Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State takes the tenacious rubric of “church and state” and examines it through a series of revealing things: treaties, royal proclamations, bibles, staffs, amulets, corpses, juries, and trophy heads. Working from three sites within the Americas—Brazil, Canada, and the United States—we argue for the importance of thinking of church and state, or what we call churchstateness, not simply as interrelated institutions or theoretical categories inherited from abroad. Instead, we also think of them as overlapping polities and powerfully twinned concepts kept alive in distinctive ways in the purportedly secular democratic nation-states across the so-called New World.
Our neologism churchstateness builds on a few key precedents. One is James Scott’s memorable phrase, “seeing like a state.” In Ekklesia we ask what constitutes “seeing like a church?” A second is Rogers Brubaker’s term, “nationness.” As he writes, “nation is a form of practice, nationhood an institutionalized and cultural form, and nationness, a contingent event or happening.” In a third approach, Partha Chatterjee describes political entities having “different degrees of ‘stateness.’” Building on these leads, we think churchness should also be seen in contingent, processual terms—as an unfolding and always incomplete series of documents, procedures, practices, discursive registers, buildings, uniforms, law-like rules, and ways of seeing. If so, stateness and churchness are overlapping, if often competing, discursive, practical, sensorial, and material registers. Churchstateness designates partly isomorphic patterns of materials, practices, and procedures that cross and link apparently disparate social domains, even (or especially) under regimes claiming legal separation of church and state.
Growing out of a conversation that became a collaboration, Ekklesia is an experiment in thinking and writing on these themes together. It is inspired by a sense that the resurgence of critical interest in both secularism and political theology—in particular in its foregrounding of the transfer of sacred authority from the monarch to “the people”—has not given sufficient attention to the historical complexity of multi-jurisdictional sovereignties in the Americas.
Our essays center on the massacre of a messianic community by the state in alliance with the church in the newly republican, post-monarchic, and “secular” Brazil (Johnson); the ritual and material culture of “the Crown” and “treaty people” in the still monarchic settler state of Canada (Klassen); and the legality of bibles and bibletalk in the death-qualified jury room in the “disestablished” United States (Sullivan). Framing our essays with a jointly-written introduction that engages with Eric Santner, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Judith Butler, among others, we focus on questions of “the people” as variously convened in democratic societies. Who is included and excluded in these gatherings? What kinds of justice, injustice, and violence are sanctioned in the name of the demos? How do traces of divinity remain in the power of the people?
Our title, Ekklesia, signals the intertwined ways church and state continue to gather the people but also set its margins, even in would-be democracies now constituted as beyond the divine right of kings and queens. On one level, our use of the terms of church and state could be read as synonyms for “religion” and “politics” that open out to broad comparisons. At another level, though, there is a very Christian specificity to the stories we tell, as well as to the very formation of the questions posed. This is because they find their ground in a shared origin story of Christian colonialism in the Americas. “Ekklesia,” as a word that brings together both Greco-Roman and Christian models of plural assembly, holds both historical and idealized relevance for our arguments.
Nation-states in the twenty-first century make their claim to legitimacy on an ideal of government by the people, sanctioned by democratic elections rather than birthright or divinity. The obvious problem is that the people are always surrounded by other people—the first accorded rights, the second managed as a biopolitical problem. The Brazil case explored by Paul Johnson looks at how the new republic decided tens of thousands of fellow citizens in the town of Canudos were expendable. They were moved outside the margin of the people to other categories like “rabble” or “horde”; bodies without history.
A new republican version of 1890s churchstateness played a central role. Roman Catholic priests declared the religion of Canudos invalid and their ekklesia a religio-political danger to the state. They reported to the governor, who enlisted and incited the federal forces. The victims were sometimes called o povão, the great people, but which in this case meant the faceless, unclassified masses. The residents of Canudos contested this. They understood and called themselves a people, constituted as a ritual community with a shared foundation in sacred authority and an organic connection to the land, as an ekklesia. Their leader, the Counselor, often addressed his congregation as “the people,” and they knew themselves as such. But the republic did not recognize their claim. The capacity of a new articulation of churchstateness to reframe the bounds of the people led to the execution of up to thirty thousand women, men, and children.
Each of our essays, in some sense, explores this question of the people and the life-and-death stakes of its making. Put differently, we are all concerned about how the abstract ideal of the people “acts” on flesh-and-blood persons’ bodies.
Every nation-state founded in the Americas—including Canada, the United States, and Brazil—is rooted in colonial claims and enforcements of churchstateness, expressed most succinctly as the Doctrine of Discovery. While there were other legal theories of territorial conquest among European colonizers, the Doctrine of Discovery was arguably foundational. The Doctrine of Discovery stems from a fifteenth-century papal declaration that simply by stumbling upon—i.e., “discovering”—new territory with the aim of spreading Christianity, Europeans could autonomously claim Indigenous lands as their own without requiring Indigenous consent. The power to do so resided in an early-modern version of churchstateness that preceded the state as such. This is plain in, among many other documents, the Treaty of Tordesillas of June 7, 1494, where the sovereigns of Spain and Portugal, “acting in the said name, entreat our most Holy Father that his Holiness be pleased to confirm and approve this said agreement . . . and that he lay his censures upon those who shall violate or oppose it.”
That document first laid down the border of what would become “Brasil,” named for its first colonial export, red wood. Europeans—and Americans, Canadians, and Brazilians in their wake—used the Doctrine of Discovery to assert what Pamela Klassen calls here “spiritual jurisdiction,” or a way of rooting law in sacred authority derived from a relationship to land and place.
Klassen’s essay expands on the ways in which nation-states root their sovereignty in political proclamations that always, in the end, draw power from the Doctrine of Discovery. Canadian sovereignty—or the very idea of Canada—is, one could say, spiritually vulnerable. To persist, its intermittent revitalization is required through rituals that re-enact and reaffirm the spiritual powers of the Crown—a monarch who is at once head of state and of the Church of England.
Following the Royal Proclamation of 1763, much of Canada came to be through treaties negotiated between Indigenous nations and the Crown, with frequent reference to the Creator. As Klassen discusses in her reflections on the changing fortunes of the Royal Proclamation as a site of public memory, in the past fifty years Canadian law has slowly come to acknowledge that treaties continue to guarantee the ongoing reality of Indigenous sovereignties rooted neither in Christian nor secular principles. In the wake of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Indigenous residential schools, there has been new attention to Indigenous calls for the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. This, combined with a renaissance of treaty history and theory, means that both Indigenous peoples and settlers are telling new stories of spiritual jurisdiction, including the story of “treaty people.”
But in Canada the story of treaty people is not yet one of “reconciliation,” despite hopeful gestures to the contrary. Klassen analyzes one such gesture in her discussion of Prince William’s gift of a “ring of reconciliation” to the province of British Columbia in 2016. The most recent evidence for the failure of reconciliation are the rival reactions to the acquittal by jury of a Saskatchewan farmer who shot a young Cree man in the back of the head. The anger of Indigenous peoples and their allies over the acquittal of Colten Boushie’s killer has been matched by rejoicing on the part of groups such as “Farmers with Firearms,” who consider the acquittal to have justified a man’s defense of his land—and his “castle”—against trespassers.
Thus continues a long story of colonial violence and dispossession in the Americas, one which we describe this way in our introduction:
. . . previously sovereign social orders and humans resident to the Americas were then often incorporated into colonial or modern states as victims or corpses, converted and initiated into national heritage and public memory—a new piling of foundation—exactly through their ceremonial destruction.
Klassen’s question, then, is whether reflecting on rituals of public memory can provoke a new reckoning with the significance of spiritual jurisdiction for both Indigenous and settler understandings of treaty people.
The Anglo-American jury has a long history of taking things into its own hands. Sullivan’s essay focuses on the task of the US jury today in the penalty phase of a death penalty case. She seeks to understand how religious disestablishmentarianism—US style—inflects and reveals the political-theological limits of the separation of church and state. Engaging with judicial opinions, legal theory, and recreations of jury decision-making, she shows how the ongoing effort to rationalize and individuate imposition of the death penalty, as well as to rid the trial of overt God-talk including the banning of Bibles and biblical quotation, has the paradoxical result of constituting members of the jury as the people in the full sovereign sense of that word. Prohibited from discussing the trial with anyone else, the twelve become a little society, a highly complex community, a miniature temporary church/state—in short, a small ekklesia. They are tasked with representing and defining the people, finding truth, exercising judgment, voting, dispensing grace, and doing the work of religio-legal creation.
Sullivan suggests that the religiousness of the death penalty in the United States is not wholly explained by the lingering persistence of charismatic punitive religion, as Justice Scalia and others have suggested, nor by the nature of US democracy, as David Garland suggests. Rather, she suggests, it is explained by the particular nature of churchstateness in the United States—that is, in the peculiar ways in which “the people” as bearers of sovereignty, as receivers of the remains of the king’s two bodies in Eric Santner’s sense, are constituted after disestablishment. She asks whether its religiousness reveals not God’s wrath but the particular pathos and poignancy—and perhaps inevitable violence—that is the lot of free religious people.
The violence of churchstateness is key. Together we engage the violence applied to unmaking rival claims and rival sovereignties in order to instate a purified democratic ideal of “the people.” We are fascinated by the performative and communicative nature of this violence, and its apparent appeal right now. This includes the acts of sacrifice called upon in the making of states via the unmaking of other ekklesia and the destruction of their habits, tastes, and affinities. To be sure, non-European—or even “non-American”—forms of jurisdiction continue to inform and inhabit churchstateness in the New World. Yet our shared project tries to give parameters to a distinctive kind of violence—often “legitimate” or even legal violence. It’s a violence levied by and against churchstateness in American forms marked indelibly by both the depredations of conquest and by the Atlantic slave trade and their successor legal orders.
The claims of church and state in the Americas rest on foundational violence, yet that latter phrase has grown overworn and anemic. Our volume, we hope, gives texture and vivid color to the ongoing democratic spectacle of sovereignty and violence, so as to once again make it recognizable and subject to critique.