History of the concept and term
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. (August 2016)
An important contributor to the discussion concerning the proper relationship between Church and state was St. Augustine, who in The City of God, Book XIX, Chapter 17, examined the ideal relationship between the "earthly city" and the "city of God". In this work, Augustine posited that major points of overlap were to be found between the "earthly city" and the "city of God", especially as people need to live together and get along on earth. Thus, Augustine held that it was the work of the "temporal city" to make it possible for a "heavenly city" to be established on earth.
For centuries, monarchs ruled by the idea of divine right. Sometimes this began to be used by a monarch to support the notion that the king ruled both his own kingdom and Church within its boundaries, a theory known as caesaropapism. On the other side was the Catholic doctrine that the Pope, as the Vicar of Christ on earth, should have the ultimate authority over the Church, and indirectly over the state. Moreover, throughout the Middle Ages the Pope claimed the right to depose the Catholic kings of Western Europe and tried to exercise it, sometimes successfully (see the investiture controversy, below), sometimes not, such as was the case with Henry VIII of England and Henry III of Navarre.
In the West the issue of the separation of church and state during the medieval period centered on monarchs who ruled in the secular sphere but encroached on the Church's rule of the spiritual sphere. This unresolved contradiction in ultimate control of the Church led to power struggles and crises of leadership, notably in the Investiture Controversy, which was resolved in the Concordat of Worms in 1122. By this concordat, the Emperor renounced the right to invest ecclesiastics with ring and crosier, the symbols of their spiritual power, and guaranteed election by the canons of cathedral or abbey and free consecration.
At the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther articulated a doctrine of the two kingdoms. According to James Madison, perhaps one of the most important modern proponents of the separation of church and state, Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms marked the beginning of the modern conception of separation of church and state.
, a woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder
of the pope using the temporal power to grant authority to a generously contributing ruler
Those of the Radical Reformation (the Anabaptists) took Luther's ideas in new direction, most notably in the writings of Michael Sattler (1490–1527), who agreed with Luther that there were two kingdoms, but differed in arguing that these two kingdoms should be separate, and hence baptized believers should not vote, serve in public office or participate in any other way with the "kingdom of the world". While there was a diversity of views in the early days of the Radical Reformation, in time Sattler's perspective became the normative position for most Anabaptists in the coming centuries. Anabaptists came to teach that religion should never be compelled by state power, approaching the issue of church-state relations primarily from the position of protecting the church from the state.
In the 1530s, Henry VIII, angered by the Pope Clement VII's refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, decided to break with the Church and set himself as ruler of the Church of England. The monarchs of Great Britain have retained ecclesiastical authority in the Church of England since Henry VIII, having the current title, Supreme Governor of the Church of England. England's ecclesiastical intermixing did not spread widely, however, due to the extensive persecution of Catholics that resulted from Henry's power grab. This eventually led to Nonconformism, English Dissenters, and the anti-Catholicism of Oliver Cromwell, the Commonwealth of England, and the Penal Laws against Catholics and others who did not adhere to the Church of England.
One of the results of the persecution in England was that some people fled Great Britain to be able to worship as they wished – but they did not seek religious freedom, and early North American colonies were generally as intolerant of religious dissent as England; Puritan Massachusetts, for example, did not allow standard Church of England worship. Some of these people voluntarily sailed to the American Colonies specifically for this purpose. After the American Colonies famously revolted against George III of the United Kingdom, the Constitution of United States was specifically amended to ban the establishment of religion by Congress.
The concept of separating church and state is often credited to the writings of English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). According to his principle of the social contract, Locke argued that the government lacked authority in the realm of individual conscience, as this was something rational people could not cede to the government for it or others to control. For Locke, this created a natural right in the liberty of conscience, which he argued must therefore remain protected from any government authority. These views on religious tolerance and the importance of individual conscience, along with his social contract, became particularly influential in the American colonies and the drafting of the United States Constitution.
At the same period of the 17th century, Pierre Bayle and some fideists were forerunners of the separation of Church and State, maintaining that faith was independent of reason. During the 18th century, the ideas of Locke and Bayle, in particular the separation of Church and State, became more common, promoted by the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. Montesquieu already wrote in 1721 about religious tolerance and a degree of separation between religion and government. Voltaire defended some level of separation but ultimately subordinated the Church to the needs of the State while Denis Diderot, for instance, was a partisan of a strict separation of Church and State, saying "the distance between the throne and the altar can never be too great".
Jefferson and the Bill of Rights
In English, the exact term is an offshoot of the phrase, "wall of separation between church and state", as written in Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. In that letter, referencing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Jefferson writes:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
Jefferson was describing to the Baptists that the United States Bill of Rights prevents the establishment of a national church, and in so doing they did not have to fear government interference in their right to expressions of religious conscience. The Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791 as ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States, was one of the earliest political expressions of religious freedom. Others were the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, also authored by Jefferson and adopted by Virginia in 1786; and the French Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen of 1789.