This upcoming Friday, June 29, is the feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul, specifically their martyrdom in Rome. The teachings of both of these men have recently come up in American politics: Attorney General Jeff Sessions mentioned Paul’s writings to bolster the Trump administration’s immigration policy, while pro-immigration advocates have referred to the “love thy neighbor” passage from the Gospel of Mark, widely believed to have been dictated by Peter. Presumably both early Christian leaders would find it strange to see their words appropriated by politicians in a 21st-century democracy that is self-professedly secular. Indeed, both secularism and democracy would be totally alien to two 1st-century Jews who were murdered by the state precisely for their religious beliefs.
More interestingly for us, this recent battle over the Bible raises once more an important question: what role should religious beliefs and institutions play in American society? Is religion mere rhetorical window dressing, aimed at providing a veneer of piety? Or does it play a more fundamental role? Current political trends, as well as a multiplicity of historical examples, suggest that civilization requires a separate, independent, institutional religion that exists in a permanent state of tension with political authority. Religion under such a scheme retains a strong distance and autonomy, free to judge and inform political discourse. Without a separate religious jurisdiction, the state assumes a monolithic, totalitarian power that seeks to dominate and manipulate every aspect of society, becoming an oppressive religion unto itself and a threat to man’s intrinsic freedom.
As much as the history of Peter and Paul and their followers is a story of multi-generational, state-sponsored persecution of a new religious faith, Roman rule at the time was in many respects quite laissez-faire. The New Testament, for example, offers numerous examples of government officials evincing a gross indifference to local political and cultural dynamics. Most infamous is the behavior of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, who, when charged with determining the fate of the obviously innocent Jesus of Nazareth, is all too eager to “wash his hands” of the whole affair. As with so many government employees, Pilate hopes his inaction will make Jesus someone else’s problem, declaring to the Jewish crowd: “I am innocent of this righteous man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”
Roman political detachment is also in view during the Pauline missionary travels recounted in Acts. While Paul is ministering in Corinth, Jewish leadership seeks to impugn him before Gallio, proconsul of Acha’ia. Rather than defend the obviously persecuted Jewish-Christian, Gallio instead tries to extricate himself, asserting, “since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves; I refuse to be a judge of these things.” He then drives them from the tribunal, and in the tumult the ruler of the synagogue, Sos’thenes, is seized and beaten. Despite the chaos, “Gallio paid no attention to this.”
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The analysis of renowned historian Mary Beard in her 2015 bestseller SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome suggests that the approach of Pilate and Gallio was probably normal across the empire. She observes: “so far as we can tell, even under the rule of the emperors there was hardly any such thing as a general policy for running the empire.” Governors were expected to levy taxes from the locals, keep the peace, and otherwise leave local cultural and political institutions alone. Amazingly, at any one time there were probably fewer than 200 elite Roman administrators, plus maybe a few thousand slaves of the emperor, governing an empire of 50 million people! With such a disinterested imperial policy, it is unsurprising that Pilate, Gallio, and the like would exhibit only as much interest in the affairs of their subjects as was necessary to collect monies and maintain order.
However, Roman citizens were expected to adhere to a few tenets of civil religion. One such requirement was public worship of and deference to Caesar, a means of inculcating allegiance to the state. Because of the intrinsic cultic nature of these acts, this soon became the most explicit area of divergence between Roman pagans and Christians, who refused to worship Caesar as a god. Romans were confused and frustrated by Christian intransigence—could Christians not practice their strange, Jewish-derived customs at home while still paying public deference to Rome?
Yet as imperial Rome grew, she progressively sought to replicate, if not assume, the natural role of religion in human society. Caesar declared himself a god. Octavian, the adopted son of Caesar, subsequently had himself pronounced “son of a god.” He also, so Roman biographers tell us, allegedly ascended to heaven. Ancient writers tell us that Vespasian, who reigned about one generation after Christ, allegedly restored sight to a blind man by spitting in his eyes and cured another man’s withered hand by standing on it. These purported heroics had little impact on the the vast majority of the citizens of the empire, who lived in poverty, their identities and needs far removed from their rulers.
G.K. Chesterton offers a humorous and poignant observation about Greco-Roman society at the time of Christ:
There comes an hour in the afternoon when the child is tired of “pretending”; when he is weary of being a robber or a Red Indian. It is then that he torments the cat. There comes a time in the routine of an ordered civilization when the man is tired of playing at mythology…. The effect of this staleness is the same everywhere; it is seen in all drug-taking and dram-drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense…. They seemed to be saying that God was dead and they they themselves had seen him die.
The megalomania of the 1st-century Roman emperors, epitomized in the lunacy of Caligula and the lechery of Nero, evinces “tormenting the cat” on a global scale. It is little wonder so many eagerly converted to the Christian faith, which promised a king who truly loved and provided for his subjects. Jesus tells his disciples that heaven rejoices at the repentance of a single sinner. Subjects of his kingdom are to be concerned with the most marginalized, honored even for giving them a “cup of cold water.” Jesus elsewhere declares “the last will be first, and the first last”: indeed, the members of this kingdom are exhorted to invite to their feasts “the maimed, the lame, the blind.” Yet Jesus also asserts to Pilate during his interrogation that his kingdom is “not of this world.”
As its doctrines developed and coalesced into a coherent whole, Christianity perceived that a strong distinction between religious faith and civil authority was necessary to restrain the totalitarian instincts of the state and preserve man’s freedom. The doctrine of the “separation of church and state” is not necessarily an Enlightenment idea, but one with roots in ancient Christianity. St. Augustine in his great work The City of God perceived two important but fundamentally distinct worlds: the city of God, composed of the Church and its adherents, and the city of man, the secular world. The 5th-century Pope Gelasius I in turn pronounced a doctrine of “two swords,” one being the Church, the other the state. These swords perform different functions and must remain separate, though religion must have the autonomy to judge and inform politics.
Imperial Rome’s fears of a rebellious Christian citizenry were ultimately unfounded. The new faith was no threat to Roman political order—indeed, it fostered patriotic, law-abiding citizens, giving its adherents something the state cannot give: purpose, transcendence, and a robust moral code. These qualities created a stable, mutually beneficial equilibrium between church and state. This paradigm existed in various forms in the eastern Roman Empire until the collapse of Constantinople in 1453, and in the Western Roman Empire and its successor medieval manifestations until the subsequent disintegration of Christendom during the Reformation and the religious wars of the 17th century.
Moreover, contra popular opinion, the Church of these centuries served to restrain the centripetal power of the state. Ambrose, friend of Augustine and bishop of Milan, excommunicated the Roman emperor Theodosius for the massacre of 7,000 people at Thessalonica in 390 A.D., and didn’t restore him until he performed public penances. Similarly, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV was excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII in 1077 for interfering in Church affairs—Henry spent days penitently kneeling in the snow outside the pontiff’s winter residence at Canossa. The medieval Church checked the scope and terror of war with policies like the “peace of God,” which limited the days permitted to engage in battle. Historians like Thomas Madden and Rodney Stark have demonstrated that the heresy courts of the Inquisition, contrary to serving as hotbeds of volatile religious fervor, were attempts by the Church to curb the state’s wanton execution of religio-political dissidents.
What replaced this state-church dynamic was a set of post-Enlightenment societies that often renewed the Roman challenge to play both king and priest, inevitably reverting to the same gross errors of the ancient empire. Nazi Germany, the USSR, and the People’s Republic of China are all exemplars of how political authorities seeking to fashion a new humanist religious cult around the state demand subservience at the barrel of a gun. North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, a descendant of Protestant clergy and raised in a devout Presbyterian family, aimed to replicate the devotion and transcendence of Christian belief and practice in the formation of his own state communist religion.
The United States is far from such a totalitarian regime, though the ancient impulse to unite state and religion periodically rears its head. States and cities, for example, have sought to punish Catholic adoption services because of their beliefs regarding sexuality; under the last administration, Catholic medical providers were targeted. Such anti-religious policies are endorsed by senior political leadership. During a hearing over federal judge applicant and devout Catholic Amy Coney Barrett, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein lectured: “The dogma lives loudly within you…. And that’s of concern.” During a similar confirmation hearing for Russell Vought, nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders took issue with Vought’s Christianity and beliefs regarding Islam. Sanders asserted that the composition of Vought’s faith was “indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.”
As it was in Rome, so is it now in the West that those who are unwilling to bend the knee to the progressivist socio-political project and its various public rites find themselves marginalized and mocked, if not harassed and attacked. The state will largely leave you to your own personal devices so long as you refrain from violating such gods of non-transcendent church-state fusion as sexual license, tolerance, and pluralism. Yet as is increasingly clear, this paradigm is itself oppressive and inflexible in its aims. Also like Rome, this civil religion is incapable of giving citizens a robust, complete conception of man’s being and end, substituting instead the economic, cultural, and spiritual poverty of globalization, consumerism, and technology addiction.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it.” Truly religious belief frees men from the soul-crushing philosophies of materialism and humanism, while inculcating a deeper sense of being and purpose, qualities all good citizens must possess. Without that otherworldly, transcendent perspective provided by strong, independent religious institutions, we will indeed look to the state as our god, and it will inevitably betray us, as did Soviet Russia, the Third Reich, and the original imperial Rome. As we remember Peter and Paul, we should be mindful that an autonomous religious faith, particularly of a Judeo-Christian flavor, is no threat to the state’s stability or viability, but indeed the salt that preserves and strengthens it.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion for TAC.