By a narrow margin, the Supreme Court has finally settled the protracted dispute over the constitutionality of posting the Ten Commandments in and around public buildings. It has said, unequivocally, that sometimes you can do it and sometimes you can't. So what better provocation do I need to talk about an issue that is at the heart of the current controversy, namely the concept of the separation of church and state?
Now it appears to me that there are two ways to interpret this concept -- the right way, and the wrong way.
The wrong way to think about it is to think of the separation of church and state like the separation of black socks from white socks when you are doing the laundry. On this metaphoric assumption, religion is one quite easily discernible entity that has nothing whatsoever to do with politics, which is itself an entirely separate domain of human existence that has nothing to do with religion. But this begs the question, for it assumes that the state and religion arose from two independent sources. But do they, and did they?
Imagine going to a Roman citizen circa 33 AD and asking him to explain the dividing line between the Roman state and the Roman religion. He would scratch his head in puzzlement. For the Roman, the state was the church, and the church was the state: the same entity performed both civic functions and religious duties. But if you had gone to Galilee at about the same time, you might have encountered a man who taught another doctrine -- a revolutionary one.
This man, Jesus of Nazareth, when asked the question whether it was lawful to pay taxes to support the Roman state, replied: "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's."
The religious community, according to Jesus, must have nothing to do with the state -- which is why the Romans with their purely civic religion hated so passionately the religion he founded. These new-fangled atheist Christians, instead of permitting their god to be worshipped along side the normal gods of all other peoples, refused to abide by the rules that governed Rome's civic religion, which was the rule of tolerance: I accept your gods if you accept ours. But these Christians, like the Jews from whom they came, not only refused to accept other people's gods along side their own jealous god they didn't even think that other peoples' gods were gods at all. At best, they might be demons -- but in every case, what other men called gods were not, in the eyes of the Jews and the Christian, worthy of being worshipped. Their motto was not our god is better than your god, but our god alone is god.
Nothing could have been more politically incorrect to the collective mind of the Romans than this bizarre monotheistic fanaticism. For the placing of a god over and above the state, a god who could not be regulated by the priests appointed by the state, what else could this mean than the establishment of a higher and emphatically separate authority than that provided by the state, namely the church -- and, naturally, a church that would operate in complete autonomy from the state, in no way dependent upon the state for its survival.
Let us think for a moment where else this astonishing idea of separating the church from the state might have surfaced into human thinkability, aside from Jesus. For example, did it come from the Greek tradition?
Of course not. Socrates, let us recall, was executed for the crime of seducing the youth of Athens into the ways of impiety, and in all Greek city-states impiety was a crime punishable by death or exile. So should we seek the urge to separate church from state in the Egyptian tradition, or the Babylonian, or the Persian? Amid the Hindus or the Chinese? Among the Hottentots or the Apaches?
Indeed, if we think about it for a moment, what would ever induce those with political power to give up religious superstition as a device for manipulating the masses? Search through culture after culture and you will see that in virtually everyone of them there is simply no way of demarcating the religious realm from the secular one. They just merge together. It is only in Christianity that there is any recognition that there is even something to separate.
At the time of Jesus, most Jews were still pining for their political autonomy and independence from Rome, but certainly not in order to set up a church separate from their state: nothing could have been more unthinkable to them.
Jesus, on the other hand, was not striving to achieve political autonomy for his followers. Instead, he was interested in creating an emphatically non-political community that he called the Kingdom of God -- a community that would govern itself without recourse to violence, and in which money would be raised by voluntary contributions alone. And what could be more separate from a state than that?
At the same time Jesus acknowledged that the Roman state had its own sphere of rightful authority: You owed it taxes. But you did not owe it your worship. Nevertheless, the legitimate authority of the Roman state was taken for granted -- "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's," namely -- tribute and taxes. Furthermore, the followers of Jesus were never permitted to defy the Roman state by violent rebellion --"Those who live by the sword die by the sword." Yet, in the case of a conflict between religious duty and civic duty, the follower of Jesus had no choice but to follow his conscience, and seek the martyr's crown.
Jesus offered a radically new vision of man's destiny in the world in which the state was seen to exercise a legitimate function over men -- indeed, early Christians were brought up to believe that their governors had been appointed by God Himself. Yet Jesus also taught that the state was no longer the source of a man's religious life and his spiritual obligations: they came from a higher authority. In short, Jesus separated church from state, and assigned to each its own proper sphere and domain.
This conclusion leaves the advocates for the separation of church and religion with a rather embarrassing dilemma. It was Jesus and Jesus alone who came up with a religion that insisted that the church and the state must be kept clearly separate. No one else taught this doctrine before Jesus did, and not many would teach it after him. The essential points of the Ten Commandments are shared by a myriad of different cultures; but the separation of church and state is a purely Christian idea, far more unique to it than the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation or the Virgin Birth -- themes that have abounded in other religions that did not insist on keeping church and state separate.
So we are left with a paradox. Those who advocate the separation of church and state are trying to impose Jesus's teachings on their community -- and if this doesn't violate the separation of church and state clause of the Constitution, what would?
How do we solve this almost Gilbert-and-Sullivan dilemma?
Perhaps by recognizing that the ability to even imagine a difference between church and state is one of the supreme gifts of Christianity to the West, for which all of us should be a bit grateful -- especially those men and women who are fighting so hard to keep the Ten Commandments out of places where they might accidentally read them.