Saturday, May 22, 2010

States of Church and State…


Signed on 4 July, 1776, the American colonies' Declaration of Independence begins, thus (emphases added):

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The U.S. Constitution, which was promulgated on "the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth," begins thus (emphases added):

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare [i.e., Happiness], and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It is not unreasonable, to say the least, to interpret the latter quotation in light of the former. The People of the Constitution are, then, the People of the Declaration, which was made with reverence for Nature's God.

In support of this "hermeneutic of continuity," I also cite the Articles of Confederation [which was brought my attention by Brandon, in the comment box]. The Articles were agreed to by Congress on November 15, 1777 and were ratified and in force as of March 1, 1781, thus becoming a strut of the American ethos five years after the Declaration and six years before the Constitution. The purpose of the Articles was to secure "perpetual Union between the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia."

The last article, Article XIII, reads:

Every State shall abide by the determination of the united States in congress assembled, on all questions which by this confederation are submitted to them. And the Articles of this confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a congress of the united States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.

This is followed by a striking coda:

And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said articles of confederation and perpetual union. Know Ye that we the undersigned delegates, by virtue of the power and authority to us given for that purpose, do by these presents, in the name and in behalf of our respective constituents, fully and entirely ratify and confirm each and every of the said articles of confederation and perpetual union, and all and singular the matters and things therein contained: And we do further solemnly plight and engage the faith of our respective constituents, that they shall abide by the determinations of the united States in congress assembled, on all questions, which by the said confederation are submitted to them. And that the articles thereof shall be inviolably observed by the States we respectively represent, and that the union shall be perpetual.

Before getting to the main, and actually very narrow, point of this post, let me remind you of some things about some of the language I emphasized in the quotations above.

The Constitution also hearkens to an age which believed in Laws of Nature, which, as Nancy Cartwright, among other scholars of science have noted, points of necessity to the Lawmaker of Nature. For those less willing or able to follow this subtle logic, the next words speak directly of Nature's God, a sort of hermeneutical propaedeutic. As such, we see how the Constitution is grounded in a conviction that the created equality of humans is self-evident, not the equality simpliciter of people. Along these lines, note that the Constitution is formally "pro-life," since it enshrines the right to life for all those subject to American authority, an "all" which surely includes the unborn, who are the most subject to authority in their pursuit of happiness.

Next, note the unblushing reference in the Declaration to ends, to finality, as intrinsic both to Nature and to the State. A world wholly devoid of teleology is one with no place for the Declaration and Constitution, which in no small way explains the ongoing undermining of the Constitution in America these days. In the same vein, note how the inalienable rights of men precedes and justifies the existence and function of the government. Contrary to some, the basis of political rights in American federalism lies not in the consent of the public but in the public itself, in the ends implanted in them by their Creator, which they are obliged to secure and protect by means of government, not vice versa.

Now to the point of this post.

In the received wisdom––which I have neither the time nor acumen nor motive to unreceive at this juncture––the Constitution calls for a lasting and hermetic separation of Church and State, a total, official walling-off between religion and politics. This way of seeing things strikes me as naively Cartesian, as if we could separate feelings and reason, or ice and water, but I don't want to digress. All I want to note in this post is that, if radical secularism is to succeed, it must radically and fatally alter the wisdom of America's enduring political glory. For if religion is wholly excised from the public sphere, as secularism demands, then there can be no more a separation of Church and State than there could be a separation of figure and shadow in an unlit room. A sober and fair reading of the above-cited documents in the founding of the United States is a key to understanding the authentic Federalist sense of the separation of Church and State. For the Federalists, while the Union could not be established and legislated solely on ecclesiastical precepts, it cannot be established and legislated without them.

If the received wisdom is right, and America's foundational nature is to rest on a dichotomous balance of Church and State, then to dissolve one of the terms is to destroy America's foundational nature. My point is not merely a sophistic "gotcha" but signals something as absurd for America as the separation of time and space for Einsteinian relativity, or the separation of lava and a volcano for geology. As I have written before, a volcano wholly "free" of lava would no longer be a volcano: it would be a gigantic monument to its own extinction, which is exactly what secular Americanism is: an exercise in formally un-American futility. If God does not belong in the Pledge of Allegiance, then He does not belong in the Constitution to which that Pledge pledges one's allegiance. As such, any effort to "get God out of the Pledge" both requires and entails getting God out of the Constitution, which is to say, entails getting the Constitution out of the United States. Is treason too strong a word for the Newdows of the world? I can only wonder.

* * *

For the sake of continuity and ease of reading, I will reproduce, with some modifications, my thoughts on the American volcano here:

A volcano is simply a mountain with a dynamic crater in it. If it lacked its crater, it would simply be a mountain. Thus, the dynamic emptiness––or, insubstantial fullness––of the crater allows the mountain to be more than it is: to be a force of nature, to be a living mountain rather than a static landmark. This is the conceit behind this tiny essay.

It is often argued that religion unfairly benefits from social organization without having to pay taxes. The "Church", thus, is seen as a freeloader on the state. If the Church were a viable, valid dimension of the State, it is argued, it would be subject to taxation just like every other branch on the social tree. But it dawned on me that the State itself is never taxed. Only the discrete elements of the State are taxed by the State; the State itself, as a whole functioning social organism, is exempt from taxation, as is the Church. If the State can't be taxed, and if America rests on a balanced separation of Church and State, then how could the Church itself be taxed?

The reason the Church cannot be subsumed under the state––even apart from certain key objections to secular autonomy inherent in Christianity––is because it is, like the State, its own kind of whole organism. The Church, and particularly the Catholic Church, is like a society within society, not a mere branch on the tree. Relations between the Church and the State, then, are more like relations between two geographically conjoined nation-states. Any legislation the Church submits to, including taxation, is up to the Church, until the State forcibly imposes its own order on the Church. This is very much how a colonial power tolerates a measure of local autonomy while imposing its own hegemony.

The reason the Church is not subject to the State is similar to the reason the crater is not subject to the shape of the mountain. The crater is not a void in the otherwise whole structure of the mountain, but is the very thing that makes the mountain more, by making it less. If the mountain were filled up, not hollow, it would not be a volcano, would not be the power it is. Truly, less is more. The Church is simply "not there" for the State to grasp, just as the crater of a volcano is "not there" for mountain engineers to reshape or build upon. The Church is the scandalous gaping wound in society that indicates not only the fundamental contingency and incompleteness of the human order, but also the eruptive heart that energizes and opens that order to a power and atmosphere greater and higher than it. The crater, the hole, is actually the essence, the whole. (The hole is crater than its parts?) Likewise, the Church embodies, in its scandalous remove from the facile grasp of fallen man, the dynamic gaping heart of human life as it is opened upwards, Godwards.


Brandon said...

It's also worth keeping in mind (although everyone forgets it) that there was an intermediate document between the Declaration and the Constitutions (which formed the Union to which the Constitution was the revision -- hence the "to form a more perfect Union" in the Preamble). And note how it ends.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Thanks, Brandon, I'll add it to the post! I'm tickled to see you at my blog. Keep up the good work.


The Phantom Blogger said...

Here's a piece by Lawrence Auster were he shows that although the U.S. Constitution itself does not directly mention God, all the states do have a direct reference to God in there constitutions.