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From the November/December, 2010
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Caesar’s Limit by Anthony Esolen

Caesar’s Limit

A State Under God Cannot Be Idolized

When we begin our course in the development of Western civilization, I like to use the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, to show what a merging of religious worship and imperial authority looks like. For the epic begins and ends with an image of what the Mesopotamians considered wondrous: the city walls. They needed walls, of course, to protect the stores of grain from marauders, and that is why they needed a centralized bureaucracy too, because only power vested in one man and his servants could manage the systems of canals and drainage ditches that made irrigation in those plains possible.

The contrast with God’s revelation to the Hebrews can hardly be starker. The fratricide Cain, we are told in Genesis, is the first builder of a city. Even when the people of Israel are settled in the Promised Land, God is angry with them for wanting a king, like other nations; and we simply do not get, in the Psalms, descriptions of marble pediments, of copper roofs, or of beautiful, perfumed city folk parading about. The Psalmist does not want to live a citified life in Jerusalem. He does not glory in the Hebrew state. His great longing is mysteriously put: to dwell in the house of the Lord.

Elevation of the State

That means that, in the Old Testament, the state is seen as a relative or provisional good, and never the absolute aim of human endeavor. So even though the state is to be governed by the law of God, it is never in itself an object of worship. And this warrants some investigation, especially because people who believe that the Church has much to say to the state are so often accused of being theocrats.

Pope Benedict has often written that the state needs the guardrails and the fenceposts put up around it by the Church, not simply so that the Church can thrive, but also so that the state can thrive; otherwise, the state resumes its ancient character as a god, as the provider of all good things, such as we find in ancient Babylon—and ancient Egypt, ancient Persia, imperial Rome, and so forth.

This is not the same thing as having the state mandate a particular faith, as objectionable and as contrary to the meaning of faith as that might be. Indeed the Romans were remarkably broadminded about religious customs among their conquered peoples—they left them alone, just so long as the cult of “Roma et Augustus” was maintained. It is, rather, the elevation of the state to the object of faith; the state becomes the religion.

That, right there, is the theocracy of the Left. It reared its head in the French and Bolshevik revolutions, but its temptations can be found wherever people lose the sense that God, and God alone, is king. In America, this theocratic—or cratolatrous?—impulse of the Left is to be seen in the embarrassing adulation that Obama received, or in the inability to let the funeral of Paul Wellstone be a funeral rather than a political rally, or in the anathemas of political correctness. Its tendency is to attenuate the sense of the holiness of the family, so that it may place all things, especially the rearing of children, under its feet.

A State Under God

In contrast, what folks on the Religious Right have wanted—though they have not always expressed themselves clearly, or have not always thought things through clearly, or have, like blockheads, accepted the liberal idolizing of the individual, or have foolishly behaved as if their salvation were to come from a ballot box—is a state “under God,” meaning a state that recognizes its limitations, and that therefore also recognizes legitimate zones of authority outside of itself. While I grant that we on the Right often make the mistake of putting too much trust in princes, this is a sin of imprudence and not idolatry.

When a James Dobson defends the family, and tries to do so by means of legislation, he is trying to do two things, neither of which makes him a theocrat of left or right: He is trying to excise the metastatic cancer of an arrogant government that would subsume everything under itself; and he is trying, legitimately I believe, to use government to protect the vitality of the family, which in many ways does not come under the government’s purview.

In other words, there’s a nice parallel between what Dobson does and what Benedict advises. The state would do well, for its own sake if for no other reason, to recognize the authority of God and its own limitations; it would also do well, for its own sake, to protect the family while at the same time recognizing that what it is protecting is an institution that in many ways operates as a government in its own right, prior to the state.

Two Idolatries

If there are theocrats of the Right, I don’t see them—at least I do not think that people such as Jerry Falwell and James Dobson are justly characterized as such. The Left now simply uses the word “theocrat” to denigrate anybody who believes that the common good requires laws regarding sexual morality.

In a strange confluence of madnesses, we have seen the diabolical union of the two forms of idolatry historically most inimical to the monotheism of Israel and of the Church: worship of sex, and worship of the state. How wonderfully ironic that this is happening precisely when sex is infertile, and the state is impotent.

— Anthony Esolen, for the editors


Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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“Caesar’s Limit” first appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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