We Should First Ask: "Which State"

We Should First Ask: "Which State"

Earlier this week I began reading T.S. Eliot’s famous work Christianity and Culture. The book consists of two long essays: “The Idea of a Christian Society” and “Notes Toward a Definition of Culture.” I’m currently in the beginning stages of “The Idea of a Christian Society” and already I’m excited to see where Eliot takes his thoughts.

Thus far Eliot has reminded me of other great writers like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. The reason for this is because Eliot has a way of crafting sentences in a very punchy and pointed way. Further, there are times when I’m reading when I feel like Eliot isn’t going anywhere with his train of thought and then, all of a sudden, he says something brilliant!

In his essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” Eliot begins by laying some groundwork for his argument. One of the things he feels like he needs to cover is the idea of “separation between church and state.” But rather than jumping into that argument Eliot, like all great writers, confronts the cultural assumptions surrounding the topic and shows how our thinking is all wrong. Here’s what Eliot says:

My problem is a preliminary to the problem of Church and State: it involves that problem in its widest terms and in its most general interest. A usual attitude is to take for granted the existing State, and ask “What Church?” But before we consider what should be the relation of Church and State, we should first ask: “What State?” (pg. 8)

When I first read that (I reread it about five times!) I think I said “YES!” out loud while I was reading in bed before going to sleep! Eliot is all too true. In almost all modern discussions of the relationship between church and state the current political (statist) structure is assumed. This means that we must figure out how a church can relate to the existing structure of the state. What is hardly ever brought up in these discussions of the relationship of church and state is whether the state as we currently have is should be changed at its core.

More is surely to come in this conversation as I continue to read but I thought this was an interesting point.

Food for thought.


Michael lives with his wife (Caroline) and dog (Beau) in Athens, GA where he teaches history and economics to high schoolers. Michael enjoys reading, watching soccer, drinking bourbon, and taking walks with his wife and dog.