Having grown up as a member of Britain's Roman Catholic minority, in a country still possessed of a national church by law established, I must confess that I have always felt a rather high comfort level with the continuing and vigilant American effort to sustain a viable separation of church and state, religion and public life. Still vivid in my memory is the awkwardness I felt as a young soldier in the British army at having publicly and formally to exercise my right to decline participation in the periodic church parades that involved my company's marching in splendid array down to a Sunday morning service at our local Anglican parish church. Jews and Catholics alone, as I recall, enjoyed the privilege of opting out on grounds of conscience from such exercises, and the price tag attached to the luxury of choosing to exercise that privilege was usually a long morning devoted to potato peeling in the camp's cook house.
No big deal, it must be conceded. I really rather liked marching with my platoon on the regiment's high ceremonial occasions. The parish church itself was a quite beautiful one, the austere dignity of an ancient and hallowed liturgy had its own appeal, and I can't help wondering a little now at the degree of fiercely dissident pride that compelled me then to deny myself the not unpleasurable experience of participation in such events. Moreover, if Britain's religious heritage is (or, at least, was then) a good deal less pluralistic than that of the United States, at the same time the general cultural "feel" of the country was considerably more secular, and the actual intrusion of the ecclesiastical establishment in day-to-day life was minimal.
Nonetheless, the fact that such an establishment still exists (and in this Britain is not unique) does serve as a reminder of what it was that our forebears in this country were determined to avoid. They could not but be aware of the fact that the continuing price attached to the Anglican establishment in their own day was the legal exclusion from the fullness of British public life of a significant segment of the nation's population — Protestant nonconformist no less than Roman Catholic and Jewish. Nor could they have been unaware of the price Europe as a whole had paid for the mandated alignment of religious and political loyalties that the existence of such established churches presupposed. The devastation endured by France during the religious wars of the late sixteenth century, by Germany in the following century during the course of the Thirty Years' War, and by Ireland in 1649-50 during Cromwell's successful campaign of repression in the wake of England's civil wars cannot be attributed entirely to the bitter religious disagreements of the day. Dynastic aspiration, constitutional confusion, balance of power politics, the exigencies attached to traditional diplomatic alignments — all such factors played their role in these disastrous conflicts. But absent the instinctive commitment of Europe's rulers and their subjects to the then commonsense view that religious and political loyalties could not be separated if public order was to be maintained and anarchy avoided, it would be hard indeed to explain the bitterness and brutality of these quasi-religious conflicts, or the fact that they endured in one part of Europe or another for the better part of a century.
Nor was that particular commonsense view any recent acquisition readily explicable in terms of the fact that the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation had left in so many of the national and territorial states of Europe a threatening legacy of disgruntled and potentially dissident religious minorities. To the contrary, its origins long predated the Reformation and even the dawn of recorded history. In an attempt to evoke a measure of historical perspective and to emphasize thereby the extraordinary nature of those constitutional mechanisms designed to prevent the abuse of executive power that we ourselves take for granted, Adlai Stevenson once observed that "The natural government of man is servitude. Tyranny is the normal pattern of human government." Something of an exaggeration, it may be, but not much of one. And a similar point may be made in relation to the distinction we are accustomed to making between the religious and the political and which we also take so utterly for granted.
"There is a divinity that doth hedge a king," Shakespeare said. And in terms of antiquity, its ubiquity, its extraordinary staying power, the institution of sacred or divine monarchy can certainly lay strong claim to having been the most common governmental form known to humankind down through the long centuries since complex agrarian societies first developed several millennia ago. Evidence for the existence of that institution is broadcast across the globe in regions as distant from one another as Japan and West Africa, Scandinavia and Polynesia, India and Peru, Ireland and the Nilotic Sudan. It also reached across an equally extraordinary span of time, reaching forward from the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the modern sacred kings of Polynesia, of Africa, of Central and South America, of Asia. It was only in 1912, after all, that the great altar of heaven to the south of Beijing ceased to witness the annual sacrifice offered by the emperor, the son of heaven, at the winter solstice, and only in 1915 that similar ceremonies came to an end in the Vietnamese imperial capital of Hue — the city that the Tet offensive little more than half a century later was to put on the front pages of all our newspapers.
It would be easy enough to dismiss such phenomena as mere exotica, but it would be quite anachronistic to do so. Mention of them will have served its purpose if it brings home to us the fact that the familiar distinction we are accustomed to making between the religious and the political, the degree of freedom from governmental control claimed thereby for a whole segment in the life of the individual citizen, the essentially secular nature of Western political societies, and the complex constitutional devices functioning to prevent them from becoming anything more than secular political entities — all of these characteristics, so much a matter of common sense to us today, stand out instead as novelties, abnormalities, developments peculiar to modern Western civilization and explicable only in terms of the singular history of that civilization. So much so that our very distinction between church and state would have been utterly incomprehensible to our more distant forebears, including, it should be noted, the citizens of the classical Greek city-states from which we derive so much of our modern political vocabulary. Sacred monarchy, admittedly, they had put behind them. But, for them, politics continued nonetheless to include religion. The loyalty they owed to their cities was equally a loyalty to their city's gods, and it was in general conceived to be an ultimate loyalty from which there could be no appeal to any higher norm.
Viewed from this larger historical perspective, the attempts of some religious groups in America today, moved possibly by a measure of unconscious yearning for the age-old harmony between religious and political loyalties, to breach (or at least to lower) the wall of separation between church and state should really come as no surprise. As we have seen, our degree of commitment to the separation of religion and public life is not only, historically speaking, a quite recent develop, it is also (again, historically speaking) quite odd. That the religious groups involved, however, should be specifically Christian in their religious identification is somewhat more surprising, and, beyond that, deeply ironic. But as the members of the so-called Christian right appear to be blissfully unaware of the irony involved, a further word of explanation is called for.
If, as I have said, the essentially secular nature of our Western political societies in general and of the United States in particular is explicable only in terms of a quite singular civilizational history, it is now time to advance the further claim that at the very heart of that singularity lies the "political" teaching embedded in the New Testament. As also the fact that for the first three centuries of its existence the Christian church, periodic persecution notwithstanding, developed its characteristic ethos beyond the purview of state power and in tension with the norms of the civic religiosity then prevailing. Christ's kingdom, it believed, was not of this world, and to whit insisted on conscientious obedience to the powers that be, it moved in quite novel fashion and on fundamentally religious grounds to set limits to that obedience. If Christians were enjoined to render to Caesar the things that were Caesar's, they had at the same time to be careful to render to God the things that were God's.
The experience of these first three centuries, however, did not in itself suffice to transform that revolutionary distinction between the religious and the political into the sort of commonsense norm that it has come close to being in contemporary American society. The grant of toleration to Christians was swiftly followed by the ultimate transformation of Christianity into an officially supported (and officially controlled) state religion — a corrupting status from which it has succeeded in extricating itself only with the utmost difficulty.
If those who forget the past are indeed doomed to repeat it, then those Christian groups today which are so ironically eager to breach or lower the wall of separation between church and state will certainly be condemned, should they succeed in that objective, to learning yet once more, as their Christian predecessors have had to learn again and again over the centuries, the wisdom of confining the state to a set of purely secular functions. Having focused so intently on being deprived of some of the privileges attendant upon a mode of quasi-establishment, they are likely to be surprised by the religiously destructive nature of the obligations that such a status inevitably brings with it. These members of the Christian Right have hammered away at the point that it was not the intention of the framers of the Constitution to promote a godless society. And in urging that point they have been, by and large, correct. But what they miss is the conviction of the framers that the maintenance of a godly society could best be secured by confining religion to the private sphere and liberating it thereby from the corrupting intrusion of governmental authority. And no one familiar with the long and troubled history of the Christian churches would be tempted to gainsay the rectitude of that conviction. Establishment, after all, has usually brought with it more burdensome baggage than the residual irritation of a church parade.
Francis Oakley is president emeritus of Williams College, located in Williamstown, Massachusetts.