Church and State

By Garrett W. Sheldon

The relationship of church and state, or religion and politics, mirrors the interplay of ecclesiastical and governmental institutions in society--- in the Judeo-Christian[sic] tradition, between religious officials and state authorities, and in the Islamic tradition, between the imam-caliphs and sultans. In the West this interplay has occasioned a number of theological and philosophical formulations on the relative authority of church and state. Christian theology at one time and place or another has swung from viewing the church as supreme, with the state merely a vassal of the church, to viewing the state as supreme, with the church a purely spiritual power. Most formulations, however, have posited a mutually dependent church and state. Similarly in Islam, formulations have ranged from an imam-led theocracy to an essentially secular establishment usually balanced with some form of clerical influence in the government. In the American tradition, church and state controversies have centered on the Constitution of the United States, and specifically the First Amendment's "freedom of religion" clause and the body of constitutional law that has interpreted that clause.


Historically discussions of church and state in the West have referred to the relationships between the formal institutions and leadership of the church and officials of the government. This dualistic view of religion and politics began with the Jewish nation, which, forced to submit to a succession of conquerors, nevertheless retained its independent religious identity, separating spiritual from worldly matters. Christianity, growing out of Judaism, preserved this distinction, as exemplified by Christ's injunction to "render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21). Prior to this departure, secular rulers, including Roman emperors, possessed religious authority either in a priestly role as intermediaries between people and gods or as gods themselves. The Judeo-Christian[sic] tradition, on the other hand, has always involved some separation of sacred and secular authorities. Even after Christianity became the official Roman religion under the emperor Constantine I, the duality of civil and religious authority was affirmed by church fathers, such as Saint Augustine, and by Pope Gelasius (492-97). This doctrine of dual authority in church and state was referred to as the "two swords" doctrine.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the church gained enormous political and administrative power as the source of educated leaders in European kingdoms and feudal principalities. Charlemagne, as Frankish emperor (800-814), sought to subordinate that ecclesiastical power and advance an independent secular rule. In pursuit of those goals he named bishops and required political allegiance of them. Pope Gregory VII reversed that trend by prohibiting lay investiture of bishops and by excommunicating Emperor Henry IV for his resistance. But, despite these conflicts over the extent of church versus state authority, the doctrine of dual authority remained.

With the Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther in 1520, the medieval doctrine of two swords was replaced by the doctrine of the sovereign state. In this Protestant view, the church was clearly subordinated to secular authority in worldly matters. As an instance, the Act of Supremacy in 1534, in which England's Henry VIII established a state church, placed ecclesiastical structures under the authority of the crown. In many German principalities the same Protestant principle was enshrined through the formula cuius regio eius religio, or "to each prince his own religion." In other words, the dominant religion was to conform to that of the secular ruler. Wars of religion, most notably the Thirty Years War, followed as Catholics and Protestants fought for control of the state churches and the faith of the people.

Separation of Church and State

The doctrine of the separation of church and state has undergone, and is undergoing, constant modification. Its origins long predate the wars of religion. Saint Augustine considered all earthly governments, regardless of their form, as representative of the fallen and imperfect "city of man." The state provided the "sword" to discipline sinful man through law and education. The church, for Augustine, represented the perfect and eternal "city of God," preserving the divine, otherworldly values of peace, hope, and charity. Hence, church and state were separate but related: they occupied different realms and held different values, but both existed in this world.

Saint Thomas Aquinas defined the state as author and executor of human law, whose charge is the punishment of vice and encouragement of virtue. The church, he held, is the interpreter of divine law through natural law, of which human law is an inferior part. Hence, for Aquinas, the church properly advises the state on many matters, especially those relating to moral legislation.

Martin Luther made a radical break with traditional Christian theology and Catholic church polity by leveling the institutional hierarchy through "the priesthood of all believers," and by separating church and state in this world. By defining the state purely as a "hangman," charged with establishing worldly peace through punishment of crime, and considering the church as primarily concerned with spiritual matters unrelated to politics, Luther effectively sundered the secular authority from the ecclesiastical and placed the church under the governance of the state.

The other leading Reformation theologian, John Calvin, subscribed to Luther's democratic "priesthood of all believers," but at the same time he reestablished a distinct church authority by prescribing a governance of presbyters, elders, and deacons.

U.S. Constitution

Both Calvinist and Lutheran influences affected the institutional arrangements reached in the United States--- the former by instilling the idea of the supremacy of divine law and the latter by upholding the principle of the separation of church and state. Because of persecution by the crown in England, the Puritans who settled in New England were steadfastly opposed to the established Anglican church, even while accepting the supremacy of their own church in a religious commonwealth. Distrust of an established church influenced their descendants, who at the time of the American Revolution and thereafter sought to restrain the state's interference in the exercise of religion.

Freedom of religion in the United States is secured by the portion of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution that reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." The language of the amendment is clear--- two clauses, two prohibitions--- but a difficulty arises when the state tries to abide by one of the clauses and is accused of violating the other. For instance, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale (1962), declared school prayer unconstitutional because it violated the "establishment" clause (through the use of public facilities for religious practices), it was accused of limiting citizens' "free exercise" of religion (by interfering with their prayers when and where they please).

The issue of religious education in the public schools among other issues remains ambiguous. In Illinois ex re. McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) the Court held that religious instruction during the school day inside a public school building, even when voluntary and ecumenical, was unconstitutional, as violative of the "establishment" clause. But in Zorach v. Clauston (1952) the Court allowed a "release-time" program that permitted children to leave the school to attend religious classes and devotion during school hours. The Court's reasoning appeared to turn on whether or not the public school building was used for religious instruction, such use being prohibited by the "establishment" clause.


The leading non-Christian religions of the world, Islamic in the Middle East and Africa and Hindu-Buddhist in Asia, exhibit various configurations of sacred and secular, religious and political.

Middle East

Although the Islamic holy book, the Koran, does not contain an explicit theory of politics, several traditions of relations between the sacred and the secular have developed since the far-flung Islamic empire was embraced in a single caliphate. Islam today is divided into Sunnites, who hold that political and religious authority should be united in one person, an imam caliph, and Shiites, who regard spiritual leadership (and sometimes nationhood) as less all-embracing. Thus in Sunnism the separation of religion and politics is denied, while in Shiite Islam, in which imams are restricted for the most part to their religious vocation, political action devolves on secular leaders. In the 19th century, responding to European colonial domination, Islamic fundamentalism emerged, altering Muslim perspectives on religion and politics. Seeing Islamic weakness as the result of corruption by Western practices and beliefs, Islamic fundamentalism in the next century spread across the Middle East, enjoining military and political action to create an "Islamic republic" that would sweep away Western influence and establish a single state with the religious authorities in control.

With the proliferation of new nation states after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, national governments in the Islamic world followed both Sunnite and Shiite tendencies. The oil-rich Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, combined religious and secular power in the figure of an absolute monarch (Kuwait introduced its first constitution in 1962, Saudi Arabia only in 1992). In both states the Islamic Sharia is the foundation of the legal system. Since the fall of the shah in 1979, Shiite Iran has been constituted as an Islamic republic.

Israel, although a modern democratic state in most respects, adheres to the traditional Jewish law, halachah, in some matters of personal conduct, including marriage and divorce. Moreover, the Orthodox community, through its political parties, seeks to extend the halachah to other areas of life.


Hindu views on religion and politics, which dominate social philosophy in India, rely less on formal institutional mechanisms than on an underlying theology that informs the proper ordering of society. For Hinduism, the universe is made up of a God, or divine intelligence, that operates through cosmic laws properly ordering everything in existence. Each thing in the universe, including individuals and groups in society, should keep to its divinely ordained place and fulfill the duties of that place. Law, then, exists to maintain by force the performance of these obligations, which include one's caste duties and those duties associated with one's role as husband, wife, father, mother, son, or daughter. The secular government in Delhi has had to contend with repeated outbreaks of Hindu militance, much of it directed against Muslims.

Buddhism, an offshoot of Hinduism, adheres to the basic view of the state as punishing crime and disorder but eliminates the divine origin of its cosmology and the caste-based definition of social harmony. Buddhism in Southeast Asia maintains its temporal power through close association with secular rulers. In China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia it influences government, if at all, largely through suasion.


Alley, Robert S., The Supreme Court on Church and State (1988)

Baylor, Michael G., ed., The Radical Reformation (1990)

Eastland, Terry, Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court (1995)

Hunter, James D., and Guiness, Os, eds., Articles of Faith, Articles of Peace: The Religious Liberty Clauses and the American Public Philosophy (1990)

Sheldon, Garrett W., Religion and Politics: Major Thinkers on the Relation of Church and State (1990).

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