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Church and State

April 29, 2021

Church and State, relationship between the organized church and the government of a country, especially with regard to the extent of their powers within each other’s sphere of activity.

The problem of church and state has come into relatively sharp focus in the tradition of Western Christianity, although the phrase designates a basic issue potentially present in many societies and religious traditions. At root is the tension between different authorities, one representing claims made in the name of political regimes, the other representing claims made by religious institutions. This pattern of dual authority structures, and the variety of relationships between them, have been explored more fully in Western Christian history than elsewhere.


Christianity developed slowly as a distinctive movement. As a Jewish splinter group, it existed uneasily within the Roman Empire. When its independence from Judaism was established, its claim to be the only means of salvation brought it into sporadic conflict with imperial authority. For several centuries, as the Christian movement grew throughout the empire, regional churches were periodically persecuted, and individual Christians suffered martyrdom. Finally, about 313, with the Edict of Milan, Christians gained full rights of religion under the empire. During the reign of Constantine the Great, a decade later, the church gained privileged status. Accordingly, in its first three centuries, the Christian movement was preoccupied with retaining religious identity and securing social integrity. Thereafter, the church, which had suffered at the hands of the state, was united with it. At this point the relationship between church and state developed differently in the chief branches of the empire.


In the East, centered in Constantinople (present-day ?stanbul), Christians developed a posture of relative subordination to the state. As long as the church was free to pursue its interest in eternal salvation, it could maintain the integrity of its religious position. At the same time, however, the church supported the emperor, who also claimed to represent divine authority. By accepting these claims, the church in turn endorsed Caesaropapism, that is, subordination of the church to the religious claims of the dominant political order. This pattern was most fully evident at the height of Byzantine rule at the end of the 1st millennium of Christian history.


A significantly different pattern emerged in Western Christianity. Because of the decline of Western imperial authority, culminating in the Fall of Rome in the 5th century, the church became a relatively independent authority in temporal and eternal matters. Thus, in the Western Christian tradition, a framework existed that would support a great variety of relationships between church and state—or ecclesiastical structures and political ones—throughout the course of European history.

At the beginning of this period, the “two swords” doctrine (spiritual and temporal) was enunciated by Pope Gelasius I. According to this doctrine, the church and the state were coequal in status. By the 13th century Pope Innocent III made extreme claims to the effect that the Holy Roman emperor (state) was subordinate to the pope (church) because of the relative significance of the different jurisdictions given the two institutions. Whereas temporal power was concerned with physical bodies, the church, and specifically the pope, was concerned with souls. Shortly after this high point of claims on behalf of the church, however, several emperors and kings dominated the papacy. In the development of Western Christianity, high theoretical claims made by either church or state did not necessarily reflect actual power relationships.

The decline of centralized imperial authority in Western European society was related to the emergence of new nation-states, which asserted political independence within, and finally from, the Holy Roman Empire. In this process, repeated struggles pitted centrifugal national interests against the centralized claims of the Roman church led by the pope. See Investiture Controversy; Papacy.


From this perspective the religious upheavals of the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation, reflected the political tensions between emerging national groups and centralized imperial authority, as well as the many other social and economic forces at work in late medieval Europe (see Reformation). In general, Protestant religious groups, particularly the Lutherans and Calvinists, aligned themselves with local and national political authorities in northern Europe, thus encouraging the emergence of modern national communities. This meant that the same church-state issues already raised in the struggles between pope and emperor were transferred to the level of national communities. The temporary solution to religious conflict was the Peace of Augsburg (1555), which stipulated that each political entity should establish either Lutheranism or Roman Catholicism as a “religious monopoly.” The religions thus established did not, of course, need to agree across jurisdictions. Large groups of Christians were held in contempt by both national Protestant and Catholic regimes, particularly Anabaptist groups such as the followers of Menno Simons, who resisted, in the name of true faith, the correlation of religion and political region. In retrospect, this arrangement was no long-term solution to the Western dilemma of how religious and political claims were to be corrected. See Anabaptists; Mennonites.

In general, the national religious establishments of Europe remained formally intact well into the 18th century, when the French Revolution disrupted that order. Indeed, to this day, the Church of England stands largely on the foundation built in the English struggles of the 17th century. The exclusivity of the national establishments eased, however, in the 17th century, and the principle of effective religious toleration was widely established during the 18th century.

The United States, as a new nation, undertook an experiment in the separation of church and state, although not so forthrightly as is sometimes assumed. The principle of religious establishment was brought across the Atlantic by the English, French, and Spanish colonists. Most of the 13 colonies had some kind of religious establishment at the time of the American Revolution. Indeed, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut retained church establishments as states well into the 19th century—although on a relatively circumscribed basis. An important concept in the early history of the U.S. was the agreement that the federal government should recognize religious freedom. Thus, the Bill of Rights, in James Madison’s phrase, “drew a line” between church and government, rather than erecting what Thomas Jefferson called the “wall of separation” between church and state.


Only in the middle decades of the 20th century, however, were the religious clauses of the U.S. Constitution extensively interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court as the basis for a religiously pluralistic society. Indeed, disentangling thoroughly ecclesiastical from civil affairs has proved difficult, as controversies over a host of different issues indicate. Examples of these controversies include the question of whether religious bodies—their properties and profits—should be taxed; whether religious observances should be permitted in public schools; whether government should support chaplaincies; and whether religious groups should exercise an influence on public questions and policies.

A general pattern seems to have emerged in European societies in which, even where a political group has been legally established, churches are free to develop their own programs. In Eastern European countries such as Poland, for example, this pattern often rests on an uneasy truce with the political regime of the day. Other nations, such as India, have often emphasized separation of religion and politics in formal terms, although religious leaders and groups (both innovative and traditional) often play an active role in politics (as is also the case in Japan).

Where separate authority structures exist, many relationships are possible. At one extreme is the subordination of politics to religion, as in a “hierocracy,” or rule of priests as the guardians of divine mysteries. The other extreme entails subordination of the religious institutions to the political regime, as in Caesaropapism. Between these extremes are various relationships ranging from an Erastian, or state-dominated, church to a theocratic political order, in which rulers are closely monitored by guardians of the dominant religious tradition, as in Iran in the early 1980s.

In some respects the pattern in contemporary secular societies differs significantly from the pattern of traditional societies. On the one hand, religious bodies have lost the power to assert exclusivity over religious belief and practice. Equally important, governments have increasingly concerned themselves with aspects of individual and collective life traditionally considered the province of religion, for example definition of life and death.

In sum, the phrase “church and state” represents a framework for understanding how religion and government are related when these different institutions make formal claims within the same society. The substance of this interaction exists in most societies. Where the respective claims of religion and politics have not been clearly focused in separate institutions, religious and political struggles have been no less real. Thus, the specific reference of the phrase “church and state” is to Western Christian history and experience. But, often by extension and certainly by analogy, the concept is useful in understanding other cultures.

Contributed By: John F. Wilson

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