Friday, August 15, 2008

The Church giving rise to the Western State

Marcel Gauchet isn’t the only one who acknowledges that the Western State couldn’t have come into existence were it not for the Christian Church. The State grew up with the Church. I have encountered similar conclusions about the state elsewhere, most recently from Elshtain’s Just War against Terror. She writes that the principles of the Western State grew out of the principles of the Christian church. Others acknowledge that the unique circumstances of Church and State in the West gave rise to Liberal/Democracy and nothing else could have. But does this mean that as Samuel P. Huntington teaches no other Civilization can develop or acquire Western-style Liberal Democracy – at least to the extent that we would say that our goals and interests are so similar that we could never go to war with each other? Or as Francis Fukuyama teaches, must Liberal/Democracy conquer all other forms of the State inasmuch as no other form can compete with it?

So many of our State’s principles derive from the Church, it is difficult to focus upon them as being other than State sponsored and created. But helping the poor derives from Christ’s teachings; so principles of Welfare can be traced back to Christian doctrine. Our early educational institutions were created to prepare ministers for preaching the gospel. Most of our most famous Universities, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton for example began as Religious colleges. Caring for the sick is a Christian principle, and the first hospitals were Christian institutions.

Early in the history of the West there was a Theodosian settlement, a fusion of church and state, but Augustine (354-430) “rejected the notion of an official Christian empire,” Elshtain writes on page 32. “Earthly institutions have a real claim on us, Augustine insisted, but the claim is not and cannot legitimately aspire to the absolute. Centuries of fruitful struggle would follow as the West debated the relative positions and power of what we routinely call church and state.”

In Islam religion and politics have always been fused, but not in the West, and that is because of the way the Church and State developed. Pope Gregory VII had great power. He was among the most powerful of popes, but he wasn’t an emperor. His power can be seen “when he deposed and excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Henry journeyed to Canossa, where Gregory VII was staying, and offered himself as a penitent, kneeling in the snow for three days until his repentance was accepted. This drama unfolded in 1077 and is usually considered one of the high-water marks of papal intervention in imperial politics.”

Marcel Gauchet in his The Disenchantment of the World, A Political History of Religion shows that the Western State could not have developed without the Christian Church. That fact doesn’t intimidate him however. He remains an atheist and argues that the Church could wither away as far as he’s concerned now that it has done its job of producing the State. But Gauchet is French. When they had their Revolution they kicked out the Church along with the Monarchy. Our American revolution was supported by our Churches. King George III called the American Revolution a Presbyterian Revolt. And today, according to Elshtain, “over 90 percent of Americans claim to believe in God, and fully 70 percent claim membership in a church, synagogue, or mosque.”

“What these figures signify,” Elshtain says, is in need of interpretation, but it can certainly be said that our embrace of faith as a grounding of human meaning, purpose, and identity and as a distinguishing feature of our culture builds a variety of tensions and conflicts in the tissue of American life.”

Lawrence Helm

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