The Bishop of Chichester preached
before the King and made a great flattering sermon which
I did not like, that clergy should meddle in matters
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), Diary
The papacy has never been reticent in using its temporal power
for political purposes. In the twelfth century Pope Hadrian
IV encouraged Henry II of England to annex Ireland and authorised
him to do so in the bull Laudabiliter. His successor
Pope Alexander III threatened to excommunicate anyone who failed
to help Henry. At other times the Church used its power to subvert
the king's authority. Innocent III, a pope who claimed
to be placed midway between God and man, set the pace on human
rights by declaring Magna Carta, the great charter
of English rights and liberties drawn up in 1215, to be void.
He declared it to be contrary to the moral law and excommunicated
anyone who maintained its pretensions. Virtually all English-speaking
peoples have thus been automatically excommunicated for the
last eight centuries.
Throughout the fourteenth century there was widespread concern
about the appointment of disloyal foreign priests to parishes
throughout England. Major political disruptions seem to have
been avoided only because a small proportion of them bothered
to leave their home countries for their new English parishes,
and of those who did few spoke English. Even so, the influence
of the Church was divisive. Edward II was deposed in 1327 after
bishops had promoted the idea of his deposition in their sermons.
He was murdered later the same year, reputedly by having a red-hot
iron inserted through his insufficiently devout anus. The Archbishop
of Canterbury, Walter Reynolds, acclaimed Edward's replacement
by his more popular son Edward III with the words vox populi
vox Dei "The voice of the people is the voice of God".
God was squarely on the side of the new king. In 1346 Thomas
Bradwardine, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, preached in
celebration of Edward's victories at Neville's Cross
century Pope Alexander VI evidently had no doubt that the world
was his to allocate as he chose. In his bull Inter caetetera
divina of 1493, he authorised the division of the world
into two parts, carving it up from pole to pole between rival
Roman Catholic colonialists. The world was split by a line of
longitude drawn 100 leagues west of the Azores. Territory to
the west of this line was allocated to Spain, and to the east
of it to Portugal. The line was redrawn further west the following
year. This division largely explains why, to this day, Spanish
is spoken in the western part of South America and Portuguese
in the eastern part. The same bull called for the subjugation
of the native peoples of the Americas and their lands.
The Church also felt itself qualified to interfere in politics
nearer home. Pope Pius V openly encouraged sedition against
Queen Elizabeth I of England, and funded an uprising against
her to the tune of 12,000 crowns. In his bull Regnans in
excelsis of 1570, Pius excommunicated and purported to
depose her as Queen, and instructed her Lords and subjects not
to obey her on pain of excommunication. A copy was nailed to
the door of the Bishop of London's palace on 2 nd June. It was
the Christian equivalent of an Islamic fatwah: Pius called upon
English Roman Catholics to "send out of this world that
wicked woman". By doing this he made traitors out of previously
loyal English Catholics. The consequence was the conviction
and execution of many Roman Catholics for treason. Such executions
had been unknown before the Pope's bull, but became common after
it, when priests and Jesuits were trained at Douai specifically
to meet a martyr's death in England. Pope Gregory XIII confirmed
that it was the duty of Roman Catholics to assassinate Queen
Elizabeth, and gave personal support to a number of attempts
on her life. More seditious plots were hatched, and more Roman
Catholics were tried, found guilty and executed for treason.
Sixtus V promised Philip II of Spain financial backing for his
planned invasion of England. In the eighteenth century, Pope
Innocent XIII recognised the Old Pretender as James III of England,
and offered him 10,000 ducats if he could return Britain to
the Roman Catholic fold.
Religious societies often plotted and schemed against governments
of which they did not approve. The Jesuits in particular were
famous for undermining rulers who were not sufficiently sympathetic
to their cause, and for developing theological arguments to
justify murder. They were expelled from Portugal in 1759 for
fraudulent activities in Portuguese colonies and for plotting
assassinations. Five years later the Jesuit Order was dissolved
by royal decree in France, and another three years later it
was suppressed in Spain and its colonies. Abuses continued and
the European powers succeeded in pressing Pope Clement XIV to
dissolve the movement altogether, which he did in 1773 in the
bull Dominus ac redemptor.
If secular powers failed to support the Church, then the Church
was usually willing to revise its ideas about secular powers
being appointed by God, and do its best to overthrow the secular
power in favour of a more compliant one. A Spanish decree of
1812 abolishing clerical immunity was the trigger for South
American revolution led by the priesthood. Rebel armies were
led by officers who were also priests. Spain had been able to
control its colonial lands with only a token military force
for 300 years because of the influence of a supportive Church.
Now the Church changed sides because its own interests were
threatened, and the Spanish Empire in South America collapsed
as a result. Any priests who retained their allegiance to the
Crown were not merely traitors but heretics.
One might have thought that modern democracies would make the
distinction between religion and politics, but this is not so.
Irish priests routinely instruct their congregations how to
think and how to vote. Matters on which they feel qualified
to give instruction vary from constitutional reform*
to abortion, contraception and divorce*.
In other countries it is not so easy since the advent of democracy.
In Italy the Church was defeated in a referendum on divorce,
and in Portugal it lost credibility by opposing abortion even
in the most extreme circumstances*.
Poland enjoyed few liberties under Soviet domination after World
War II, but one of the most important of them was the right
of women to free and legal abortions. Immediately after the
implementation of democracy in 1990, the Roman Catholic Church
pressed to have the Senate declare it illegal again. Since Roman
Catholics massively dominated the Senate, it had an easy success.
It also managed to get religious teaching reinstated in schools,
despite the fact that this was unconstitutional*.
The 1929 Lateran Treaty between fascist Italy and the Vatican
is still in force. In 2008 July Giovanni Ferrara, the Rome prosecutor,
invoked it against a popular comedienne, Sabrina Guzzanti. Addressing
a rally on the Piazza Navona in Rome, she had joked in reference
to Benedict XVI's homophobia that the the pope would go
to Hell and be tormented by homosexual demons. She faced prosecution
for the offence of "offending the honour of the sacred
and inviolable person" of Benedict XVI, a criminal offence
carrying a prison term of up to five years*.
Under the Lateran Treaty insulting the Pope carries the same
penalty as insulting the Italian President.
as its political influence wanes, the Roman Church manages to
subvert the democratic process. A referendum in Italy in 2005
sought to overturn Catholic supported legislation introduced
the previous year to limit fertility treatment. When it became
apparent that the referendum would succeed, the Church realised
that by having its supporters refrain from voting at all it
could ensure that a quorum would not be achieved, and the majority
view of voters defeated. The Italian bishops, supported by Pope
Benedict XVI, encouraged their supporters to abstain, so ensuring
that a qurum was not achieved. Restrictive legislation banning
stem-call research, prohibiting egg and sperm donation, and
limiting a range of medical services consequently stayed on
the statute books, penalising infertile and homosexual couples
and giving Italian embryos more legal rghts than Italian fetuses.
Italy retains its position as one of the world's most restrictive
nations on fertility treatments and out of step with the rest
In political matters Roman Catholics are still enjoined to
put their religion first. Pope Leo XIII made the position clear.
The chief preoccupation of Roman Catholics must be how best
to serve the interests of Catholicism. Roman Catholics are obliged
to support those who pledge themselves to the Catholic cause
and never to those who are hostile to it. In other words Catholics
must return a bloc vote for Catholic political candidates.
Churches are adept political practitioners in the USA, where
the shepherding of white evangelists into the republican camp
was one of the most spectacular political trends since the 1980s.
The new Christian right promotes constitutional amendments to
ban abortion and stem-cell research, and to permit school prayers.
It supported the SDI ("star-wars") initiative and
guerrilla warfare against left-wing states, and opposed pornography,
equal rights legislation, and homosexuality*.
Billy Graham, one of the few well-known right-wing evangelists
not tainted by sex and corruption, enjoyed powerful influence
with a long series of American presidents. He assured President
Truman that dropping a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki was the judgement
of God, and he urged Eisenhower to support the Cold War on the
grounds that communism was controlled by the supernatural power
of evil. Under the Nixon Administration John Ehrlichman and
Bob Haldeman, who were both Christian Scientists (and both later
to be convicted criminals), steered legislation through Congress
that enabled Christian Scientists to avoid liability for the
suffering and death of their children when they denied medical
attention to them*.
In the USA Christian belief is strongly
correlated with many other beliefs including patriotism,
the right to bear arms, anti-intellectualism, opposition
to abortion and sex-education, and denial of scientific
discoveries such as elolution and climate change.
The state of Utah is often difficult to distinguish from the
Mormon Church. The governor, the congressmen, the Supreme Court,
and the heads of the main universities in Utah are all Mormons,
as is almost all of the legislature, and as are most of the
law enforcement officers. Non-Mormons have long held that Joseph
Smith, the founder of the sect, was more than a little eccentric.
In recent times some Mormons have become suspicious as well.
A number of Mormon historians, who might have been in a position
to authenticate or reveal new documents, have met suspicious
deaths in Salt Lake City. It is a curious fact that the murder
enquiries made little progress in such a God-fearing state.
Evangelical interference in politics is now becoming more common
in England, perhaps reflecting the spectacular success of their
American cousins*. In much
of Europe Christianity is still so closely intertwined with
politics that hardly anyone finds it odd that a successful political
party should call itself the Christian Democratic party.
Cartoon from Guardians of Liberty, 1943
by Bishop Alma Bridwell White, Illustrations by Rev. Branford
Clarke. Published by the Pillar of Fire Church in Zarephath,
The cartoon represents Protestant fears of Catholic rule
around the world, other Churches have been responsible for interference
in politics. The Greek Orthodox Church for example, under Archbishop
Makarios, was behind the terrorist campaign in Cyprus that arguably
led to that island's present difficulties. A Methodist, General
Sitiveni Rabuka, led the coup in Fiji in 1987. Once in power,
the Methodists behaved much like earlier Christian theocracies.
They showed little interest in restoring democracy, and disenfranchised
those who did not share either their religion or their race.
One of their chief concerns was the strict enforcement of Sunday