church neither then, nor later, agreed to the anything beyond the State as convenience. The story of the Church and Emperor is one of constant battles. Emperors sought to work their will on the Church while the Church consistently and persistently resisted. That battle continued up until the Reformation, at which time a new peace was inaugurated in which the Church agreed (in practice) to cede to the State all its demands. The recurring conflicts between Church and State have largely disappeared – not because the Church found its freedom – but because the Church in the new arrangement ceased to matter.
There is a reason that various leaders and states have persecuted the Church from time to time. It was seen as a rival, both to their own claims to unbridled power and authority as well as to their interpretation of the world. For the Church does not make claims about religion. It proclaims the truth of God, the truth of being human, and the nature of the world itself and all life within it. Wherever the Church fulfills its true calling in Christ, the state will perceive its rivalry and the tensions that have often erupted in history will be renewed. Wherever the Church ignores its true calling in Christ, its existence is of no consequence, allowing it to abide in an irrelevant peace.