In popular discourse, the American Framers had one of two, mutually-exclusive positions on church-state relations: Either the Framers were Deists who believed that church and state must be completely separate, or the Framers were proto-Evangelicals who thought of America as a Christian nation. In fact, the record is murkier. From the beginning, the two views of church-state relations have existed together in a productive tension, with neither side completely dominating the other. Many of our bitter fights today, in fact, arise because each side is trying to eliminate the other, rather than adjusting and figuring out a way to get along. At least that’s how it seems to me.
A new anthropological study from the University of Chicago Press, Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State, discusses the tensions surrounding church and state in the New World, addressing not only the United States but Latin America and Canada as well. The authors are Paul Christopher Johnson, Pamela E. Klassen, and Winnifred Sullivan. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State offers a New World rejoinder to the largely Europe-centered academic discourse on church and state. In contrast to what is often assumed, in the Americas the relationship between church and state has not been one of freedom or separation but one of unstable and adaptable collusion. Ekklesia sees in the settler states of North and South America alternative patterns of conjoined religious and political power, patterns resulting from the undertow of other gods, other peoples, and other claims to sovereignty. These local challenges have led to a continuously contested attempt to realize a church-minded state, a state-minded church, and the systems that develop in their concert. The shifting borders of their separation and the episodic conjoining of church and state took new forms in both theory and practice.
The first of a closely linked trio of essays is by Paul Johnson, and offers a new interpretation of the Brazilian community gathered at Canudos and its massacre in 1896–97, carried out as a joint church-state mission and spectacle. In the second essay, Pamela Klassen argues that the colonial church-state relationship of Canada came into being through local and national practices that emerged as Indigenous nations responded to and resisted becoming “possessions” of colonial British America. Finally, Winnifred Sullivan’s essay begins with reflection on the increased effort within the United States to ban Bibles and scriptural references from death penalty courtrooms and jury rooms; she follows with a consideration of the political theological pressure thereby placed on the jury that decides between life and death. Through these three inquiries, Ekklesia takes up the familiar topos of “church and state” in order to render it strange.