The concept of the separation between church and state is one of the most dearly held values among many citizens of the industrialized world. We sort of take it for granted that the failure to abide by the preferred religion of our leaders doesn't carry with it the death penalty, but this is a relatively young idea in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, there are many places in the world today that severely curtail the rights of people who don't practice the state religion and there are routine instances in the Middle East and Asia of people being executed for apostasy. The connection between church and state is extremely complex and is as old as time itself.

While most people with the ability to read this likely live in what could be considered a "secular" state, many countries in Europe still at least nominally have something close to a state church. Many state churches (e.g., the Church of England or the Greek Orthodox Church are by and large an effect of caesaropapism. Traditionally defined, caesaropapism is a situation in which a ruler (king, emperor, duke, etc.) exercises control over the religious affairs of a state by virtue of his secular office. In other words, religion is subordinate to secular authority. The term was created by the great sociologist Max Weber. Obviously, the word's two elements are "Caesar" -- i.e., the secular power -- and "papism" -- i.e., the religious power of a pope. Caesaropapism as a concept does not allow for the separation between church and state. It is, however, different from theocracy, which is a political order where the religious authority of a country is in control of all of the secular affairs of state (Iran comes to mind). While the two concepts are intertwined, it's hard to say which came first and whether one was a reaction to the other or if they were altogether separate phenomena or what.


While we know for sure that people practiced religion in prehistoric times, there were no such things as "states" back then, so the relationship between spirituality and tribal leadership is hard to establish. The culture of the Beaker people -- the name for an Indo-European group that dominated much of Western and Central Europe between 3000 and 1500 BC -- is known to us chiefly by their burial practices and contemporaneous artifacts found in rivers, lakes, and streams. Beaker graves typically don't have many artifacts in them, so it's reasonable to infer that the few graves overflowing with items are those of tribal leaders or otherwise significant persons. The Beaker people were advanced metal-workers, and it is theorized that their religion centered around the water because veritable treasure troves of their perfectly intact metal goods (goblets, arrowheads, jewelry, etc.) are often found dumped in bodies of water. The presumed tribal leaders have been found buried with metalurgical equipment, leading some to suppose that smithing was performed exclusively by chieftains or priests. Later Indo-European religious traditions emphasize the significance of metal-working, with deities such as the Greek Hephaestus, the Norse Völundr, the Latin Vulcan, the Celtic Gobannus, and the Hindu Vishvakarman all playing important roles in their respective pantheons. Many of these traditions draw comparisons between smithing and magic, suggesting a religious connotation to an activity that we consider pretty pastoral nowadays. It could be inferred that the Beaker folk held a religious reverence for their chiefs, perhaps making them prototypical caesaropapists. Of course, it could just be that they were just ordinary smiths, they could simply make more grave goods for themselves than anyone else, and there might not be any significance to it at all.


Better documented instances of early caesaropapism in the ancient world can be found in Egypt. The Pharaoh was naturally the king of Egypt, but he was also a living god. This sacred status was a side effect of being the Pharaoh, and the country's religious institutions were nominally under his control, and indeed were partially dedicated to his cult. This doesn't mean there wasn't tension between the secular authority of the king and the spiritual realm of the priests, however. The religious establishment of the country was dominated by the priests of Amun headquartered in the city of Thebes and they exercised great political power in their own right. Perhaps feeling that the priests were over-reaching, the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (fl. 14th century BC) suddenly had a revelation that there was only one god: the sun disc, called the Aten. Even more amazingly, Amenhotep "discovered" that the only person on the planet who could commune with the Aten was himself. Accordingly, he changed his name to Akhenaten and mandated the monotheistic worship of the Aten, which just coincidentally had the effects of removing any political clout the Amun priesthood had and of consolidating all power in the hands of the royal family. I suppose it is needless to say that this religious innovation was not particularly popular with the now disenfranchised priests.

As the head of the Egyptian state and of the Atenist religion, Akhenaten would have been well-positioned to completely transform the country. Unfortunately for him, he wasted obscene amounts of time and money building a utopia in the middle of nowhere dedicated to the glorification of the Aten and of himself. Textual evidence from his reign demonstrate that Egypt's holdings in the Levant were under constant attack by hostile foreign powers and internal rebellions, demonstrating his inability (or perhaps disinclination) to respond effectively to these threats. Akhenaten died in unknown circumstances and while his two immediate successors continued the Atenist trend, neither of them reigned for more than a couple of years. Akhenaten's son Tutankhaten was only nine years old when the throne passed to him, but one of the first things he did -- or was compelled to do -- was reinstate the power of the Amun priesthood and change his name to Tutankhamun.

Two and a half centuries later, during the time known as the Third Intermediate Period, the conflicts between church and state in Egypt reached a climax when the country was split into two states, Upper Egypt (the wealthy southern 2/3 of the country) and Lower Egypt (the fertile but less rich northern 1/3). This was presaged in wall reliefs in the years immediately before the split when the high priest of Amun began to be depicted as being the same height as the Pharaoh, a major cultural taboo. The high priests ruled Upper Egypt as a theocracy while a Pharaoh ruled a rump state in Lower Egypt as something of a personal fiefdom. At some point, the dynasty of ruling priests were able to install a family member as the Pharaoh of Lower Egypt, but this did not bring about a reconciliation or reunification between the two states. Egypt would be briefly reunified a few times over the next few centuries, but would eventually be consumed by other regional powers such as the Assyrians, the Persians, and the Greeks.


The classical meaning of caesaropapism, of course, is best understood by looking at the people who brought us the terms "Caesar" and "Papism." During the period of the Roman Empire (27 BC to 476 AD in the West, survived until 1453 AD in the East), many religious innovations occurred. This was a natural outgrowth of the large area controlled by the Romans, spanning from Morocco in the west to Armenia in the east, and from England in the north to Egypt in the south. Obviously, with so many different peoples and traditions being encompassed by the state, you would expect a lot of religious strife, right? In reality, the Romans did not have much interest in forcing their religious beliefs on their subject least not at first. Since almost all religions in the ancient world (or at least the parts controlled by the Romans) were polytheistic, there was nothing odd or out of place about someone from Gaul venerating Cerunnos, Jupiter, Apollo and Isis all at once. In fact, the Romans -- like the Greeks before them -- believed that all the gods of the various peoples they encountered were basically the same gods they worshipped under different names with perhaps slightly different attributes. The Germanic thunder god Thor, for example, was considered just a regional variant of Jupiter, which was another name for Zeus. The Egyptian god Osiris, through his association with fertility and resurrection, was just a somewhat more morbid Bacchus or Dionysus. Even the sole god of the Israelites, YHWH, was sometimes thought to be a really weird version of Saturn.

I mention all of this because it relates to the original state religion of the Roman Empire. While certain practices (such as the drunken Bacchanaliae or temple prostitution) were frowned upon or occasionally banned, there was no such thing as a monolithic religious dogma or orthodoxy one had to practice. When we speak of the Roman emperors, we are not talking about a particular position, but rather one person holding a ton of different offices derived from the Republican period. Roman emperors were the consuls, tribunes, military commanders, censors, and chief priests all rolled into one. As the heads of the Roman state, the emperors were also legally the heads of the traditional Roman religion. With so many competing beliefs, however, it was in practice impossible to force every citizen and subject of the empire to embrace one specific set of gods, hence the comparativist tendency to try to incorporate all gods into an existing pantheon. Even then, the practices were so divergent that there was no practical way to get everyone to follow this or that set of rituals for all the different gods. To that end, the only state-mandated religious practice came to be the pouring of libations or minor votive offerings to the imperial genius. The imperial genius was the deified guardian spirit of the emperor, and therefore by extension that of the empire itself. It was a quick and simple metric to determine whether or not someone was in-step with the "state religion" and required very little of those asked to perform it. The vast majority of the empire's residents thought nothing of it since sacrificing something to an abstract concept did not imperil their souls. Even the Jews, whose religion forbade such a thing, were generally granted an exemption and allowed to simply pay an annual tax instead. Since the official religious milieu of the Roman Empire was based on the Roman emperor and he was the head of all the state-sanctioned religious enterprises, it would make sense to describe the pagan Roman emperors as caesaropapists.

Generally speaking, this trend continued throughout the entirety of the empire's existence. While there were some minor variations (e.g., the third century child emperor Elagabalus was the chief priest of the Syrian deity Gabal and the soldier-emperor Aurelian introduced the worship of the god Sol Invictus), the primacy of the state over religious affairs continued in a fairly non-invasive manner. Tensions between pagans and Christians in the Roman world were getting worse, however, brought about chiefly because of Christianity's growth in urban areas and the increasing eclecticism within polytheism. Although Christianity was an off-shoot of Judaism, the Roman authorities did not consider it as such after the end of the second century. Previously, being legally considered a sect of Judaism allowed Christians to simply pay the Jewish tax in lieu of sacrifices, but since they actively sought converts away from the Imperial cult, this protection ceased to be afforded to them. Civil war consumed the Roman world at the beginning of the fourth century, and although religion was not the cause of it, it did play an important part in it. In 311, the emperor Galerius -- who had been one of the most virulent persecutors of Christians -- indicated that Christians would not be legally held to account for their faith so long as they prayed to their own God for the safety of the empire and the emperor. A joint declaration issued by the co-emperors Constantine I and Licinius in 313 normalized Christianity's legal status and allowed it to enjoy the same civil protections as the official state religion of Rome.

It's hard to say for sure, but probably 25% of the people in the Roman world were at least nominally Christians at this time. I say "nominally" because it's clear from the historical record that a lot of people didn't really understand the concept of "only one God," including Constantine who remained the pontifex maximus of the pagan Imperial cult until his death, despite himself being a Christian. Either way, early Christianity was not a monolithic bloc, and the bones of contention over the faith back then make modern arguments about how damp someone has to get to be considered baptized seem silly. In 325, Constantine extended invitations to nearly 2000 leaders of the church -- including those from outside the Roman Empire -- to come together at the Council of Nicaea to hammer out exactly what the doctrine of Christianity would be. Constantine seems not to have cared about the result, only that some form of consensus be reached. While only about 300 wound up attending the meetings, this was a seminal event in the development of the Christian religion and produced the Nicene Creed that forms the basis for almost all forms of Christianity in practice today. While Constantine evidently did not seek to influence the outcome of the council, he continued the tradition of his pagan predecessors by using his temporal power to shape the events of the spiritual world. When Christianity was made the only legal religion in 391 by Theodosius, Roman caesaropapism in the Christian context was firmly established.

Centralized Roman authority ceased to exist in Western Europe after 476. The main vestige of Romanitas in the following decades was the presence of what was becoming the Roman Catholic church. The hierarchical structure of the Roman church was to some extent modeled after the organization of the Roman empire itself, with areas of episcopal authority mirroring the diocese system set up by the emperor Diocletian in the late third century; the Catholic church still refers to jurisdictional areas by the term to this very day. While Frankish and Lombard chieftains were over-running the West militarily, the East -- known to us as the Byzantine Empire today -- was thriving. At this time, the Western church was regarded as something of an outside influence in the areas under the control of the Germanic kings. The bishops of this era were considered agents of the Byzantine emperor, who still maintained the title of pontifex maximus and personally appointed the popes from the 6th to the 8th centuries. Political and religious tensions of the early Middle Ages eventually forced a permanent split between the Western church and the Eastern monarchy, with Pope Leo III eventually crowning the Franco-Germanic king Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor in opposition to the Byzantine Empress Irene in the late 8th century. While Charlemagne was happy to have the support, Leo's unilateral creation of a new emperor in the West set a precedent that would inadvertantly set the stage for centuries of conflict between church and state.

Henry VIII

There are many examples of caesaropapism or caesaropapist tendencies throughout the medieval period. One of the most notable examples was what we now call the Investiture Controversy, which saw the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV personally appoint (or "invest," hence the name) bishops throughout his lands in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. This was in direct violation of established church law and the reigning pope, Gregory VII, responded by excommunicating Henry and declaring his throne vacant. This caused many of Henry's vassals to openly rebel against him; Henry's response was to install his own pope. Needless to say, years of war followed and both Henry and Gregory died before the issue was satisfactorily resolved. In the early 14th century, King Philip IV of France entered into a lifelong feud with Pope Boniface VIII over the taxation and seizure of church property that became increasingly more violent, concluding with a physical assault on the pope that would claim his life in 1303. Boniface's successor, Benedict XI, attempted to reconcile with Philip, but still carried out certain of his predecessor's policies that precluded any real hope for peace. When Benedict died less than a year later, Philip intervened in the election of the next pope, the Frenchman Clement V, and "invited" the papal court to move from Rome to the French city of Avignon. It remained there for nearly a century, serving as little more than an extension of French royal power. We call this period the Avignon Papacy today, but in the Catholic church it is known as the Babylonian Captivity, recalling the occupation of Judah by Babylon and the forced relocation of the Jews into Mesopotamia.

All of this cleared the way for the very interesting reign of the English King Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547). Henry was the second ruler of the Tudor dynasty, and he began his reign on fairly good terms with the papacy. His older brother, Arthur, had died at an early age and left a young Spanish widow, Catherine of Aragon. A papal dispensation on the grounds of non- consummation allowed Catherine to marry Henry shortly after his coronation at the age of 18; two years later, Henry brought England into an anti-French military alliance called the Holy League at the request of Pope Julius II. While Henry personally benefitted very little from England's inclusion in the Holy League, he established a good rapport with the church that would extend into the 1520s when he was declared a Defensor fidei, literally "Defender of the Faith," for his services in rooting out heresy and Lutheranism.

Unfortunately, Henry was not content with Catherine. They had only one surviving child, the Lady Mary, and Henry thought this lack of a male heir was some form of divine punishment for his having married his deceased brother's wife. The sincerity of this belief is questionable since he was also completely infatuated with Anne Boleyn, who evidently would not give in to Henry's sexual advances as long as they were unmarried. He sought a papal annulment of the marriage on the grounds of affinity and presented both scripture and Catherine's inability to provide him an heir as evidence. At any other point in history, there probably wouldn't have been any discussion about this and Henry could have his marriage annulled and we wouldn't even be talking about it today. Two things were working against Henry, however: first, the annulment would require an admission that Julius had erred in granting the original dispensation, which would damage the power of the papacy at a precarious time; second, Catherine's nephew Carlos was both the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, meaning he controlled almost all of Western, Central, and Southern Europe, including the areas immediately surrounding the Papal States in Italy. When the request was rejected, Henry had Thomas Cromwell intimidate the English Parliament into passing several laws that put the clergy located in England under the authority of the monarchy. Henry appointed a Boleyn family friend, Thomas Cranmer, to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury and he performed the ceremony to marry Henry and Anne in 1533, despite the fact that Henry was still married to Catherine. Cranmer later declared the king's first marriage annulled, Mary illegitimate, and any children by Anne first in line to the throne. In response, the pope Clement VII excommunicated both Henry and Cranmer.

Henry at this point took up the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England, the first in a series of national churches not in communion with a broader Orthodox denomination. Interestingly, Henry still believed that Lutheranism and most forms of protestantism were heretical and that the basic forms of Catholic doctrine and practice were correct and ought to be maintained (though he did reject certain notions and he despised the monastic orders, which he disbanded and dispossessed). While both Anne and Cromwell subscribed to more radically protestant ideas, Henry's conception of the Church of England was basically the form of caesaropapist Orthodoxy practiced in the time of Constantine and under Byzantine emperors such as Justinian and Heraclius. All English -- and later British -- monarchs after Henry were the titular leaders of the Church of England, even those who were not themselves privately Anglican (similar to Constantine's status as pontifex maximus of the pagan state cult). Ironically, Henry would later divorce and execute Anne after he grew tired of her, though the story of his tumultuous love life is beyond the scope of this writeup.

Other Examples and Commentary

As is obvious from the proliferation of national/state churches after Henry VIII, caesaropapism is still alive today. Mainly this is strictly a formal arrangement since most contemporary monarchies are constitutionally limited in terms of the real power they exercise. Caesaropapism seems to be an older concept than theocracy, although obviously the lines can become blurred and controversy exists over which is the more ancient form. It's difficult to assess caesaropapism in Islamic history since the line between secular and religious power is often blurred, although it could be said the Ottoman Empire adopted a somewhat caesaropapist tendency in its approach to Christians and Jews within its borders. During the French Revolution in the late 1700s, the government attempted to promote and regulate first "the cult of Reason" and later "the cult of the Supreme Being," neither of which caught on. In the primarily Orthodox parts of Europe and the Middle East, Christian caesaropapism existed in basically an unbroken line of continuity from Constantine to Tsar Nicholas II. Most of Orthodox Europe after World War II came under communist control, and while the old state churches were persecuted, they were occasionally used for political purposes (Josef Stalin used the Russian Orthodox Church as a nationalist rallying point after the German invasion of the USSR in 1941) and allowed to operate so long as they followed government dictates (specifically not speaking against the actions of the government and not contradicting official government accounts). The governments of these countries usually reserved the right to veto ecclesiastical appointments.

In the People's Republic of China, an extremely multi-faceted approach to caesaropapism is in effect. While the government maintains an officially atheist position, the PRC is at least now pragmatic enough to understand that religion cannot be completely erased from so large a country, so all religions fall under the rubric of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. The PRC recognizes Buddhism, Taoism, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam as officially permissible to practice, but also says that no religious exercise can threaten the cohesiveness of the state or national security, which can mean any number of things there. China has made it known that when the current Dalai Lama dies, they will have the final say into whose form he has been reincarnated. How the government of China intends to influence an abstract metaphysical phenomenon like the transmigration of a soul into a new body is unknown. In the late 1950s, the Chinese government created the Patriotic Catholic Association with the goal of making it the only officially organized Catholic church in the country. Legally, the PCA is the only body permitted to consecrate bishops and priests in China and any Catholic practice outside of the PCA is against the law (note that the vast majority of Catholics in China are not members of the PCA). Pope Pius XII declared this organization not in communion with the Vatican and excommunicated all clergy associated with it. The official Catholic position since the 1990s has been to permit the ordination of clergy so long as those so chosen by the PCA seek and receive the Vatican's consent before accepting whatever position they are being offered; the PRC still does not accept as valid Chinese clergy not ordained by the PCA. The Islamic Association of China is a government enterprise meant to bring Chinese Muslims into the fold of the state. The IAC is less heavy-handed than the Christian and Buddhist governing bodies, probably in a move meant to improve ties between China and the Muslim (i.e., oil-producing) world.

Religion is inherently powerful. How that power is channeled and by whom does much to color perceptions about it. Secular control over the realm of faith can be positive in some situations and desperately bad in others. In some instances, caesaropapism just sort of happens as a natural outgrowth of cultural conditions, although in others, it's a form of state centralization over something that is intensely personal. I think in basically all forms, caesaropapism is preferable to theocracy, but that's a bit like saying a broken radiator is better than a blown head gasket. Either way, the conflict between church and state -- and the question over which is dominant in the other's affairs -- has either directly or indirectly influenced the course of Western history, specifically in the Middle Ages. While doctrinal controversies fueled the conflict in previous centuries, the caesaropapism that exists today lives on chiefly in the form of bureaucracies censoring particular modes of worship and expression that would be seen as politically incovenient for the ruling authorities. Whether this is better or worse, I leave it up to others to decide.

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