church and state

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church and state

church and state, the relationship between the religion or religions of a nation and the civil government of that nation, especially the relationship between the Christian church and various civil governments. There have been several phases in the relationship between the Christian church and the state. The uncompromising refusal of the early Christians to accord divine honors to the Roman emperor was the chief cause of the imperial persecutions of the church. After Constantine I gave it official status, the church at first remained fairly autonomous, but during the 4th cent. the emperor began to figure increasingly in religious affairs.

In the Byzantine Empire

In the East in the 6th cent., Justinian was ruler of church and state equally, and thereafter the Orthodox Eastern Church in the Byzantine Empire was in confirmed subservience to the state. This domination of state over church is called Erastianism, after the theologian Erastus. When the empire began to disintegrate, the power of the state over the church declined; and under the Ottoman sultans the situation was reversed to the extent that the patriarchs of Constantinople were given political power over the laity of their churches.

In Russia and the USSR

In Russia the Orthodox Church was quite dominated by the state. In the Soviet Union, especially in its early period, the Communist party fostered much antireligious propaganda, and a large percentage of the churches were closed. The Constitution of 1936, however, guaranteed freedom of religious worship, and the Russian Orthodox Church was subsequently revived. In 1944 two state-controlled councils were established to supervise religion; one regulated the affairs of the Russian Church, the other those of the other Christian denominations and of the Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist groups. Similar systems of state control also existed in many other Communist countries.

In the West

Early Years to the Reformation

In the West different factors affected church and state relations than in the East. After A.D. 400 there was no central power in the West, but there was a central ecclesiastical power, the see of Rome, which had claimed primacy from the earliest times. The barbarian invasions and the ensuing anarchy resulted in a tremendous growth in the power of the papacy.

With the appearance of strong political powers in Europe, particularly the Holy Roman Empire and the kingdom of France, a struggle began between the papacy and the temporal rulers. The principal contention was over investiture, but underlying it was violent disagreement as to the proper distribution of power; theories ranged from the belief that emperor or king, as ruler by divine right, should control church as well as state (a theory known also as caesaropapism) to the belief that the pope, as vicar of God on earth, should have the right of supervision over the state. The centuries-long struggle was highlighted by such bitter clashes as those between Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, between Pope Innocent III and Emperor Frederick II and King Philip II of France, and between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France. The conflict of Guelphs and Ghibellines began as part of the imperial-papal struggle.

The nearest the papacy ever came to Erastianism was in the period during which the popes resided at Avignon, where they were virtually at the beck and call of the French kings. After the return of the papacy to Rome the popes generally maintained independence of temporal powers but on occasion were either influenced or coerced by king or emperor.

The contest in England was perhaps no less bitter than on the Continent, but it was more sporadic. Lanfranc and Anselm contended against King William II, St. Thomas à Becket against Henry II.

The Reformation introduced a great number of complicated factors into the relations of church and state. Different solutions have been found, ranging from the establishment of one particular church (as in England and the Scandinavian countries) to the total separation of church and state (as in the United States). The patterns of relation between church and state remain a living issue in today's society.

In the British Isles

The most extreme form of Erastianism is seen in the Church of England (see England, Church of), of which the monarch is supreme head. This situation derives from the strongly political character of the Protestant Reformation in England. It is notable that in the early history of religious dissent, the Puritans (see Puritanism) did not wish to end the Established Church; their aim was rather to capture and control it. The church was not disestablished after the English civil war; Anglicanism, or Episcopalianism, was merely replaced by a Presbyterian establishment (although the latter was a dead letter from the beginning).

After the Restoration (1660) of the monarchy, measures were taken against the Puritans that for the first time actually excluded them from the Church of England as nonconformists. They and the Roman Catholics were the victims of religious and civil disabilities (gradually reduced) into the 19th cent. Although the state has taken less and less interest in supervising the Church of England, the connection is still very real; e.g., revisions of the Book of Common Prayer must be approved by Parliament, and appointments to all bishoprics are made by the monarch, acting on the advice of the prime minister.

John Calvin tended to a view directly opposed to that of the reforming English monarchs; in Geneva he set up a virtual theocracy with the state subordinate to the church. The Presbyterian churches (which are of Calvinist origin) have, therefore, maintained a stand for freedom of the church, and the Church of Scotland (see Scotland, Church of), which is Presbyterian, is much less under state control than is the Church of England.

In the United States

The Presbyterians in the British North American colonies participated in the struggle against the institution of an established church, particularly in Virginia, but more important was the broad principle of religious toleration forwarded by Roger Williams and others. This principle, befitting the growing heterogeneity of the colonies, ultimately triumphed against both the virtual theocracy of the New England Puritans and the conservative established church of the Southern colonists. The American idea of separation of church and state—complete noninterference on both sides—expressed notably in Jefferson's Virginia statute for religious freedom and in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, emerged. In the United States today there is relatively little friction between church and state. The practical line of demarcation, however, continues to create problems, and theocratic tendencies periodically give rise to powerful lobbying efforts. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 (in City of Boerne v. Flores) struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, holding that in requiring a “compelling interest” for a state to in any way burden religious practice, it gave religion more protection than the Constitution required; what was notable was that the act had passed the House of Representatives unanimously. Education has been a fertile field of controversy; debates have arisen over such questions as religious education in tax-supported schools and public aid to parochial schools. By the end of 1999 federal courts were grappling with the effects of the politically fashionable school vouchers, and one had held that when a voucher system resulted in almost all recipients attending religious schools instead of public schools the system violated the Constitution.

On the Continent

In Europe, the concept of separation of church and state is different from that in the United States, particularly in predominantly Roman Catholic countries. The wars of the Reformation produced, in the Peace of Augsburg (1555), a formula of cuius regio, eius religio [whose the region, his the religion], by which the ruling prince determined the religion of his territory. The compromise, curiously contrary to the idea of a universal Christian church, even more curiously corresponded to the principle practiced in Asia (e.g., the Buddhism of Aśoka). It more or less prevailed in Europe after the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Religion thus in a certain sense became a national affair, particularly in Protestant countries.

The internationalism of the Roman Catholic Church, however, prevented nationalization in Catholic countries, despite such movements as Gallicanism in France. The church, when recognized as the state church, exercised considerable influence on the government of the state. More important, perhaps, was the fact that the church and its religious orders owned much property and exerted considerable economic influence. The concordat was used as a means of regulating the relation of church and state and delimiting the spheres of respective influence. Of the modern concordats perhaps the most famous was Napoleon I's Concordat of 1801.

The opponents of clerical influence in the state, the anticlericals, in the 19th cent. agitated for the removal of clerical influence. To them the separation of church and state meant the ending of the establishment of the church and complete noninterference of the church in affairs of state but not noninterference of the state in such matters as church property and religious education. The clerical parties, on the other hand, fought to maintain establishment and property and (to some extent) the enforcement of ecclesiastical law by the civil arm.

One of the most bitter of these contests took place in France, where ultimately the anticlericals triumphed, notably in the Lois des associations (1905), which in effect placed the church under subjection to the state. In Germany the relations of church and state reached a crucial point in the Kulturkampf of Otto von Bismarck. Adolf Hitler, although he signed a concordat, undertook to reduce both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches to instruments of the National Socialist government. In Italy the Lateran Treaty, agreed to by Pius XI in 1929, ended the so-called Roman Question and secured recognition of the pope as a sovereign apart from the Italian government.

In Latin America

In the Roman Catholic countries of Latin America the contests between church and state were often bitter, particularly in Mexico, where the church wielded an enormous influence. This struggle led under Plutarco E. Calles to the practical abolition of the church in Mexico and the harrying of priests in the 1920s. Adjustments since that time have tended to an approximation of the complete noninterference rule prevalent in the United States.


See A. H. Dalton, Church and State in France 1300–1907 (1907, repr. 1972); E. C. Helmreich, A Free Church in a Free State? The Catholic Church: Italy, Germany, France 1864–1914 (1964); T. G. Sanders, Protestant Concepts of Church and State (1964); A. P. Stokes and L. Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States (rev. ed. 1964); J. F. Wilson, ed., Church and State in American History (1965); J. L. Mecham, Church and State in Latin America (rev. ed. 1966); L. Pfeffer, Church, State, and Freedom (rev. ed. 1967); H. H. Stroup, Church and State in Confrontation (1967); B. D. Hill, ed., Church and State in the Middle Ages (1970); W. Ullmann, The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages (3d. ed. 1970); W. M. Ramsay, The Wall of Separation: A Primer on Church and State (1989); S. Waldman, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (2008).

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