Americans like to think they have solved the prob-
lem of the relationship between political life and
religious life. Usually this takes the form of refer-
ring to “the separation of church and state” as a
simple, elegant resolution of the difficulty. As this
book will show, however, this phrase obscures more
than it reveals, and whatever else is true about
church-state relations in America, its complexity
is not so easily captured.
There are a myriad of reasons for this. For one
thing, both religion and politics make strong claims
on a person’s allegiances. Early democratic think-
ers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau
argued against the inclusion of Catholics in demo-
cratic societies on the grounds they would always
have dual allegiances that would keep them from
ever being good democratic citizens. Going back as
far as the New Testament, Christians are warned
against getting too comfortable with or dependent
on the powers of this world. “To be in the world
but not of the world” is a fundamental paradox of
the Christian faith that puts the Christian always
in tension with the sources and forms of public
order. A keen recognition of human sinfulness
means that Christians are skeptical of anyone’s
ability, including their own, to order the political
world correctly. While God has created a template
in the scripture for faithful living, politics with its
tradeoffs and its compromises with evil limits our
possibilities for holiness.
At the same time, Christians believe that God
created the world good and placed them here with
a mandate to form culture and its institutions.
Adherents to the Christian faith claim that gov-
ernment is a gift of God to maintain order and
promote justice. From its very inception, Christian
thinkers were forced to think through this tension,
to figure out how they could exercise their worldly
responsibilities without becoming too worldly. And
for 17 centuries before the first European foot set
itself on American soil, the inherent difficulties of
the position made themselves known in European
experience, concluding, perhaps, with the Wars of
Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, which so
marked the consciousness of American settlers.
Aside from the deeply ingrained theological
problems, Christian leaders had to deal with the
institutional effects. Could ecclesial leaders exer-
cise “secular” power without compromising their
spiritual authority? Could secular princes exercise
political power without reference to their status as
religious subjects and believers? How should the
“church,” as a divinely ordained institution, balance
its authority against the emergent “state,” which
really didn’t exist until the 16th century and which
itself responds not only to the call of reason but
also to divine mandates? How would Christians
react to the biblical mandate that they obey gov-
erning authorities, for the latter were ordained by
God? And how might the two institutions, both of
which claim a peculiar kind of absolute authority
for themselves, particularly in the modern world,
learn to get along with each other? For more than
a millennium, popes and princes struggled with
these questions and hammered out very imperfect
practical arrangements.
To understand the documents presented in
this book, we must first understand that Ameri-
can efforts to deal with church-state problems
occurred within this historical context. The Amer-
icans might have given their own practical spin to
the underlying issues, but they inherited a set of
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