Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Internal Unification of Church and State

This past Tuesday, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal ran a nice piece on a local man, Frank Dillard, who passed away on July 4. I did not know the man, but from everything in the article he seems to have been a good and decent one.

But one of the tributes to him, by his son-in-law and Republican candidate for U.S. Congress from South Carolina's 4th District Trey Gowdy, stopped me in my tracks. Gowdy said: "He was a man of incredibly deep spiritual faith.... What I mean is that he lived it. He wasn't one to sermonize. He just lived it. And to die on a Sunday, that just happened to be July Fourth--I don't think he would've scripted it any differently."

I have no doubt that Gowdy's words were heartfelt, sincere, and accurate. What struck me was the reference to July 4. Unless the words quoted are out of context, it seems that Gowdy was saying that dying on July 4 is perfect timing for someone of deep spiritual faith.

I expect that the overwhelming majority of the people who read those words had no problem with them at all, but the reference struck me as a complete non sequitur. Perhaps it is due to my upbringing in the Catholic Church, with its focus on a universal Church that transcends nationality, but this kind of fusion of the sacred and the patriotic seems utterly inappropriate to me. It represents the other, internal, variety of the unification of church and state.

Generally, when liberals cite the separation of church and state, they are talking about keeping religion out of government action, or preventing government support of any religion. But the idea, one of the central concepts of the Enlightenment, is also meant to prevent government interference with religion. Both parts are equally important.

But today's advocates of the "Christian nation" idea are confident that they can ignore the latter aspect, since Christians as a whole are a majority in the United States. (No single Christian denomination, however, can make that claim: Catholics are the largest group, with four times the membership of the nearest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists.) They do not envision the possibility of an American government dominated by a non-Christian faith, and so see no threat to their faith from a unity of church and state (though I can't help but wonder how Southern Baptists would feel about a government that reflected Catholic teachings; after all, Catholics are the largest group!).

As a result, we see the idea of the unity of church and state carried not only into the public sphere in the form of advocacy of government being guided by religious ideas, but internally into the consciousness of the individual believer. The product is a fusion of what should be distinct identities (citizen and believer), such as in Gowdy's tribute: a purely secular national holiday becomes the appropriate day for the passing of a deeply spiritual man.

This overlap isn't entirely new or unheard of, of course. The very word "holiday" derives from "holy day," but we use it generically to mean any politically designated day off, the vast majority of which are now nationalistic (July 4, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, etc.) rather than sacred.

But this tendency to politicize the sacred and sacralize the political seems to be growing in America, and is particularly common among Tea Party activists. In a fine article in The New Republic, John B. Judis traces the historical precedents of the Tea Party and notes that in "speeches, Tea Partiers cite articles and amendments from the Constitution the same way that clerics cite Biblical verses." This connection is no accident. There is undeniably a kind of fundamentalist doctrine of inerrancy at work in the Tea Party mentality toward the Constitution and the founders. Last Sunday in the New York Times, Frank Rich discussed the bizarre Republican use of Thurgood Marshall to attack Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, and noted that GOP Chair Michael Steele "attacked her for writing approvingly of a speech Marshall had given calling the original text of the Constitution 'defective'--a restrained adjective, actually, for a document that countenanced slavery." Once you make this connection between the Bible and the Constitution as sacred texts, however, it makes a certain strange sense (as does the Tea Party's retrograde desire to repeal the 17th amendment--the founders got it right).

It shouldn't need saying, but evidently it does: to sacralize the political is to diminish the sacred. The Constitution, for all its worth, is not sacred. It is the work of flawed men. It contains unprincipled compromise (the decision to count a slave as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation showed neither section in a good light: the so-called free states did not want to count slaves as people at all, while the slave states--who treated them as property in every other respect--wanted them counted as full people). It contains within itself an admission of its own flawed nature: the amendment process. If it were perfect, there would be no need for any change. The men who wrote it knew that was not so. Unlike Glenn Beck, they knew they were no demigods. Their humility prevented them from claiming anything more than that their efforts in writing the Constitution aimed at creating not a perfect, but a "more perfect" Union. But when you equate the country with religion, when political principles become articles of faith, then a system of government becomes not the product of the reason of man but the will of God, and must be treated as such.

This internal unification leads to a pernicious and dangerous blurring of the line between love of country and love of God. In 1789, the same year the Constitution went into effect, Richard Price, Unitarian minister, friend of Benjamin Franklin, and English supporter of the American Revolution, noted that not only are they not synonymous, they are at the very least in tension with one another. He observes: "It is very remarkable that the founder of our religion has not once mentioned this duty [to love one's country], or given us any recommendation of it." Quite the opposite: "Our Lord and his Apostles have done better. They have recommended that UNIVERSAL BENEVOLENCE which is an unspeakably nobler principle than any partial affections. They have laid such stress on loving all men, even our enemies." In short, true Christianity demands far more than country does, and sometimes demands the opposite of what the country does.

This lazy equation of "American" with "Christian" does damage to both politics and religion. Even for those who question the value of Jefferson's "wall of separation" in our politics, it is wise to maintain that inner wall between one's identities as citizen and believer. It should be enough to say that a man of faith died on the day of worship.


  1. Mark, it's ironic and sad that today's Southern Baptists, or the ones seemingly in control of the denomination, have forgotten their heritage and our country's tradition. My late grandfather on my dad's side was a Southern Baptist minister, and a professor of church history and a dean at a Southern Baptist seminary -- in short, a mainstream Southern Baptist. And he taught me separation of the church and state was a core value, and central to what it meant to be Southern Baptist. I think he would have agreed with your post.

  2. I have for years wondered how my southern Baptist friends would feel if the plurality faith (that is, the Catholic Church) got to have the most influence over the national government. And I wonder how they'd feel if the Episcopal Church had continued to be the state church of South Carolina and the other southern colonies as it was in colonial times.