It’s funny that some people today are so confident in their opinion about the separation of church and state. Because that is one seriously complex historical topic.
Our Constitution does not offer much guidance. All it does is prohibit the establishment of a state religion, like the Church of England.
Absolutely nothing in the word or spirit of the Constitution prohibits prayer in school. And certainly not the teaching of religion in school.
Indeed, we could probably use a little more religious education in public school. I had the embarrassing experience of beginning my first college history course with zero background knowledge of Christianity.
Growing up, all I had learned about Jesus was that he likes ham on his birthday and super cheap TVs and PlayStations on Black Friday. I don’t think schools should indoctrinate children; I just think it’s ridiculous to leave young adults as laughably ignorant as I was.
Don’t worry, though: I caught up. In college, I learned that there once was an even sharper separation of church and state than there is today.
In the early Medieval period, monarchs were weak. The pope had a firmer base of power. He had an empire of rich, powerful bishops and most of them were loyal to Rome rather than their king. And when a bishop was accused of a crime, he was tried in a church court.
Starting in the 11th Century, some ambitious monarchs tried to muscle in on the Church’s power and assert control of their own territory. It wasn’t easy.
In 1075, German King Henry IV had begun appointing the bishops in his realm, thumbing his nose at Rome. When Pope Gregory VII excommunicated Henry, however, the king changed his tune. Henry traveled over the Alps in the dead of winter to beg the pope’s forgiveness in person.
But European kings wouldn’t stop trying to control the Church. Fast forward 80 years. King Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) has a clever idea to stick it to Rome. Henry appoints his oldest friend and loyal servant Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Henry thinks that this will unite the Church and state in England. The classic film “Becket” shows that the king’s gambit did not go according to plan.
Instead of gaining the Church, King Henry II loses his best friend. To both men’s surprise, Thomas Becket takes his new job very seriously. He works as hard for God as he had for his king.
In 1163, Henry announced that he was going to try English clergy in his own secular courts. Henry was horrified to discover that Archbishop Becket was blocking his plans and defending the Church’s prerogative.
If there is a weakness to “Becket,” it is Richard Burton’s humorless performance. He becomes so pious so quickly that we can’t relate to him.
The film is still worth watching, however, for Peter O’Toole. In case it never occurred to you that being king is a horrible job, O’Toole makes it painfully clear.
Henry had an arranged marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and he had nothing in common with her. Henry’s son is a cowardly idiot and the king doesn’t try to hide his disdain.
O’Toole’s Henry is an emotional jerk. And he is surrounded by disloyalty and stupidity. These problems keep compounding each other. When Thomas Becket becomes his adversary, it pushes poor Henry to the brink of isolation and madness.
This round in the battle between church and state went to Henry II. But the war will never end.
Anyone who thinks he knows the perfect balance of power between church and state knows about as much about history and religion as I did when I graduated public school.
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