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The action of T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral takes place right after Christmas in 1170, culminating in the martyrdom of Thomas Becket on Dec. 29. Though only touched on incidentally in the play, which is far richer than a political tract, the story of Thomas is an archetypal struggle between secular and religious privileges. Though the details are now obscured in history, among the chief points of contention between King Henry II and the archbishop was the question of whether the church could be made subject to the power of the state.
These tensions have not disappeared, of course, though the form they take in our time is far less violent. Some of our current disagreements in this arena are far different in magnitude but not so different in kind. For instance, can the state mandate actions that advance its purposes on religious groups whose teachings and practices are at odds with the state’s goals, like widespread distribution of abortifacients or contraceptives?
Joining these disputes are ones that would become familiar in England and Europe a few hundred years after Becket’s death – can individuals be punished for acting on their beliefs when those beliefs and actions run afoul of current government ideology?
A much more recent source of dispute is the claim that the mildest kinds of public display of religious expression threaten a necessary secularity of the state – premised on an expressed ideal of neutrality but which feels increasingly like hostility.
That current tensions are worked out more peaceably is, in no small part, due to a development that also has a December anniversary.
The Bill of Rights was ratified 225 years ago, on December 15, 1791. Its First Amendment led with two provisions meant to end, or at least ameliorate, the tension between church and state. The Establishment Clause prevented the creation of a national, state-sponsored church, such as England had. Though some states maintained established churches for a few decades, the spirit of non-establishment eventually prevailed universally in the United States.
At least on paper, then, the problems of individuals being punished for failing to conform to an official doctrine, was alleviated, and this protected the church from the rival claims of state power.
The next clause of the First Amendment, necessarily intertwined with the first, addressed the problem of government exactions that punish the actions of those who act on their religious beliefs when those actions are officially disfavored.
Each week in the news, and at least once each term of the Supreme Court, these kinds of conflicts are still in evidence. But they are not handled by a head of state giving a wink and nod to dissolute allies who try to settle it with violence. In the United States, at least, failure to attend an official church is not punishable by fines or imprisonments.
Conflicts are handled in legislatures and elections and in courtrooms. That is real progress for which we should be very thankful.
(It may be the case that our legalistic culture has spawned new conflicts, like the perennial debate over Christmas displays, that would not otherwise have arisen, but here too the conflict is peaceful and still amenable to reasonable discussions.)