Law and Order

The Original Church/State Divide

The fight over religious freedom is a lot older than the right not to bake cakes for gay weddings. Jesus was an early victim of this age-old battle.

04.05.15 10:45 AM ET

It’s Easter, the time when Christians remember the death and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. As one of the more potent times in the religious calendar, it’s an appropriate time for the debate over “religious freedom” to bubble over into national controversy. Especially when the crucifixion is the paradigmatic example of how a single event or figure can be understood both politically and religiously.

Historically speaking, the event that precipitated the arrest and execution of Jesus was likely his actions in the Temple at the beginning of what is now called Holy Week. According to our earliest sources, after entering Jerusalem in triumph and being hailed as “King of the Jews” Jesus went to the Temple, overturned the tables, and threw out the moneychangers for turning his father’s house into a den of sinners. In the politically and religiously charged atmosphere of Passover season in First Century Jerusalem, the authorities took note and sentenced Jesus to die.

Why? From the perspective of the man who made the decision—Pilate—it was because Jesus looked and sounded like a political agitator and would-be revolutionary. His entry into Jerusalem on a donkey mimicked and mocked the triumphal entry of Roman emperors to Rome; the language of “son of God” sounded a lot like the imperial title “son of the divine Julius Caesar”; and when he talked about his kingdom he used language of power and conquest. Christians may talk about Jesus’s spiritual motivations, his religious impulses, and the theological necessity of his death for saving people, but Pilate didn’t care or think or know about any of that. For him it was a question of political order.

This is where I’d like to write something trite comparing interpretations of the crucifixion to modern America and saying that what proponents of the various Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) see as a religious issue others see as a question of discrimination and civil rights. I could file right now (it’s 2 p.m.) and grab a cocktail (mocktail; it’s Holy Week, for goodness’ sake).

But it’s not as simple as that. For a growing proportion of American Christians, the Church versus State divide is problematic not only because the government is seen as trespassing on religious freedoms, but also because for the faithful religious practice and identity affects every aspect of their lives.

They have some academic street cred, too. While many people believe Christianity has the church/state divide rooted in the scriptures—“Render unto Caesar” and all that—recent scholarship on the concept of religion challenges the idea that religion has always existed as a separate and private category, distinct from the public realms of politics, economics, science, and law. Books by William Cavanaugh, Brent Nongbri, and others have pointed out that in antiquity, and in fact until the Reformation, there was no concept of the “religious” as distinct from the “secular.”

This is something that religious conservatives have been quick to pick up on and harness in their efforts to secure their idea of religious freedom. Cavanaugh’s work is regularly cited as evidence that the Church versus State divide is a modern innovation and that, accordingly, perhaps the recent entanglement of religion and politics is just fine. It is an argument that resonated with the experience of being religious. Religious people are not only religious in private religious spaces (their homes and places of worship). They are religious everywhere and always.

Differing perspectives on the public role of religion can in part explain the double-speak; they also pose a problem. Even beyond the inflammatory rhetoric and impoverished historical consciousness of those who want to return America to its “Christian” roots, it’s difficult to have a productive conversation when people see religious freedom so differently and when the so-called separation of Church and State is so blurry.

How then to bridge the impasse?

Certainly the solution does not lie in scripture. Historically, various groups of Christians have used the Bible to argue for the inherent inferiority of those races they thought bore the “mark of Cain” (racism), the intrinsic evil of “the Jews” (anti-Semitism), the secondary nature of women (sexism), and the innate goodness of slavery (do I really need these parenthetical comments?). As a Biblical scholar it pains me to say it, but the Bible doesn’t hold all the answers. It can justify a theocracy, a stringent church/state divide, loving tolerance of everyone, and the annihilation of one’s enemies.

Perhaps, once again, history might be of some help. The historical impetus for the church/state divide and the repackaging of religion as matter of private interior belief was the Protestant Reformation. As historian Brent Nongbri, author of Before Religion, told me, “Isolating beliefs about God as a private matter and elevating loyalty to the legal codes of emerging states above sectarian loyalties wasn't just a random thought experiment. It was an imperfect but practical solution to a series of tough problems.” Certainly it put a stop to the bloody executions and religious clashes and reinvigorated trade and commerce.

While the threat of a return to the bloody skirmishes of the Protestant Reformation doesn’t seem likely, the disruption of trade during the Reformation strikes close to home for residents of Indiana. Protests and calls for boycotts of the state by powerful companies and organizations like NASCAR, Angie’s List, and Apple threaten the economic flourishing of the region. The reality (or threat) of economic disruption seems to have constituted the legal and practical “compelling interest” for revisiting the wording of Indiana’s RFRA. And, sadly, empathy and understanding work only when they are married to compelling (economic) interest. Doing the right thing does not appear to be enough unless votes and dollars are attached to one’s cause. This was the case in the Reformation and it seems to be the case today.

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Just as Pilate chose public order and religio-socioeconomic stability over the sensibilities of the small number of Jesus followers under his authority, the governors of Arkansas and Indiana signed watered down RFRAs.

An RFRA is just one legal example demonstrating the fragile, sticky mess that is the division of Church and State. But before we abandon that separation in order to privilege religion in the public square we should contemplate its pragmatic origins. We need to be mindful of the division not because it was operative in the founding of the country, nor because it’s how things have always been (it’s not), but because it does important work. As Nongbri says, “Sure, church/state separation is a recent invention, but it was invented for a reason.”

When we look at the death of Jesus we see how a complicated mass of political, social, economic and what we would call “religious” motives conspired against the young man from Nazareth. Whatever divine plan we might or might not see at work here, Pilate might not have acted so publicly if Jesus had had greater popularity in more powerful circles. If social harmony is the goal here then social and economic discord may be the only way to ease the reassertion of the church/state divide.