July 3, 2008


Church-State Relations in America and Europe: Robert Kraynak on America's Civil Religion (ZENIT, 25 MARCH 2005)

Alexis de Tocqueville admired the way Americans were able to combine the spirit of religion with the spirit of liberty in the 1830s.

Robert Kraynak, professor of political science at Colgate University and author of "Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World" (Notre Dame), explains in the first part of this three-part interview how civil religion prevented a totally secular democracy from arising in America for nearly 200 years, and how it might be a good model for other nations.

This is the first of a three-part interview.

Q: Recently, Cardinal Ratzinger described the American model of church-state relations as more hospitable to religious truth and institutions than European models. What features of the American model might be more hospitable to religion?

Kraynak: The American model of church-state relations was best described by Alexis de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America" more than 150 years ago. He expressed his admiration, much like Cardinal Ratzinger today, for the way Americans were able to combine the spirit of religion with the spirit of liberty.

The crucial point for Tocqueville was the distinction between laws and customs. By law, Americans separated church and state; but in their customs or mores, Americans insisted on a prominent role for religion in public and private life. This meant Americans rejected the model of Great Britain, which established a national Church of England, and the practice of regional princes in Germany, who gave legal support to their own denominations.

By rejecting state establishment, Americans never experienced the problems of clerical power and were able to develop a robust pluralism where the various Christian churches pursued religious orthodoxy as voluntary associations on roughly equal terms, although reformed Protestant churches had a historical advantage.

While favoring voluntary worship, Americans also believed that religion had a public role in promoting republican virtue. Hence, they developed a nondenominational civil religion that was expressed in the Declaration of Independence's doctrine of God-given natural rights — the belief that liberty derived from "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" and that inalienable rights were endowments of the Creator.

This republican religion was later expressed in Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which said that "this nation under God" will enjoy a new birth of freedom — a sentiment also echoed in the Pledge of Allegiance and in countless public statements connecting the blessings of American freedom with God's providence and judgment.

For nearly 200 years, this civil religion prevented a totally secular democracy from arising in America, while allowing and even protecting a deeper piety based on the revealed truths of Christian faith in the many Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches of America.

American piety is thus a special blend of three elements: the disestablishment of religion, a republican civil religion of God-given natural rights, and pluralism in the pursuit of Christian orthodoxy.

Q: A recent article in the New York Times described the strong collaborations between Christian and non-Christian politicians in Italy. Some European states even subsidize the Church. Why might Cardinal Ratzinger think the United States is a better model?

Kraynak: In comparing attitudes to religion, Cardinal Ratzinger reportedly said that "from many points of view the American model is better. ... Europe has remained bogged down in caesaro-papism." I think Cardinal Ratzinger meant that a lingering Christian establishment in Europe may be holding back a renewal of spiritual life that could be unleashed by voluntary religious participation and pluralism as in America.

Italy, for example, looks like it has state-sponsored Catholicism with the government's historic ties to the Christian Democratic Party, public schools that have crucifixes in classrooms, the Pope living next door and Christian art and churches publicly supported everywhere. But the people seem to lack religious zeal and have disregarded Catholic teaching in legalizing divorce, abortion and gay marriage, as well as in their alarmingly low birthrates.

The same is true of England and the Scandinavian countries: officially Anglican or Lutheran but practically indifferent or hostile to Christianity — and much more openly anti-Christian than Italy, which still has an affectionately pro-Catholic feel.

France is the extreme case in embracing a totally "laicized" state — enforcing a ban on all religious displays in public schools and all references to God by public officials. This is state-sponsored secularism that also suppresses religious vitality.

Cardinal Ratzinger looks at most European nations — he could have mentioned Canada as well — and he sees the worst possible combination of historical residues of Christian establishment and utter indifference to Christian faith; a post-Christian world that would not even allow a reference to the Christian heritage of Europe in the Constitution of the European Union.

By comparison, the American situation looks relatively healthy: higher rates of church attendance and professions of faith — although secular forces in the U.S. judiciary, universities and the media are trying to create a secular America just like Europe and Canada. And one cannot forget that the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations in America have been rocked by scandals and divisive battles that have damaged the faith.

Even if we grant the relative superiority of the American condition today — which I am prepared to do — the question Cardinal Ratzinger leaves unanswered is whether Europe could be saved by adopting some features of the American model, such as disestablishment and pluralism, without possessing other vital elements — namely, a civil religion of God-given natural rights and a belief in Christian orthodoxy.

I think that a nondenominational civil religion is feasible for Europeans to adopt as a basis for human rights. Even the French could come to see that their historic commitment to "the rights of man" is better grounded in the belief that humans are made in the image of God rather than in the skeptical reason of the French Enlightenment.

Professor Kraynak, whose book is marvelous, is more optimistic about the French than they warrant.
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[originally posted: 4/19/05]

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 3, 2008 11:01 PM

Don't Europeans already have a "civil religion"? (At least the educated classes?) And isn't it the problem? One of its prescriptions seems to be euthanizing the old and infirm.

Of a "civil religion of God-given natural rights and a belief in Christian orthodoxy" clearly it is the second that is significant.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 1, 2005 10:15 AM

But Kraynak wants establishment, right? He's for a constitutional monarchy under God. Is he going soft?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 1, 2005 10:28 AM

No. He doesn't want establishment.

Posted by: oj at April 1, 2005 10:40 AM

I have not read the Kraynak book, yet, and I seems strange that he would make such an error., but it seems that the word "caesaropapism" is being misused. Caesaropapism denotes domination of the Church by the state, as in ancient Byzantium, not the opposite. The error is very, very common, almost to the extent of having displaced the correct definition, but it is still an error. .

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 1, 2005 11:01 AM

That was a Ratzinger quote. And I'm pretty sure he was using it correctly.

Posted by: Timothy at April 1, 2005 12:55 PM

What, then, does prudence recommend as the best form of government in the temporal realm? The answer may come as a surprise to those living in the present age: The best regime on the grounds of Christian prudence is not liberal democracy but a mixed regime, with the best choice being 'constitutional monarchy under God.'

Gee, sounds a lot like an establishment to me.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 1, 2005 7:28 PM

Then you're ignorant of what Establishment means. We've a constitutional republic under God. Preserving the monarchy would have tended to perfect the system.

Posted by: oj at April 1, 2005 7:34 PM

Under Robert's defintion of 'establishment' American history is unconstitutional. The American brand of secularism is sinking into absurdity. When the acknowledment of God becomes an establishment of religion, i.e. an official church, irreligion, by default, becomes the national faith with the state and it's coercive power the official church. The fear of expressions of faith is slowly becoming ingrained among that segemnt of the population most easily manipulated by sophistry.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at April 2, 2005 10:59 AM

Orthodoxy is the enemy of civil society.

Or perhaps, more accurately, the granting of political authority to orthodoxy.

Or perhaps, even more accurately, the granting of unimpeded political authority to anyone.

This is the genius of the founding fathers.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at April 20, 2005 4:24 AM

Preserving the monarchy would have tended to perfect the system.

As if we are inundated by examples of perfect monarchies.

Robert is exactly on point.

We have a constitutional republic within which one's perception of God is irrelevant. Making one perception particularly relevant at the expense of others is Establishment in precisely the way Robert states.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 20, 2005 7:34 AM


The Republic is based on the proper understanding of God.

Posted by: oj at April 20, 2005 8:33 AM

No, it isn't.

There are nearly as many "understandings" of God as there are people, but we seem to get along as a Republic just fine despite that.

Why? Because our Republic doesn't elevate one particular conception of God above all others.

Which is precisely what Robert is talking about.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 20, 2005 2:23 PM

There's only one and it's enshrined in the Founding. That's why our system has endured while others failed.

Posted by: oj at April 20, 2005 2:28 PM
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