Church and State

Jonathan Rowe at Positive Liberty writes about Church and State (and his motivations for a long standing series of essays):

My own reason for debunking the Christian Nation thesis is I think sectarian religious passions in politics are dangerous, I want to quell that zeal, and see religious conservatives adopt a more live and let live attitude on cultural issues.

Conventional wisdom of today is in fact right in line with Mr Rowe’s thesis, i.e., that church and state must stay separate or great dangers lurk down that path.

However conventional wisdom is so very often wrong … actually, almost universally wrong. Regarding conventional wisdom, the surprise is not that it is wrong, but that it is right. That is not to say, that conventional wisdom isn’t wrong … but that it should be re-examined. This what spurred my recent readings into Byzantine history. For conventional wisdom regarding church and state, either gets its wisdom from Gibbon, which is regarded as wonderful lyrical history, but dreadful regarding his particular resentment of the Eastern Roman state, or from wars of Reformation and the British Civil wars.

The ignoring of the Eastern empire is regretful, for it provides nearly 1000 years of sample data, and alas not all supportive of Mr Rowe’s assumption that religion and politics are “dangerous”. Politics is dangerous. Mixing religion in, doesn’t a priori, make it more so. Until the 20th century in fact, looking only at Western Europe one might be safe in claiming religion made war worse. However, given the record of the 20th century that becomes less supportable, given the non-religious nature of some amazingly wicked slaughter absent religion, e.g., the The Rape of Nanking.

As a first example, from The Byzantines, we learn that it was in Byzantine with Church involvement in state issues that it was the first time that the narratives of the poor came to light. It is not to say that the poor and their plight was never a concern prior to this, but this was the first time that their stories and the poor as people came to light. The churches acted as a functioning welfare system for the poor, ill, and those who needed a social net.

It also is something of a growing hypothesis of mine as reading these histories that while occaisonally religious differences signaled differences between groups in conflict it was rare (if ever) that the religious differences were necessarily the only elements at work. Strong economic or other cultural differences typically came along with those religious differences. Those second differences very well, in the absence of religious conflict, are enough to be the cause of those wars and/or conflicts. Religion just provides a convenient bugbear for fellows like Mr Rowe.

Finally, Mr Rowe might be right that Church and State conflation provides another (possibly more real) danger. That is, the effect on Church is not beneficial to the same.  That is another thing to watch for in viewing Church/State relations from Byzantine history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *