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Church and State, Separation of


CHURCH AND STATE, SEPARATION OF. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, drafted by James Madison, declares that Congress "shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Madison's friend and mentor Thomas Jefferson was proud of his role in drafting and winning assent to Virginia's religious liberty law (1786). In a letter of 1802, he referred to the need for a "high wall of separation" between church and state. Both men considered religious liberty not just a convenient political response to the actual diversity of denominations in the new Republic but as a natural right.

Jefferson's wall metaphor has often been used but it has never been adequate. Everyone stands on one side or the other of a real wall. Citizens of the states, by contrast, often belong to churches too and defy the metaphor by appearing on both sides. Controversy over how to interpret the First Amendment has therefore absorbed immense quantities of time, words, and ink, especially in the years since 1940, when for the first time its religious clauses were extended from the federal to state level.

In the early days of the Republic, despite the First Amendment, several states continued to have "official" established churches. The courts then interpreted the amendment to mean that while Congress could make no laws about religion, the states were free to do so. The actual diversity of religious groups in the states—promoted especially by the fervently democratic mood of the Second Great Awakening—nonetheless encouraged disestablishment. The last established church, Massachusetts Congregationalism, was separated from the state in 1833.

Even so, the idea that the United States was a Protestant country remained widespread. When Horace Mann laid the foundations for the public school system, again in Massachusetts, he took it for granted that the education would be religious and that students would study the King James Bible, which was common to most Protestant churches. Catholic immigration, accelerating after the Irish famine (1845–1850), made this curriculum controversial. The Catholic archbishop of New York, John Hughes, argued that the faith of young Catholics was jeopardized when they studied in public schools and set about creating a parallel parochial school system. At that point, however, the federal judiciary left it to the states to make their own arrangements and most states were emphatic about their Protestant identity and their love of the King James Bible. Only after passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 did the possibility arise that the Supreme Court could extend the Bill of Rights to the states.

The Court first took an interest in the religion clause of the First Amendment when it adjudicated Reynolds v. United States (1879). George Reynolds, a Mormon who was already married, had followed his church's injunction to take a second wife. Most Americans were bitterly critical of Mormon polygamy, and Reynolds was convicted under the bigamy statutes. On appeal, Reynolds claimed he was exercising his First Amendment right under the free exercise clause—but the Court was unimpressed. It answered that Reynolds was free to believe in polygamy but was not free to act on his belief. If he did so, it pointed out, he would in effect be violating the establishment clause by getting an exemption from the bigamy statutes because of his membership in a particular church.

In the twentieth century, cases testing the proper relationship between church and state became more common. Among the first was an Oregon case that the Supreme Court adjudicated in 1925, Pierce v. Society of Sisters. The re-formed Ku Klux Klan, powerful in Oregon, where its scapegoat was Catholics rather than African Americans, lobbied the state legislature to pass a law requiring all the state's children to attend public school. The legislation was aimed against Catholic private and parochial schools. Nuns belonging to the Society of Sisters, who ran such schools, sued the state and won their final appeal before the Supreme Court. The justices told Oregon that it was entitled to establish educational standards that all students in the state must fulfill, but that it had no right to forbid children from attending the religious schools their parents had chosen. Justice James Clark McReynolds wrote: "The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations."

Pierce was not a First Amendment case—it was argued under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1940, however, the Supreme Court for the first time decided that it would review a First Amendment free-exercise case arising in one of the states (Reynolds had arisen in the western federal territories). Its 9–0 adjudication of Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) was one of the very few occasions on which the Court has reached a unanimous verdict in a First Amendment case. It over-turned the breach-of-peace conviction of a Jehovah's Witness who had distributed anti-Catholic literature and played anti-Catholic gramophone records in a largely Catholic district. Justice Owen Josephus Roberts, writing for the Court, noted that Cantwell may have been provoking

but "there is no showing that his deportment was noisy, truculent, overbearing, or offensive." His intention had been to interest passers by in his religious views and the First Amendment protected his right to do so.

Cantwell opened the door to Supreme Court adjudication of other First Amendment cases, and they became a regular fixture on its docket from then on. Pierce had established the right of religious schools to exist. Many subsequent cases thrashed out the question of whether the state, while permitting children to go to religious schools, was also allowed to contribute to the cost of their education. Religious parents, whose children went to these schools, had a powerful motive to say yes. In their view, after all, they were sparing the state an expense by not availing themselves of the public schools. Was it not discriminatory to make them pay for the public schools through their taxes, then pay again for their own children in the form of tuition fees? In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Court found, by the narrow vote of 5–4, that states could contribute financially to nonreligious elements of these children's education. In this instance, it could refund the cost of their bus travel to and from school.

Everson was important not only for the substance of its decision but also for its declaration of the general considerations that should govern such cases, all spelled out in Justice Hugo Black's majority decision. He wrote that the First Amendment, as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, showed that no government "can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will, or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion," and that it could not penalize anyone "for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or nonattendance."

Numerous subsequent cases refined the constitutional position on schools and had the collective effect of making schools far less religious places than they had been throughout most of the nation's history. In McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), the Court ruled that religious teachers could not enter public schools during normal school hours even to give voluntary instruction in each of the religions practiced by the students. In three bitterly contested cases (Engel v. Vitale, 1962; Abington v. Schempp, 1963; and Murray v. Curlett, 1963), it went much further by ruling that public-school children could not recite a nondenominational prayer written by the New York Board of Regents, could not read the Bible or recite the Lord's Prayer, and could not have the Ten Commandments posted in their classrooms. This set of findings overturned laws in nearly every state and brought to a sudden end practices that had been hallowed by a century or more of continuous use. Critics, especially on the political right, demanded the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was already controversial for his judicial activism in other areas. A disgruntled Alabama congressman, mindful of the same chief justice's desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), declared: "First he put Negroes in the classroom—now he's taken God out!"

President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic to occupy the White House, was in office at the time of these decisions. He had faced electoral opposition in 1960 from Protestant groups that believed his faith made him unfit for the presidency. Kennedy, determined to prove otherwise, had told a meeting of evangelical Protestant ministers in Houston just before the election that he, like all candidates, enjoyed freedom of conscience, that he believed in church-state separation, and that if ever an issue arose in which his religious conscience prevented him from doing his political duty, he would resign, as any president should. Once he was president, he refused to endorse draft constitutional amendments aimed at reversing the controversial school cases and urged citizens to obey the Court's rulings.

In considering these cases it is important to remember that religious groups were well represented among the litigants on both sides. Militant secularism, atheism, and agnosticism were always the preserve of a tiny minority. The American Civil Liberties Union, usually found on the "strict separation" side, counted many ministers, rabbis, and devout members of congregations among its supporters. In the tradition established by Roger Williams more than three centuries earlier and strongly upheld among most Baptist congregations, they feared that entanglement with the state would contaminate their faith. Defenders of school prayer and Bible reading, no less strongly supplied with outspoken clergymen, countered that such contamination was unlikely as long as the religious exercises were voluntary and nondenominational. The important point, in their view, was to underline the godly character of America in its great Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union and "Godless Communism."

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) was among the most important of all the First Amendment school cases, in that it laid down a set of three requirements (the "Lemon test") for judging the constitutionality of laws relating to religious education. The Court has followed the test more or less closely ever since. First, a law must be neutral between religions and between religion and nonreligion. Second, the law's primary intent and impact must be secular; and third, it must not "excessively entangle" the state with religion. The Lemon test could not resolve all controversies, of course, since "excessive entanglement" was itself open to a wide variety of interpretations.

Public opinion polls showed that the majority of Americans disliked the degree of church–state separation the Court specified, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s state governments looked for ways to reintroduce prayer and religious activities into public schools. The Moral Majority and other evangelical lobbies in the 1980s argued that "secular humanism" was itself a religious position, that it had displaced Christianity in public life, especially in schools, and that it there by violated the establishment clause. The Court remained skeptical but it did concede, in Board of Education v. Mergens (1990), that voluntary religious groups should be allowed to meet on public school property in just the same way as any other student sports team, club, or society.

Religious schools flourished, meanwhile, as ever more parents abandoned the secularized public system. They were heartened by the Court's decision in Mueller v. Allen (1983), which upheld the constitutionality of a Minnesota law that gave a $700 state tax exemption to the parents of private school children, whether or not the schools were religious. By the narrowest majority, 5–4, the Court argued that the law, by favoring a broad category of Minnesota's citizens, whatever their beliefs, did not fall afoul of the Lemon test.

Numerous establishment clause cases also arose in nonschool contexts. Depending on the details, the Court sometimes appeared to decide similar cases in opposite ways—further evidence that this was a complex and controverted area of the law. For example, in Braunfeld v. Braun (1961), it investigated the dilemma of a furniture-store owner who was forced to close his store on Sundays in accord with Pennsylvania's Sunday closing law. He was an Orthodox Jew, however, and also closed the store on his Sabbath, Saturday, with the result that he lost two business days every week while his Christian competitors lost only one. Was not the Sunday closing law a violation of the establishment clause, based as it was on the Christian tradition of Sunday as Sabbath? The Court said no; it was a matter of national tradition, rather than religious establishment, and as such was defensible.

Two years later the Court appeared to reverse itself but denied that it had done so. In Sherbert v. Verner (1963), it examined the plight of a woman who belonged to the Seventh Day Adventists, a Christian group that (as with Judaism) takes Saturday as Sabbath. She was out of work, refused for religious reasons to take a job that compelled her to work on Saturdays, and found, when she applied for unemployment compensation, that she was denied it because she had declined to accept "suitable" job offers. This time the Supreme Court found in her favor, arguing that the state would only have been entitled to withhold her unemployment pay if it had had a "compelling" interest in doing so.

A related pair of cases, several years later, added a few more twists and turns to the labyrinth. The first was Yoder v. Wisconsin (1972). The state had passed a law requiring all children to attend schools until they reached the age of sixteen. Amish people in the state wanted to withdraw their children after eighth grade (age fourteen). They feared that the education their children received after that point was likely to draw them away from the Amish community, with its simple, unmechanized farming practices. Their claim for exemption from the state law, in other words, was based on the right to protect their religious free exercise. The Court found in their favor, even though, in doing so, it appeared to grant this one group special treatment because of its religion, which some commentators saw as a violation of the establishment clause.

In the second case, Employment Division v. Smith (1990), an Oregon citizen was fired from his job at a drug-rehabilitation clinic after eating peyote, the hallucinogenic fungus used by the Native American church of which he was a member. The drug was illegal in Oregon and the state government had not exempted religious users. When he was denied unemployment pay, Smith sued the state for violating his free-exercise rights. The logic of the Sherbert and Yoder decisions suggested that he would be upheld, but the Court used the Reynolds and Braunfeld precedents instead, declaring that Smith was entitled to hold his religious beliefs but that they did not excuse him from obeying generally applicable state laws.

Scholars and justices alike were uneasily aware by 2000 that whatever decision the Court made in a church–state case, it would have a line of precedents at hand to decide one way or the other. Take for example the case of the Christmas crèche owned by the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and placed in the city's public square every December, which the Court might easily have condemned as a violation of the establishment clause. The ACLU and an alliance of ministers sued for its removal in 1980 and won. The city's indignant mayor, Dennis Lynch, appealed all the way to the Supreme Court and finally achieved a reversal of the decision. The Court ruled in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984)—at 5–4 another close decision—that the crèche was permissible because it was accompanied by a Santa, various elves, and a brace of plastic reindeer, whose collective effect was to make the display acceptably "traditional" rather than unacceptably "religious."

The sixty-year constitutional struggle over the First Amendment from 1940 to 2000 was largely symbolic; no one seriously believed that any one church was going to be established by law or that any of the citizens' religions were going to be proscribed. No one suffered serious harm from the Court's verdicts. While these cases were argued with so much anguish, few commentators, ironically, paused to observe the fate of twentieth-century Europe's still common established churches. Their lesson was that in the twentieth century establishment was synonymous with religious weakness and indifference, rather than with the tyranny and intolerance it was alleged to imply. While America's disestablished churches drew in nearly half the nation's population every week, the established Church of England, nemesis of the revolutionary generation, could scarcely attract 3 percent of the British people. American experience showed that disestablishment and religious vitality went hand in hand.


Alley, Robert S, ed. The Supreme Court on Church and State. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Eastland, Terry, ed. Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court: The Cases that Define the Debate over Church and State. Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1993.

Frankel, Marvin. Faith and Freedom: Religious Liberty in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Hunter, James D. Articles of Faith, Articles of Peace: The Religious Liberty Clauses and the American Public Philosophy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1990.

Kramnick, Isaac, and R. Laurence Moore. The Godless Constitution: The Case against Religious Correctness. New York: Norton, 1996.

Levy, Leonard. The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment. 2d rev. ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Menendez, Albert. The December Wars: Religious Symbols and Ceremonies in the Public Square. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1993.

Noonan, John T., Jr. The Believer and the Powers that Are: Cases, History, and Other Data Bearing on the Relation of Religion and Government. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Reichley, James. Religion in American Public Life. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1985.

Patrick N.Allitt

See alsoChurch of England in the Colonies ; Civil Religion ; First Amendment ; Religious Liberty ; Reynolds v. United States .

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Church and State Relations


CHURCH AND STATE RELATIONS. The relationship between governmental institutions and Christian denominations changed dramatically and varied widely in Europe during the early modern period (14501789). The variations in this relationship hinged largely on the characteristics of local government, or the "state," and of local ecclesiastical institutions, or the "church." Those variations depended also on the intentions and abilities of each to exert its will and have its way. Such variations, by definition, were local. The relationship between church and state in any local configuration in Europe was also affected by broader, long-term factors in the political, religious, and cultural development of Western civilization. Those factors included the tradition of caesaropapism, the early modern growth of both national states and monarchical power, the religious changes generally understood under the heading "Reformation," and the cultural and political changes associated with the Enlightenment.


Caesaropapism, the approach to government in which both royal and priestly powers are held, in their fullness, by one ruler, was a theory that stood behind attempts by leaders of church and state to exert sovereign control over territories in Europe. This traditional theory had a very long lineage. The term is typically applied to the sort of government created in the Byzantine Empire, with church subordinated to the state. As such, it has been viewed mainly as a relic of the past after the fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks in the mid-fifteenth century. The concept, however, can arguably be found in descriptions of kingship from the earliest Western historical sources, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, a literary masterpiece from ancient Mesopotamia. The notion motivated much later efforts to establish complete control over European territories, and not just by secular rulers hoping to subordinate ecclesiastical persons and institutions. Some Christian leaders in early modern Europe had sought to create ecclesiastical control over governmental authorities.

Any explanation of the relationship between church and state in this era must be broad enough to account not just for caesaropapist political leaders in Italian communes and in Germany, Spain, France, England, and Germany, who had long claimed control over religion, but also for individuals like Martin Luther (14831546). He could insist that princely power was superior to ecclesiastical authority and, apparently, sense no implicit contradiction between that position and his view of individual religious conscience as being above the authority of either bishops or princes. In practical terms, he and other contemporary religious leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, often wrote like determined theocrats who felt comfortable defining truth. Luther rejected papal supremacy while asserting what should or should not be considered the Word of God. In Geneva, John Calvin (15091564) headed an aristocratic political system in which capital punishment, and other forms of restraint, could be meted out for holding anti-Trinitarian views. Divine right monarchy more in line with the standard definition of caesaropapism could be found in England under early Stuart rulers like James I (ruled 16031625) and Charles I (ruled 16251649), who argued that their power came directly from God. They demonstrated their commitment by making religious and political changes without recourse to Parliament or archbishops.

Caesaropapism remained a goal throughout the early modern period, but it was an increasingly unattainable goal, as the history of the papacy illustrates. Even today, one imagines the pope of this earlier period as possessing extraordinary political and religious power, and a determination to exert his against all opponents. This image remains despite the deep personal inconsistencies of prince-popes like Paul III. Although he reestablished the Roman Inquisition in 1542 and convened the Council of Trent in 1545, during his reign this tribunal demonstrated moderation toward those charged with heresy, and toward the control of suspicious religious texts. The legates Paul sent to Trent, moreover, exercised but limited control of the council's agenda. Popes like Pius V (reigned 15661572) and Paul V (reigned 16051621) were famous for their centralizing politics in the Papal States, and for their thunderous proclamations of religious and political right in controversies like the Gunpowder Plot in England (1605). Their plans did not have the effect of creating anything close to theocracy, however. Paul V attempted to centralize political control in Bologna during his reign, using client relationship with Bolognese nobles to do so. He was only partly successful, however, as family interests, both social and economic, were more important to those nobles than participation in papal-controlled government. Paul was no more successful in bringing the Venetian Republic to heel through his interdict in 1606 and 1607 than he was in convincing Catholics in England to reject the demand there for an oath of loyalty to the crown. By the third quarter of the seventeenth century, indirect challenges to papal authority fueled by Enlightenment thought culminated in political pressures that forced Clement XIV (reigned 17691774) to suppress the Jesuit religious orderthe group popularly remembered as unchallenged enforcers of the papal Counter-Reformationin 1773. The head of the Jesuit order, Lorenzo Ricci, died in the prison of Castel Sant'Angelo in 1775, and both Clement and his successor, Pius VI (reigned 17751799), were carried off to France as prisoners.


The expanding national states and growing monarchical powers came to dominate the relationship between church and state. The progressive extension of ecclesiastical jurisdiction in France, up until about the fourteenth century, was overcome at the beginning of the sixteenth with the 1516 Concordat of Bologna, which delivered to French monarchs control over episcopal appointments. In this, French kings like Francis I (ruled 15151547) exhibited the increasing tendency among such heads of state to assume responsibility for establishing and defending their local definition of "true" religion. In England, Henry VIII (ruled 15091547) reinforced plans to create full control over the church with the old medieval assertion that kings had to answer for the exercise of their authority to God alone. In doing so, he anticipated the full-fledged "divine right" argument elaborated by his Stuart successors, James I and Charles II. In other territories, especially within the Holy Roman Empire, princes and magistrates without monarchical claims sought to control religious behavior to a greater or lesser extent, and often for very practical reasons. Some found that toleration leading to relative religious pluralism was both financially profitable and politically necessary. More often, local rulers sought to advance state power into matters of human behaviorlike marriageearlier controlled by church courts. Some magistrates had begun to insist on the right to such control as early as the later fourteenth century, but the action is probably best seen as consistent with government growth by extension of competence and by restriction of previous held immunities from secular law. Such extension characterized monarchical and magisterial governments in the early modern period. For some historians, this growth added up to "social disciplining" that was widespread and effective. While there certainly are some examples where the combination of church and state authority resulted in genuine behavioral changeas in the low rate of illegitimate births in Geneva between 1560 and 1580whether or not the highly developed plans for social control were efficacious on any broad scale is yet to be determined. Instead, it might be better to view growing secular governments and their increasing control over church institutions as part of an established pattern going back to German kings who dominated the papacy in the tenth century. The increasingly successful attempts to exercise secular control over ecclesiastical institutions in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries targeted more than just the Roman Catholic denomination, of course, but the goal was strikingly similar to that of heads of state in earlier actions.


The religious changes usually categorized under the term Reformation also had a profound but local effect on the relationship between church and state in the early modern period. Efforts to improve religious life and devotion across European society, plus the rejection of papal leadership as decisive in creating any such improvement, constituted the beginningbut only the beginningof the dissolution of the idea that a Christian state had to be a religious and political unity. Writers from the age of Constantine (ruled 306337 c.e.) all the way through Martin Luther and the age of Reformation took for granted that essential unity. During this early modern era, however, relative religious pluralismmost often in the form of varying Christian denominationsbecame a fact of life. That pluralism emerged due to increasing examples of the expression of religious dissent, with Luther's Ninety-five Theses (1517) serving as the crucial instance of the amplification of such dissent. But dissent of this nature, delivered as it was in a context of presumed religious and political unity, was initially unacceptable to both authoritative institutions, church and state. Surely the critique of priestly authority implied in much Reformation religious dissent served to enhance secular authorities who could claim moral superiority, at least to the Roman Church, but free expression of religious dissent required a consent from secular authorities that was not always forthcoming. Reformation-era religious dissidents were as likely to be charged with "insurrection" by secular governments as they were to be charged with "heresy" by religious tribunals.

The result was a decidedly limited sort of religious liberty and toleration, a toleration both created and restricted by the same ecclesiastical and secular leaders and institutions. The Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555), for example, delivered some religious liberty in German states, but only to rulers. It gave Lutheran princes all the jurisdiction in their own territories that had once been exercised by bishops. The subjects in these lands remained religious subjects: their religion was to be determined by their prince. Very few European governments allowed all Christian denominations without restrictions, and some that did were in unlikely places: Poland, for instance, after the Warsaw Confederation of 1573. Where papal authoritative structures were repudiated, freedom was not the result. Instead, structures designed to establish religious control were recreated in basically one of three ways: through consistories (local church councils) appointed by the secular government, through democratic bodies replacing church courts, or through royal institutions assuming traditional powers. Early on, Luther himself recognized the need of religious reformers for the assistance of secular governments, and not just for his own personal protection. In accusing Thomas Müntzer (c. 14911525) of heresy in 1525, Luther connected theological irregularities and civic disobedience. He increasingly called on secular authorities to intervene in ecclesiastical matters, and, of course, he recommended the slaying of German peasants who cited his ideas in order to secure relief from feudal restrictions. John Calvin, it must be remembered, presided over the repression of anti-Trinitarian thought utilizing various punishmentsincluding capital punishmentcarried out by civic authority. Overall, those who were initially vigorous in defending the right to express religious dissent and who expressed such dissent themselves were just as likely to recommend and carry out the persecution of it as were those who initially rejected out of hand any such "right."


During the eighteenth century, the intellectual, political, and cultural changes associated with the Enlightenment contributed to the continuing dissolution of the notion of a unified church and state, and had a long-term effect on the relationship between the two. As the leaders of an intellectual movement that encouraged the application of the scientific method to all aspects of human life and behavior, the philosophes who publicized and promoted Enlightenment thought conceived of the entire universe, including political institutions, as regulated by laws comprehensible through reason. They acknowledged a supreme being whose action in establishing these laws could be observed by finding order in nature. The philosophes, and in particular individuals like Voltaire (16941778), also aimed their criticism at what they considered unreasonable human behavior. Near the top of their list of targets were ecclesiastical institutions, and religious ways of thinking, that in their view promoted bigotry, intolerance, and violenceall unreasonable responses to the behavior of others. In Europe, Enlightenment thinkersat least by implicationcriticized all religious sects as prone, through their dogma, to intolerance and violence. In practice, European Christian denominations came under heaviest attack, and in particular, the Roman Catholic Church. Clerical misbehavior was identified and lampooned. Enlightenment authors also satirized dogma for creating meaningless distinctions that distracted the faithful. Such authors believed basic ethical standards to be the only worthwhile portion of religious thoughtprecisely because that portion was not especially religiousand insisted that it was common to all sects in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Protestant sectarianism that had contributed to political and religious violence, like Calvinism during the French version of the so-called Wars of Religion (15621598), or sectarianism that threatened to lead to further violence, at least for the philosophes, came under similar attack. Enlightenment thinkers idealized religious toleration, and even separation between the institutions of church and state, but these were not even consistently applied ideas, let alone achievements in fact. Catholics, most frequently, were not included in Enlightenment definitions of religious and political toleration.


Some might suggest that it was the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the states of Europe that changed most at the end of eighteenth century. Such a position may be a serious oversimplification, and certainly does not take the institutions and events in the history of earlier eras into sufficient account. Throughout Western history, the relationship has been contentious, and characterized by claims for the supremacy of one or the other institution. Those claims have been largely unrealizable, as both institutions have relied, at least in part, on the buttress to their own authority provided by the political, moral, and religious influence of the other. In most instances throughout that history, secular political authorities have, in the main, been the dominant authorities. Locally, and in short-term instances, dominant authority has been in the hands of ecclesiastical institutions, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. In the early modern period, some halting steps toward genuine separation of church and state were taken by both lay and clerical leaders. But those steps often had more to do with attitudes toward the way political and ecclesiastical power ought to be held and exercised than with the actual holding and exercising. And these steps were not boldly creative, for they had precedents in medieval controversies like the eleventh-century investiture crisis and the fifteenth-century development of conciliarist thought. In the early modern period, both political and ecclesiastical institutions attempted to assert themselves, the one over the other. In the attempt, they utilized justifications for their authority that appealed ultimately to the existence of God, and to their own representation of the true will of God.

See also Augsburg, Religious Peace of (1555) ; Calvin, John ; Calvinism ; Divine Right Kingship ; Henry VIII (England) ; Luther, Martin ; Lutheranism ; Papacy and Papal States ; Reformation, Protestant ; Trent, Council of


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Church and State

Church and State


Separation. The separation of church and state in the United States was one of the most remarkable achievements of the new nation. The United States was unique among western nations in valuing this principle. In the late eighteenth century many people believed that without a close alliance between church and state a nation would be too unstable to survive. In Great Britain all members of Parliament and other public officials were required to be members of the established Anglican Church. In fact, in 1787 some non-Anglicans were just beginning a long effort to persuade Parliament to remove this requirement. At the same moment Americans were writing their Constitution and including in Article VI a prohibition on any such religious tests for American federal officeholders. Separating church and state was not an easy process for Americans, despite their willingness to entertain the possibility that their nation could thrive even without a state church. If the principle was important to many Americans, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, turning the ideal into reality required a complex political and social struggle. Like the evolution of other features of early national society, the separation of church and state was much more than simply enshrining an ideal in a constitution.

Virginia. The factors leading to the national separation of church and state appeared first in Virginia. In January 1786 the Virginia legislature passed an Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, written some seven years earlier by Thomas Jefferson. Almost a decade passed between Jeffersons writing the bill and the state adopting it, suggesting how difficult it could be to separate church and state. Jeffersons bill started from the premise that Almighty God hath created the mind free and objected to the tyranny of forcing people to observe a religion they did not choose for themselves. Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry, the act declared, asserting truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, without help from the state, which would only cheapen and corrupt it. It concluded that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities. In forbidding the state to control religious beliefs, Jefferson was clearly supporting the inalienable rights of humanity which he had written about in the Declaration of Independence.

Opposition. As extended to religion, however, those principles were not universally accepted at that time, even by people closely associated with the cause of American freedom. When it came time to debate Jeffersons bill in the Virginia legislature, it was opposed by Patrick Henry, whose Give me liberty or give me death speech in 1775 had inspired many Americans. Henry proposed a different answer to the question of the relations of church and state. Henrys bill would have made the Christian Religion the established religion of Virginia, and it would have provided tax support for all Christian churches. James Madison, who was promoting Jeffersons bill (Jefferson was the minister to France from 1785 to 1789), published a Memorial and Remonstrance in 1785, arguing against Henrys bill on grounds of natural rights and rationality. These arguments alone would probably not have carried the day against Henry, whom many considered to have a more moderate position, one that acknowledged that most Virginians were, after all, Christians, and respected religion and its social benefits.

The Baptists. Madison had some powerful, if unexpected, allies in the Baptists. The Baptists opposed Madisons and Jeffersons rationalist and deist principles, but they had their own reasons for supporting a clear separation of church and state. Before the Revolution the established Anglican Church, supported by taxes, had hindered the Baptists every step. The Baptists reacted with intense suspicion of any government involvement with religion. They held strongly to the view that religion was a personal matter between individuals and God. State involvement, even in a positive way, would corrupt that divine relationship, thus endangering the soul of the believer. Jeffersons bill echoed these beliefs, and with support from legislators from the western part of the state, responding to the wishes of their Baptist constituents, it was passed on 16 January 1786.


Although they were both prominent revivalists and supporters of evangelical religion, Baptist Isaac Backus and Congregationalist Lyman Beecher differed on the question of religious freedom. Backus was tireless in his efforts to limit strictly the states role in religion, as in this excerpt from a 1779 letter proposing a bill of rights for Massachusetts:

As God is the only worthy object of all religious worship, and nothing can be true religion but a voluntary obedience unto his revealed will, of which each rational soul has an equal right to judge for itself; every person has an unalienable right to act in all religious affairs according to the full persuasion of his own mind, where others are not injured thereby. And civil rulers are so far from having any right to empower any person or persons to judge for others in such affairs, and to enforce their judgments with the sword, that their power ought to be exerted to protect all persons and societies, within their jurisdiction, from being injured or interrupted in the free enjoyment of this right.

In contrast to Backuss argument for limiting state control of religion, Beecher strenuously defended state support for the Congregational Church. He greatly feared that disestablishment would soon lead to religious and moral decline, arguing in this 1804 sermon that government and religion had to work together :

Our religion is unquestionably our greatest security, and the preservation of divine institutions, an object of the first magnitude. Let the Sabbath be annihilated and the sanctuary abandoned; let irreligion and vice be extended through the mass of our nation, and our liberties cannot be preserved. We may form free constitutions, but our vices will destroy them; we may enact laws, but they will not protect us.

Yet after his state had disestablished the Congregational Church in 1818, Beecher came to think differently, and later said it was the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut. It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God. They say ministers have lost their influence; the fact is, they have gained.

Sources: Lyman Beecher, The Practicability of Suppressing Vice (New London, Conn.: Printed by Samuel Green, 1804), p. 19;

Barbara M. Cross, ed., The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961), pp. 252-253;

Isaac Backus to Noah Alden, August 1779, reprinted in William G. McLoughlin, ed., Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism: Pamphlets, 17541789 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 487-488.

Bill of Rights. When Madison came to draft the federal Bill of Rights in 1789, he remembered the lessons of the earlier struggle over religious freedom in Virginia. The First Amendment took up the question of religion, suggesting that religious freedom was a fundamental human right. Madison also considered it a political necessity, remembering how Baptist votes helped elect him to the first Congress. The First Amendment includes two clauses about religion: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The first clause clearly prohibits the United States from setting up a state church as in Britain. The second clause reflects the importance Americans placed on freedom of conscience. In understanding the amendment, however, it is important to keep in mind that most Americans at that time valued freedom of conscience within a Christian context. That is, many wanted religious freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment more because of their historical experiences with taxation to support one Protestant church at the expense of all others than because of an abstract belief that all religions are equal. One historian has called the passage of the First Amendment mainly a symbolic act since the exact meaning of the clauses remains debatable, despite their importance over the last two centuries. One way to think of it is as an expression of an ideal, which early Americans thought was important but which they realized only imperfectly in practice. Despite the

principle, government involvement with religion did not cease absolutely with the First Amendments ratification in 1791. For instance, a few days after passing the First Amendment, Congress called a day of thanksgiving for the many signal favors of Almighty God.


The two phrases of the First Amendments guarantee of religious freedom took shape in the course of the congressional debates about the Bill of Rights in August 1789. In discussing the scope of American religious freedom, Rep. Daniel Carroll of Maryland (a Catholic, and the brother of John Carroll, later the first American Catholic bishop), argued in favor of a broad protection against government interference in religion, saying, the rights of conscience are, in their nature, of peculiar delicacy, and will little bear the gentlest touch of governmental hand. He also thought these guarantees were politically important and would tend more towards conciliating the minds of the people to the government than almost any other amendment. Others worried the protections offered were too broad; Peter Sylvester of New York feared it might be thought to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether. Connecticuts Benjamin Huntington worried that the words might be taken in such a latitude as to be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion, noting that his state, for one, still paid ministers with tax money. Several representatives thought the amendment unnecessary; Roger Sherman of Connecticut pointed out that Congress had no authority whatever delegated to them by the constitution to make religious establishments. James Madison was not so certain. The constitution did give power to Congress to make all laws necessary and proper to carry into execution the constitution, and the laws made under it [and this arguably] enabled them to make laws of such a nature as might infringe the rights of conscience, and establish a national religion. Accordingly, Madison argued for the amendment, which he said meant that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.

Source: Thomas Hart Benton, ed., Abridgment of the Debates of Congress, volume 1 (New York: Appleton, 1857), pp. 137-138.

State Governments. The Bill of Rights established the idea of the separation of churches from the federal government, but the same was not true of the state governments. State legislatures regulated religion far more actively than Congress. Although Virginia had passed a broad guarantee of religious freedom, and many other states had included similar statements in their constitutions or bills of rights, most state governments remained involved in religion. Many states continued to restrict public offices to Protestants, or to Christians. In Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts the Congregational churches remained the official, established churches, supported by taxes collected from all citizens, Congregationalists and non-Congregationalists alike. There was constant agitation to change this system. Baptist minister Isaac Backus, for example, was a tireless advocate for reform. Backus spoke for many Baptists who considered any state involvement with religion as an opportunity for corruption to sneak in and undermine true godliness. More practically, Backus and the Baptists resented the need to petition for exemption from religious taxes. Officials often denied these petitions, distrusting religious scruples as attempts to avoid taxes. The Congregationalists, of course, strenuously resisted disestablishment. One of their leaders was Lyman Beecher, minister in Litchfield, Connecticut, and one of the best-known preachers of the day. Beecher considered state support for the true religion of Congregationalism as crucial, and he saw attacks on the established churches to be as bad as atheism, whether they came from deists or Baptists.

End of Established Churches. Beecher fought hard, but he lost in 1818 when Connecticut ended establishment policies (New Hampshire followed in 1819, and Massachusetts held out until 1833). Beecher was able to turn defeat to victory, however. He embraced the principle of voluntarism, that religion was strongest when people accepted God from purely spiritual reasons, with no hint of state coercion. This idea gave new fire to American Protestantism, and meant that it was still possible to see America as a godly nation, even without state support of churches. Beechers view was justified in 1835 by the great French commentator Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote that he found no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America, where there was a close union between the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.


Stephen Botein, Religious Dimensions of the Early American State, in Beyond Confederation, edited by Richard Beeman and others (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987);

Thomas J. Curry, The First Freedoms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986);

Stuart C. Henry, Unvanquished Puritan (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerd-mans, 1973);

William G. McLoughlin, New England Dissent, 16301833: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971);

William Lee Miller, The First Liberty (New York: Knopf, 1986).

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Church and State

Church and State






Relations between the sacred and the secular have long been important issues in Western democracies. In particular, legal questions surrounding the relationship between church and state in the United States have frequently animated American politics since World War II (1939 1945). The 1940 Supreme Court decision in Cantwell v. Connecticut had the effect of incorporating the religion clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and applied these provisions to the acts of state governments. The incorporation of the First Amendment clauses dealing with religion has resulted in a large outpouring of case law during the final third of the twentieth century, as well as the first decade of the twenty-first.


The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins with the phrase, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. This phrase, usually termed the establishment clause, has, in recent decades, defined the limits under which government (and, by extension, popular majorities) can provide symbolic support for religious values or material support for religious organizations.

There are two general theories by which the establishment clause can be interpreted. According to advocates of accommodationism, the establishment clause simply prohibits government from designating an official church, or providing preferential treatment to one church or religious tradition. Neutral, nonpreferential assistance to religion is considered permissible by accommodationists. By contrast, adherents of separationism believe that any assistance for religion by government is unconstitutional and that there must exist a high wall of separation between church and state.

The operative legal precedent with respect to establishment-clause jurisprudence is the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman. In Lemon, the court held that government assistance to religion was not constitutional unless such assistance: (1) had a primarily secular purpose; (2) had a primarily secular effect; and (3) did not result in excessive entanglement between church and state. The Lemon test is considered to represent a generally separationist precedent, since it limits general assistance to religion, as well as assistance to particular religions.

In general, the Supreme Court has employed the Lemon test in cases posing establishment clause issues, but the Court has begun to relax its application of the criteria under which government assistance to religion can be rejected as unconstitutional. To illustrate, in Agostini v. Felton (1997), the Court ruled that state governments could provide (and fund) remedial instructors in parochial schools. Similarly, by a five-to-four margin, the Court held in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that a program of government-financed tuition vouchers for students at private schools did not violate the effects prong of Lemon, despite the fact that a large majority of private schools in Ohio were religiously affiliated. Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court is gradually moving in a more accommodationist direction from a generally separationist precedent.

Of course, many governmental accommodations to religion are politically popular, and are therefore frequently enacted by elected officials. Most conspicuously, the policy of government-supported faith-based initiatives was proposed by President Bill Clinton and enacted with the support of President George W. Bush. The constitutionality of such initiatives had not been subjected to court tests as of 2006, and recipients of such grants had to conform to certain standards to ensure that government funds were only used for secular purposes. This trend is clearly moving in the direction of a looser interpretation of the establishment clause, although the actual amount of government assistance to religious bodies is uncertain.


The second First Amendment clause that deals with religionor prohibiting the free exercise thereofis generally termed the free exercise clause. The free exercise clause has usually defined the limits of governmental power to control religiously motivated activities.

There are two general theories of the free exercise clause. Libertarianism entails a belief that religious obligations often supersede the requirements of citizenship and that government should be very deferential to religious beliefs. Proponents of communalism believe that religion is accorded no special protection under the free exercise clause and that the clause simply prohibits government from singling out religious practices for specific regulation. However, communalists believe that generally neutral laws that happen to restrict religious liberty pose no constitutional difficulty.

In the 1990s the Supreme Courts free exercise jurisprudence took a drastic shift in the direction of communalism. Prior to 1990, the Courts reading of the free exercise clause could generally be characterized as libertarian. Based on precedents such as Sherbert v. Verner (1963) and Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the Court held that government could only interfere with religious free exercise if the restriction on religious freedom served an essential government purpose, and if the means of achieving that purpose were the least restrictive available. The Sherbert-Yoder test was thus quite deferential to the free exercise claims of religious minorities.

In 1990 the Court held in Employment Division v. Smith that otherwise valid laws that had the effect of restricting religious freedom were constitutionally permissible, unless religious practice was singled out for specific regulation, or unless the legislature had made an explicit exception. In City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), the Supreme Court reaffirmed this ruling and struck down a congressional statute intended to restore the Sherbert-Yoder standard. Thus, the Smith ruling signaled an important change in the manner in which the Court interprets the free exercise clause.

Some critics have charged that the Smith ruling was intended to make it easier for government to regulate religions that lie outside of the theological or cultural mainstream. Indeed, one effect of Smith has been to permit government at all levels to be less deferential to unconventional religious traditions. However, the Courts reaffirmation of the Smith ruling in Boerne (which limited the free exercise prerogatives of the Roman Catholic Church in a predominantly Catholic area) suggests that the Court is willing to limit the scope of the free exercise clause in a relatively uniform manner. Of course, elected officials are more likely to regulate the activities of unpopular religious groups, and Americans have been shown to be less tolerant of practitioners of faith traditions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition.


In general, courts in the United States have tended to treat establishment clause issues separately from issues involving the free exercise clause. However, many actual controversies have seemed to involve both considerations, and supporters of different policies have typically invoked both clauses in support of their positions. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has, in a long string of decisions, restricted state-sponsored religious expression in public schools on establishment clause grounds. These decisions have proscribed organized classroom prayer, a moment of silence for prayer or meditation, ceremonial prayers at high school sporting events or graduations, and restrictions on the teaching of evolution in biology classes. In such cases, opponents of these decisions have criticized these court rulings on free exercise grounds.

Parties to these decisions, as well as members of Congress and state legislators, have argued that the right of religious free exercise entails the right to express ones religious beliefs publicly, and government policies that limit such expression violate the free exercise clause. Such arguments typically emphasize the voluntary nature of school prayer or an even-handed approach to the creation-evolution controversy, and suggest that the courts are restricting constitutionally protected religious expression with an overly broad interpretation of the establishment clause.

Arguably, it matters a great deal whether a particular controversy is characterized as an issue of religious establishment or a question of religious free exercise. While many legal scholars have attempted to provide a general solution to the tension between the Constitutions two religion clauses, such arguments typically involve the assertion that one of the religion clauses has priority over the other. However, neither the text of the Constitution nor recent Supreme Court rulings provide meaningful guidance as to how apparent conflicts between the establishment and free exercise clauses should be resolved.


Although the tension between the religion clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a frequent source of confusion (as well as litigation), comparison with other Western democracies suggests that the combination of establishment and free exercise concerns may be fortuitous for the practice of American politics. Religion is a visible but hardly dominant force in political discourse in the United States, which provides multiple sources of transcendent values for political life.

By contrast, several other democracies provide government support for religious bodies (such as subsidies for schools or clergy salaries), which would be considered a violation of the establishment clause in the United States. Indeed, several European nations have legally established churches. Some analysts have suggested that this sort of governmental support results in a decline in religious membership and practice, since government support reduces the need for churches to attract support from members or potential members.

In other nations, such as France and Turkey, a policy of laicite constitutes attempts by the government to reduce or eliminate the presence of religion in the public life of the nation. In such settings, some religious adherents (especially those who identify with minority faith traditions) appear to experience divided loyalties between the demands of citizenship and discipleship. Religious behaviors (including such matters as clothing or the display of religious symbols) are frequent sources of social and political conflict in such nations.

SEE ALSO Church, The; Religion; State, The; Theocracy; Tolerance, Political


Black, Amy E., Douglas L. Koopman, and David Ryden. 2004. Of Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bushs Faith-Based Initiatives. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Davis, Derek H. 1996. Resolving Not to Resolve the Tension Between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. Journal of Church and State 38: 245-259.

Jelen, Ted G. 2000. To Serve God and Mammon: Church-State Relations in American Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Jelen, Ted G., and Clyde Wilcox. 1994. Public Attitudes Toward Church and State. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

Levy, Leonard. 1994. The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Monsma, Stephen V. 1993. Positive Neutrality: Letting Religious Freedom Ring. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Monsma, Stephen V., and J. Christopher Soper. 1997. The Challenge of Pluralism: Church and State in Five Democracies. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Stark, Rodney, and Roger Finke. 2000. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wald, Kenneth D. 2003. Religion and Politics in the United States. 4th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ted G. Jelen

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church and state

church and state, the relationship between the religion or religions of a nation and the civil government of that nation, especially the relationship between the Christian church and various civil governments. There have been several phases in the relationship between the Christian church and the state. The uncompromising refusal of the early Christians to accord divine honors to the Roman emperor was the chief cause of the imperial persecutions of the church. After Constantine I gave it official status, the church at first remained fairly autonomous, but during the 4th cent. the emperor began to figure increasingly in religious affairs.

In the Byzantine Empire

In the East in the 6th cent., Justinian was ruler of church and state equally, and thereafter the Orthodox Eastern Church in the Byzantine Empire was in confirmed subservience to the state. This domination of state over church is called Erastianism, after the theologian Erastus. When the empire began to disintegrate, the power of the state over the church declined; and under the Ottoman sultans the situation was reversed to the extent that the patriarchs of Constantinople were given political power over the laity of their churches.

In Russia and the USSR

In Russia the Orthodox Church was quite dominated by the state. In the former Soviet Union, especially in its early period, the Communist party fostered much antireligious propaganda, and a large percentage of the churches were closed. The Constitution of 1936, however, guaranteed freedom of religious worship, and the Russian Orthodox Church was subsequently revived. In 1944 two state-controlled councils were established to supervise religion; one regulated the affairs of the Russian Church, the other those of the other Christian denominations and of the Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist groups. Similar systems of state control also existed in many other Communist countries.

In the West

Early Years to the Reformation

In the West different factors affected church and state relations than in the East. After AD 400 there was no central power in the West, but there was a central ecclesiastical power, the see of Rome, which had claimed primacy from the earliest times. The barbarian invasions and the ensuing anarchy resulted in a tremendous growth in the power of the papacy.

With the appearance of strong political powers in Europe, particularly the Holy Roman Empire and the kingdom of France, a struggle began between the papacy and the temporal rulers. The principal contention was over investiture, but underlying it was violent disagreement as to the proper distribution of power; theories ranged from the belief that emperor or king, as ruler by divine right, should control church as well as state (a theory known also as caesaropapism) to the belief that the pope, as vicar of God on earth, should have the right of supervision over the state. The centuries-long struggle was highlighted by such bitter clashes as those between Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, between Pope Innocent III and Emperor Frederick II and King Philip II of France, and between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France. The conflict of Guelphs and Ghibellines began as part of the imperial-papal struggle.

The nearest the papacy ever came to Erastianism was in the period during which the popes resided at Avignon, where they were virtually at the beck and call of the French kings. After the return of the papacy to Rome the popes generally maintained independence of temporal powers but on occasion were either influenced or coerced by king or emperor.

The contest in England was perhaps no less bitter than on the Continent, but it was more sporadic. Lanfranc and Anselm contended against King William II, St. Thomas à Becket against Henry II.

The Reformation introduced a great number of complicated factors into the relations of church and state. Different solutions have been found, ranging from the establishment of one particular church (as in England and the Scandinavian countries) to the total separation of church and state (as in the United States). The patterns of relation between church and state remain a living issue in today's society.

In the British Isles

The most extreme form of Erastianism is seen in the Church of England (see England, Church of), of which the monarch is supreme head. This situation derives from the strongly political character of the Protestant Reformation in England. It is notable that in the early history of religious dissent, the Puritans (see Puritanism) did not wish to end the Established Church; their aim was rather to capture and control it. The church was not disestablished after the English civil war; Anglicanism, or Episcopalianism, was merely replaced by a Presbyterian establishment (although the latter was a dead letter from the beginning).

After the Restoration (1660) of the monarchy, measures were taken against the Puritans that for the first time actually excluded them from the Church of England as nonconformists. They and the Roman Catholics were the victims of religious and civil disabilities (gradually reduced) into the 19th cent. Although the state has taken less and less interest in supervising the Church of England, the connection is still very real; e.g., revisions of the Book of Common Prayer must be approved by Parliament, and appointments to all bishoprics are made by the monarch, acting on the advice of the prime minister.

John Calvin tended to a view directly opposed to that of the reforming English monarchs; in Geneva he set up a virtual theocracy with the state subordinate to the church. The Presbyterian churches (which are of Calvinist origin) have, therefore, maintained a stand for freedom of the church, and the Church of Scotland (see Scotland, Church of), which is Presbyterian, is much less under state control than is the Church of England.

In the United States

The Presbyterians in the British North American colonies participated in the struggle against the institution of an established church, particularly in Virginia, but more important was the broad principle of religious toleration forwarded by Roger Williams and others. This principle, befitting the growing heterogeneity of the colonies, ultimately triumphed against both the virtual theocracy of the New England Puritans and the conservative established church of the Southern colonists. The American idea of separation of church and state—complete noninterference on both sides—expressed notably in Jefferson's Virginia statute for religious freedom and in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, emerged. In the United States today there is relatively little friction between church and state. The practical line of demarcation, however, continues to create problems, and theocratic tendencies periodically give rise to powerful lobbying efforts. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 (in City of Boerne v. Flores) struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, holding that in requiring a "compelling interest" for a state to in any way burden religious practice, it gave religion more protection than the Constitution required; what was notable was that the act had passed the House of Representatives unanimously. Education has been a fertile field of controversy; debates have arisen over such questions as religious education in tax-supported schools and public aid to parochial schools. By the end of 1999 federal courts were grappling with the effects of the politically fashionable school vouchers, and one had held that when a voucher system resulted in almost all recipients attending religious schools instead of public schools the system violated the Constitution.

On the Continent

In Europe, the concept of separation of church and state is different from that in the United States, particularly in predominantly Roman Catholic countries. The wars of the Reformation produced, in the Peace of Augsburg (1555), a formula of cuius regio, eius religio [whose the region, his the religion], by which the ruling prince determined the religion of his territory. The compromise, curiously contrary to the idea of a universal Christian church, even more curiously corresponded to the principle practiced in Asia (e.g., the Buddhism of Asoka). It more or less prevailed in Europe after the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Religion thus in a certain sense became a national affair, particularly in Protestant countries.

The internationalism of the Roman Catholic Church, however, prevented nationalization in Catholic countries, despite such movements as Gallicanism in France. The church, when recognized as the state church, exercised considerable influence on the government of the state. More important, perhaps, was the fact that the church and its religious orders owned much property and exerted considerable economic influence. The concordat was used as a means of regulating the relation of church and state and delimiting the spheres of respective influence. Of the modern concordats perhaps the most famous was Napoleon I's Concordat of 1801.

The opponents of clerical influence in the state, the anticlericals, in the 19th cent. agitated for the removal of clerical influence. To them the separation of church and state meant the ending of the establishment of the church and complete noninterference of the church in affairs of state but not noninterference of the state in such matters as church property and religious education. The clerical parties, on the other hand, fought to maintain establishment and property and (to some extent) the enforcement of ecclesiastical law by the civil arm.

One of the most bitter of these contests took place in France, where ultimately the anticlericals triumphed, notably in the Lois des associations (1905), which in effect placed the church under subjection to the state. In Germany the relations of church and state reached a crucial point in the Kulturkampf of Otto von Bismarck. Adolf Hitler, although he signed a concordat, undertook to reduce both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches to instruments of the National Socialist government. In Italy the Lateran Treaty, agreed to by Pius XI in 1929, ended the so-called Roman Question and secured recognition of the pope as a sovereign apart from the Italian government.

In Latin America

In the Roman Catholic countries of Latin America the contests between church and state were often bitter, particularly in Mexico, where the church wielded an enormous influence. This struggle led under Plutarco E. Calles to the practical abolition of the church in Mexico and the harrying of priests in the 1920s. Adjustments since that time have tended to an approximation of the complete noninterference rule prevalent in the United States.


See A. H. Dalton, Church and State in France 1300–1907 (1907, repr. 1972); E. C. Helmreich, A Free Church in a Free State? The Catholic Church: Italy, Germany, France 1864–1914 (1964); T. G. Sanders, Protestant Concepts of Church and State (1964); A. P. Stokes and L. Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States (rev. ed. 1964); J. F. Wilson, ed., Church and State in American History (1965); J. L. Mecham, Church and State in Latin America (rev. ed. 1966); L. Pfeffer, Church, State, and Freedom (rev. ed. 1967); H. H. Stroup, Church and State in Confrontation (1967); B. D. Hill, ed., Church and State in the Middle Ages (1970); W. Ullmann, The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages (3d. ed. 1970); W. M. Ramsay, The Wall of Separation: A Primer on Church and State (1989); S. Waldman, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (2008).

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Church and State

Church and State


Established Churches. For hundreds of years the official church of western and central Europe was the Roman Catholic Church. After the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s divided Christians into different churches, the nations of Europe had to choose. Countries like France and Spain kept the Roman Catholic Church as the official, or established, church of the nation. Other nations became officially Protestant: Scandinavian countries became Lutheran; the Netherlands became Reformed; and England created the Anglican Church, which combined elements of both Catholicism and Protestantism.

Non-English Colonies. The church therefore was actively involved in European expansion in North America. French and Spanish settlements included Catholic churches and various religious orders, and the Reformed Church enjoyed state sanction in Dutch New Netherland. The later American idea of separation of church and state was nowhere to be seen in any of these European colonies. Instead, the church actively participated in governmental affairs.

Confusing Example. But maintaining one official church became difficult. England itself had different established churches at different times. In the 1500s England went back and forth between Catholic and Anglican before becoming permanently Anglican in 1660. This vacillation helps explain why some English colonies became Anglican while others became Congregationalist.

English Colonies. The English settlers also expected to create an established church, and nearly all of the early colonies set up an official church, but it was not always the Church of England. The Anglicans constituted the official church in all the royal colonies, which by the end of the colonial period included all the colonies south of Maryland. The New England colonies, heavily influenced by the zealous Protestants called Puritans, usually made the Congregational Church the official one, as happened in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire.

Pluralism. But the mixture of peoples and ethnic groups in America made established churches even more difficult to keep. New York had two established churches after the English conquest in 1664, the Dutch Reformed Church (left over from the days of New Netherland) and the Anglican Church. And other colonies had different ideas about official churches. Many of Rhode Islands settlers disliked Massachusetts and its tough attitude toward religious dissenters, so Rhode Island had no official church. Pennsylvania was created in part as a refuge for Quakers, who had been persecuted by both Anglicans and Puritans back in England, so Pennsylvania did not establish an official church either. The American traditions of the separation of church and state and the respect for a mixture of religious sentiments was pioneered in colonies such as Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Some officially Anglican colonies such as Georgia and North Carolina had few enough Anglicans that religious pluralism and toleration became the dominant practice, whatever the law might say.

Virginia. Even in colonies where there was little initial opposition to the official church, problems could arise in time. Virginias established church faced little opposition until the mid 1700s. But beginning in the 1750s, after the revivals of the Great Awakening, other religious groups grew rapidly, especially the Baptists, even though the ministers of these other groups were not officially recognized by the colony, could not perform marriages, and could be jailed for preaching without a license. After the American Revolution, Virginia became one of the first states to disestablish its church. Massachusetts did not disestablish its church until 1833, making it one of the last of the original thirteen colonies to do so.


Thomas Buckley, Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776-1787 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977);

Thomas Curry, The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

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