When US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he would be stepping down after 31 years on the nation’s highest court, public reaction was both swift and split. The New York Times captured the mood with the words “Elated v. Scared: Americans Are Divided on Justice Kennedy’s Retirement.” Even before Donald Trump’s preferred nominee was announced—a choice that led to protests against and an FBI investigation into the prospective justice, the result of multiple women coming forward to share allegations of sexual assault at his hands—commentators were variously celebrating and lamenting the president’s newfound power to shape the bench for decades to come.
In the former camp was Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a “Christian public policy ministry.” For Perkins, Justice Kennedy’s retirement vindicated the (conservative, pro-life) Christians who, despite ostensible misgivings over his character, had cast their votes for Trump. Flawed vessel though he was, the president would surely repay their support by nominating a conservative likely to share their views: “They took a risk, and now the reward.”
A few weeks earlier, in the German state of Bavaria, the religiopolitical nexus had also been front-page news. In the Bavarian case, however, controversy centered not on the sensitivity (or otherwise) of judges to policy issues likely to arouse “religious” passion, but on the presence of religious symbols in their courts. The local government, led by state premier Markus Söder, had extended a decree requiring the display of Christian crosses in courtrooms and schools to include all buildings classified as “public.” Alongside aggrieved secularists, the move drew criticism from some potentially surprising quarters: “The cross cannot be imposed from above, because then it is co-opted in the name of the state,” warned Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich. Doing so, he continued, risked spreading “division, unease and conflict.”
What are we to make of these two cases, of the jubilation of Perkins and the anxiety of Marx? At first blush, neither response is self-evident. After all, Supreme Court judges swear to defend and uphold a constitution that separates church and state; a possible sticking point, one might think, for the Family Research Council, an organization calling for government to be guided by “the Judeo-Christian worldview” (note the definite article, the singular noun). By contrast, the Catholic Church in Europe has often embraced—and been embraced by—state power. Bavaria is one of Europe’s most Catholic regions. Why not display, as Söder put it, this symbol of its “cultural and historical imprint”?
For the authors of Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State, these controversies can be read as contestations of “churchstateness.” The term’s linguistic inelegance is offset by its conceptual utility: it describes the “enmeshed and intercalibrated forms” through which church and state relate in historic and contemporary polities, with a particular emphasis on the instability of this entanglement. While studies of church-state relations have traditionally focused on Europe, in which the functions of the Old World’s established churches are said to be replaced by the welfare state, this volume focuses on the New. Ekklesia argues that the Americas are not marked by Jefferson’s proverbial “wall of separation” between church and state, nor simply by their ongoing interaction, but by what might be thought of as an ever-shifting relationship of collusion. The book is a hugely productive resource, both in terms of the accounts provided and as an invitation for others to consider churchstateness in their own research contexts.
Regardless of how often “the” Bible is referred to, Americans have always sought to interpret the scriptures for themselves, free from both state and ecclesiastical control.
As part of the University of Chicago Press’s TRIOS series, Ekklesia promises “three inquiries” in American churchstateness. Its authors, Paul Christopher Johnson, Pamela E. Klassen, and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, are well placed to undertake these inquiries. Between the three are appointments in Afroamerican and African studies, anthropology, law, and religion. All are profoundly interdisciplinary in their thinking and writing, as evidenced by the subjects they have chosen and their ability to relate these subjects to one another: Johnson examines the massacre of Canudos, a religiopolitical community, in late 19th-century Brazil; Klassen the materiality of “spiritual jurisdiction” in Canada, from the 18th century to the neocolonial present; and Sullivan efforts to ban Bibles from death penalty jury deliberations in the United States, where scripture is thought to undermine the “rationality” of the law.
Alongside the neologism “churchstateness,” the volume’s introduction clarifies the eponymous concept of “ekklesia.”1 These are assemblies “convened under a transcendent sovereignty.” Like the ancient Athenian citizen assemblies and early Christian churches from which the term is derived, an ekklesia is a collective that implies exclusion. In the settler-colonial contexts under discussion, this exclusion is inevitably shaped by Indigenous dispossession, the institution of slavery, and the various Christianities transplanted to (and transformed by) the Americas. Making “the people,” it seems, has always required “the unmaking” of its alternatives.
The kinds of assemblies and sovereignties at issue are profoundly marked by this New World context. In the familiar political-theological tale, abstract ideas of “the sovereign people” (begin to) solidify in the 18th century, as bills of rights and declarations of independence take shape throughout Europe and its colonies. Power ceases to be rooted in a “sacred king,” instead grounding itself in the “sacred people.” For the authors of Ekklesia, however, “the radically different spaces of the Americas have too seldom registered in political theology.” Not only were European kings “only occasionally or virtually present” on American soil, but preexisting social forms posed significant challenges to the supremacy of European political models. These rival ekklesia could only be tolerated as “victims or corpses.” Indeed, it is a sense of the sheer violence of churchstateness that lingers with the reader after having closed the book: “The claims of church and state in the Americas, as elsewhere, rest on foundational violence.”
In Johnson’s essay, “The People and the Law of the Hound at Canudos,” this violence takes the form of a massacre. When the fledgling Brazilian Republic proclaimed the separation of church and state in 1890, followers of Antônio Conselheiro (Anthony the Counselor), a Catholic prophet, rejected the government as illegitimate. Preferring a life under the law of God to one under “the law of the hound,” the “counselorists” set up an alternative community in an arid landscape, awaiting the return of the emperor and the reunification of church and state. This ekklesia did not last long: nearly 30,000 residents of Canudos were butchered by the Brazilian military in 1896–97.
In Johnson’s telling, the ferocity with which Canudos’s destruction was pursued can be understood as an act of both nation-and-church-making: a modern citizenry; a purified church. By painting its residents as a fanatic, slave-descended, racially and religiously ambiguous horde—“a flawed and illegitimate ekklesia,” condemned as both fetishist and monarchist—the state justified their separation from the body politic (and the separation of their heads from their bodies). Only later were their decapitated corpses redeemed as sacrificed citizens of the new republic.
Johnson challenges histories of Brazilian churchstateness that paint the 1890 proclamation as marking the separation of competing spheres. By contrast, he argues, it was only after the founding of the republic that the church became weaponized, (re)defined as a religiopolitical entity distinct from the popular practices of those such as the counselorists. In this way, “the separation of church and state helped to generate a more forceful and aggressive edition of the church than had existed before.”
Klassen’s contribution, “Spiritual Jurisdictions: Treaty People and the Queen of Canada,” focuses on the materiality of churchstateness in British Columbia. By exploring the resistance of Indigenous ekklesia to becoming “possessions” of the colonial state, this essay highlights the ways in which Canada—a country that maintains a relationship with the British monarch even as it recognizes the partial sovereignty of Indigenous nations—challenges traditional church-state stories, representing neither Christian establishment nor the supposed separation of the two.
For Johnson, Klassen, and Sullivan, common-sense narratives of church and state suffer from an excess of order: “Who experienced such tidy stories?”
The “spiritual jurisdictions” of the title refer not only to colonial powers, but to Indigenous forms of sovereignty that predate British and French claims to Canadian soil. Treaties signed between Indigenous nations and settler-colonial governments are infused with churchstateness, both in their language and in the ritual forms through which they are memorialized and reinvigorated. (Indeed, relations between the Canadian government and Indigenous nations remain rooted in a Crown personage who embodies both church and state.) Focusing on two material instantiations of this sacramental power—King George III’s 1763 Royal Proclamation and Queen Elizabeth II’s 2016 “ring of reconciliation”—Klassen shows that “the inauguration of colonial law by way of Christian authority makes one people at the expense of another.”
Yet colonial clout, alongside its incredible capacity for violence, always contains an element of vulnerability. Sacred power underlay the treaties signed by the Crown and by Indigenous nations. Both sides understood them to have spiritual, as well as legal, force. That the Crown has repeatedly chosen the genocide of Indigenous persons over the upholding of their obligations to (and as) “treaty people” does not negate these agreements: “The promises made with wampum bells, communion silver, peace pipes, and paper proclamation … have not disappeared, and neither have the peoples who care for them.” Thus, Klassen stresses that any inquiry into church and state in the Americas must grapple not only with (European) Christianities and secularisms, but with Indigenous ontologies, assemblies, and sovereignties.
While Johnson and Klassen offer evocative problematizations of churchstateness, Sullivan’s essay is, perhaps, the most theoretically concise of the three inquiries. “Banning Bibles: Death-Qualifying a Jury” asks how “the people” are constituted in the wake of the United States’ disestablishment. By contrast to their European counterparts, Sullivan argues, church-state regimes in the Americas display signs of “arrested development”: “Without either a proper state or a proper church, the distribution of political theological tasks, indeed, even the identification of tasks, became singularly difficult in the Americas.” This is nowhere more apparent than in the final phase of capital cases in US states permitting the death penalty, wherein individual men and women are expected to define, embody, and excise “the people” through acts of improvisation.
Atheists in the Pantheon
Sullivan takes as her starting point recent efforts to remove Bibles (and the quoting of Bible verses) from death-qualified jury deliberations. Proponents of Bible-free deliberations see their presence in jury rooms as a failure of disestablishment, an unacceptable entangling of religion and politics. For these “guardians of the law,” scripture is “irresistibly dogmatic”; its use introduces irrational, extraneous considerations into a decision that ought to be guided by personal ethics.
For Sullivan, such arguments are misguided. Far from acting as a closed conduit of authority, the Bible, as historians of American religion have shown, is profoundly indeterminate. Or, rather, profoundly determinate, but in contradictory ways. (How else could it be deployed with equal fervor by both abolitionists and slaveholders?) Regardless of how often “the” Bible is referred to, Americans have always sought to interpret the scriptures for themselves, free from both state and ecclesiastical control.
In this telling, courtroom Bibles are less a failure of separation than they are symptomatic of it; a very American preference for one’s own reading, rather than that of the professionals. Efforts to ban Bibles from jury deliberations seek to paint the death penalty as rational, an exercise grounded in due process. In practice, however, such efforts do little to change the “deeply accidental” reality of these life and death decisions, in which the death-qualified jury—which both represents “the people” and is tasked with determining whether or not the defendant is of “the people,” too—is expected to weigh the value of a human life without proper guidance from either church or state. These jurors, Sullivan argues, are cast adrift, inhabitants of the “religious no-man’s land” created by American disestablishment.
As with any good book, Ekklesia is a disrupter. For Johnson, Klassen, and Sullivan, common-sense narratives of church and state—which tend toward teleologies of their inevitable separation—suffer from an excess of order: “Who experienced such tidy stories?” The essays work together to unsettle stable accounts of sovereignty in the Americas, highlighting the impossibility of a clear division of labor between the entities termed “church” and “state.”
In Europe, the United States tends to function as a prism through which European secularity is refracted and confirmed.
Reading Ekklesia from the other side of the Atlantic, however, one is sometimes puzzled as to the body of work that constitutes its foil. Where are these “popular” and “scholarly” accounts, “at home and abroad,” as the book’s introduction has it, in which “religion and politics in the Americas are cast as somehow free, and free of each other, each retaining its particular charisma, but without mutual interpenetration”? Beyond the most zealous lobbyists of the American Civil Liberties Union, who among us could imagine that the inhabitants of the New World were capable of such separation?
Certainly not the denizens of the Old. Indeed, part of the difficulty of convincing Europeans that religion, law, and politics continue to be mutually constitutive in the historically Christian (and now Christianly “secular”) contexts with which they are most familiar is the repeated refrain that Europe, unlike America, has moved beyond such things. We recoil from politicians who end their speeches with “God bless.” We are wary of those who “do God” in public.
Teaching religious studies in continental Europe, I’ve found that the United States, in particular, tends to function here as a prism through which European secularity is refracted and confirmed. Church bells may chime outside, our seminar may have been rescheduled to accommodate a holiday that was once a holy day, but my undergraduate students will assure me that northern Europe does not trade in political theology—only the United States does that. (An American colleague, teaching at a prestigious university in central Europe, tried to disrupt this understanding of politicoreligious exceptionalism by encouraging his students to spot similar patterns in their local context. It didn’t work: “There I was, an American talking all the time about the intersection of religion and politics. I just confirmed their every suspicion.”)
Such comments are, of course, a result of the very churchstateness that ostensibly secular Europeans might seek to deny. These arrangements, too, are grounded in the viciousness of segregation and colonialism. With the far right on the rise throughout the continent, and ekklesia based on the exclusion of non-Christian Others gaining traction from Finland to France, interrogating the foundational violence at the heart of these assemblies is a critical task. After all, and as the examples provided by Johnson, Klassen, and Sullivan so powerfully demonstrate, it is in part through denying—and thus sanitizing—the ongoing power of the sacral that these political-theological forms are sustained.
When Secularism Fails Women
How else to explain a phenomenon such as the Lautsi judgment, in which the European Court of Human Rights upheld an Italian court’s claim that “with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to identify in the constant central core of Christian faith, despite the inquisition, despite anti-Semitism and despite the crusades, the principles of human dignity, tolerance and freedom, including religious freedom, and therefore, in the last analysis, the foundations of the secular State”?
Let us return, then, to Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich. In light of the peculiarities of Old and New World churchstateness(es), their responses are somewhat easier to parse. Far from threatening the mutual entanglement of Christianity and the law, American disestablishment is what allows Perkins his “reward.” And perhaps it is the European Catholic Church’s historic alliance with state power that leaves Marx wary of seeing his living faith reduced to “history” in the present.
As Johnson, Klassen, and Sullivan show, metrics of “separation” versus “establishment” fail to explain these church-state snapshots. The old binary cannot capture the complexity of the political theologies through which ethno-nationalist ekklesia grounded in Christian symbolism are, somewhat paradoxically, increasingly transnational, cross-pollinating between Europe and the Americas. Indeed, by focusing on the particularities of the New World context, Ekklesia spurs those of us in the Old to interrogate our latent assumptions about churchness, stateness, and churchstateness here at home—and, of course, well beyond.
This article was commissioned by Matthew Engelke.
- I follow the authors in using “ekklesia” as both plural and singular. ↩