Introducing the first posting series, Dictatus Papae, which chronicles the eleventh- and twelfth-century conflicts between Church and State known as the Investiture Controversy.
And I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church [. . . ] I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. —Matthew 16:18–19
Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. —1 Peter 2:13–14
THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY (2017–2020) offered a number of confusing and often polarizing moments in public political discourse, particularly in terms of the role religion should have in a supposedly secular society. In 2020, Trump, campaigning for another four years as president and appealing to the (often ultraconservative) Christian Right, projected himself as a national leader who favored (and protected) religious freedoms. Taking it a step further, Trump's administration took on an active and cooperative relationship with America's conservative Christian base, with faith-based policies, statements, and photo-ops. Trump-era policies and posturings led to photo-ops like the ones seen in 2020, around a key time in the election season, showing he was an important ally (and protector) of religion, religious conservatism, and the conservative Christian Right. Ironically, Trump's policies and posturing, to push the Republic Party closer to the Christian Right, brought on pronouncements claiming the United States was backsliding into what many perceived to be a medieval-style theocracy.
(Above Image: Prayers for the Trump Administration. Credit: Andrew Harrer/ Bloomberg via Getty, 2017)
In Engel v. Vitale (1962) and later in School District v. Schempp (1963), the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS), under Chief Justice Warren, who led the most progressive court in SCOTUS's controversial history, struck down the legality of state-sanctioned prayer activities in schools. Americans, from different walks of life at the time, saw these decisions by the Warren Court as wicked attacks against God and the very religious freedoms guaranteed in the United States' constitution. Much like the Trump presidency's polarizing moments, Warren's court wasn't the first nor the last conflict concerning the cooperation between Church and State in the United States. In fact, the conflict reaches further back, to around the early decades of the American Republic. Thomas Jefferson, a president and a Founder of the American Republic, was the first to articulate what has come down to us as the Separation of Church and State Doctrine. This doctrine's foundation can be clearly found in a letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists (in 1802), concerning the cooperation between Church and State in the new republic.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. —Thomas Jefferson, 1802
This letter to the Danbury Baptists hearkens back to known historical realities, historical myths, Enlightenment ideals, and (very probably) Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vols., 1776–1788), which, in part, blamed Rome's decline and fall on Christianity and its followers. Although Gibbon's conclusions concerning the negative impact Christianity had upon the Roman Empire have since been refuted, the work still holds a special place in the conversation concerning the cooperation between Church and State.
As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more Earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. —Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
The war over the limitations of state-church relations is nothing new in the United States, and it certainly isn't new in the history of Western societies. What the 1962 and 1963 court decisions, along with Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists and Trump's meeting with spiritual (i.e., Christian) leaders in 2016, show is the longer struggle for understanding between the State (i.e., government entities) and the Church (i.e., faith-based organizations). Should these two be partners? Should either be supreme over the other? (So, should we follow the words of Matthew (see above) or Peter (also above) ?) Alternatively, should there be a firm wall of separation between these two parties?
While many Americans have come to terms with Jefferson's wall of separation, this hasn't always been a reality in western societies (and elsewhere). We live in an era of self-proclaimed secularism in the Developed World, which supposedly avoids turning to gods, goddesses, and/or otherworldly spirits for guidance, intervention, knowledge, and/or the occasional smiting of one’s enemies. Instead, we tend to focus our efforts on science, coherent logic, and verifiable facts. (Although the jury is still out on some of these.) If people in the Developed World were asked if they consider religion a personal foundation, outside of superficial practices and observations of major holidays, only the truly religious might answer in the affirmative. Others, many others, in fact, might not openly admit the influence of religion in their lives, mundane or otherwise.
The separation of Church and State, larger society and religion, are the byproduct, particularly in the West, of political and social developments, often stretching back centuries, stemming from complicated (and often tumultuous) histories influencing these spheres of human life. During the early years of the American constitutional experiment, President Thomas Jefferson is credited with offering an official, yet contested interpretation of the country's First Amendment protections (and limitations). This interpretation still stands largely un-revised by proceeding generations of Americans. Despite challenges to the doctrine in question, many Americans today tend to believe it is an actual law, and, as such, it means the Church and the State shouldn't work too closely together. When those understandings break down, it is viewed as devolution, bordering on the reemergence of medieval theocracy.
Looking to medieval Europe, we find a society where the Church and the State, society and religion, were intertwined, and this intertwining of what we might perceive as public and private affairs was (usually) justified by all sides of elite public discourse. The lack of cooperation between the Church and the State could spell disaster, or so the thinking went. The State protected the Church from the alienation of its properties, and the State could also provide necessary protection against unsavory types, seeking to murder or rob clergymen. The Church, on the other hand, provided protection in the form of prayers to God and veneration of the Saints, all in hopes of ensuring monarchs had long, stable reigns and the fields were plentiful with crops. Unlike (say) many modern societies and states, religion played a tremendous and often symbiotic role in societal and governmental functions, especially in medieval Western Europe. In many cases, it was hard to find where state and/or societal entities began and where religious organizations ended. To say this was a completely harmonious relationship would be an ahistorical argument. Much like our own modern societal and governmental relationships with religious entities, there was serious contention, an ever-lasting friction, like two tectonic plates grinding against one another, that dominated conflicts throughout the medieval period in Western Europe. One such conflict, and the focus of this posting series, consisted of the Investiture Controversy, one of the crisis' more innocuous-sounding names, which impacted much of Western Europe, albeit in varying intensities. The German and Italian regions of Europe appear to have experienced a brunt of the conflict, but it also raged on, with a lower intensity, in regions like France and faraway England.
A good deal of ink has been spilt in attempts to understand the big picture implications of the Investiture Controversy both during and after the medieval period in Western Europe. Entire careers, tenure, and even many dusty, multi-volume histories have been consumed by this subject. This series of postings on The Parliament o' Fowls is neither entirely comprehensive nor is it the last word on the matter. For much of this posting, the political decisions of Pope Gregory VII, a monk who was (in)famously known for his reforms within the Western Church during the eleventh-century CE. All of these reforms, in part, helped spark the seemingly inevitable conflict we know today as the Investiture Controversy. Other actors in this grand drama of Church and State include Countess Matilda of Tuscany, Heinrich IV, Heinrich V, and the many papal successors to Gregory VII's lofty ideas and revolutionary church reforms.
A quick note needs to be discussed here before we continue with this posting series, though. As I mentioned before, a good deal of ink has been spilt trying to comprehend what the big picture consequences are for the Investiture Controversy. However, we have to be careful of broad brushstrokes of grandiose generalizations that claim to know the big picture when it comes to moments in history, especially those moments located within the global Middle Ages. Gerd Tellenbach, a well-known Church historian, offers a great critical lens in which to view events (including crises) in Church history:
[T]he second half of the eleventh century was an epoch of church history whose importance can only be understood in connection with its preconditions and its consequences.
While Professor Tellenbach is discussing how one should handle the history of the late-eleventh- and early-twelfth-century for the Western Church, in particular the Investiture Controversy, his critical lens also applies, in many respects, to the way we should handle history in general. One of the many problems historians have with popularizers' histories is the use of broad brushstroke connections between the decades, centuries, and millennia. While we need to seek out the bigger picture, we need to do so in a way that isn't ahistorical in nature. Therefore, we need to remember that history's big picture is much like a tel. For those unfamiliar with a tel, it is a geographical formation that is artificial in nature. Generally speaking, a tel is formed over time, an accumulation of various strata (i.e., layers) that, over time, produce a hill-like structure. For example, an old city might be built upon an old city built upon an old town built upon an old settlement. Each stratum contributes to the overall big picture we see. That is each layer creates the tel we are seeing. If we attempt to remove a layer, the tel itself loses its structure, metaphorically speaking. Each layer contributes to the thing we see in the present. Without the layers, one on top of another, we do not have the structure before us. The same thing can be said for history. The Investiture Controversy does not impact (say) the modern era in ways we might assume. Like the tel, the Investiture Controversy is a layer, which only makes sense with the previous and succeeding layers, but it helps contribute to the modern era's problems concerning the relationships between Church and State in the West. While it doesn't make up the tel in its entirety, it provides a foundational layer for subsequent events. While it seems rather pointless to explore one of the many strata in this particular tel, we find that doing so allows us to understand preceding and succeeding layers within this historical structure.
1. Thomas Jefferson’s full 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists can be found here: https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html
2. Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vols.) can be found on Project Gutenberg in eBook form: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/890 [Volume 1]; https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/732 [Volume 2]; https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/733 [Volume 3]; https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/734 [Volume 4]; https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/894 [Volume 5]; AND https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/736 [Volume 6].
3. Gerd Tellenbach, The Church in Western Europe from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century, trans. Timothy Reuter, (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000), xv.
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