One thing is certain: neither the editors at Newsweek nor George Will has a clue what “Caesaropapism” means.  Unfortunately, it seems that this error derives from Gene Healy’s well-received book, The Cult of the Presidency, which I have heard from many people is an excellent and vitally important critique of the imperial Presidency.  It is unfortunate, then, that it should be marred by the use of such a glaringly irrelevant and inappropriate term. 

Here’s Will:

Healy’s dissection of the delusions of “redemption through presidential politics” comes at a moment when liberals, for reasons of liberalism, and conservatives, because they have forgotten their raison d’être, “agree on the boundless nature of presidential responsibility.” Liberals think boundless government is beneficent.  Conservatives practice situational constitutionalism, favoring what Healy calls “Caesaropapism” as long as the Caesar-cum-Pope wields his anti constitutional powers in the service of things these faux conservatives favor [bold mine-DL].

No doubt as a description of the constitutionalism of convenience espoused by many mainstream conservatives, this is quite right, but what I can’t understand is why Healy would have chosen Caesaropapism as the term to describe it.  It is just Caesarism.  There is no “papism” of any kind involved, because it does not concern doctrine, religion or anything pertaining to the realm of the sacred and clearly because it is has nothing to do with any ecclesiastical office or the usurpation thereof.  Then again, those most often accused of Caesaropapism, Byzantine emperors, never engaged in it, either, so it makes even less sense in the context of describing a secular American office.  This seems to confuse the modern therapeutic state and the President’s assumed role of Therapist-in-Chief with a claim to sacred or religious authority, which gives the therapeutic state too much credit and inadvertently invests the Presidency with an aura of sacrality it does not possess. 

The use of this term is troubling on many levels.  As someone who works on Byzantine history, I am constantly concerned to explain, as many in the field have done already, why the word Caesaropapism is terribly misleading, a product of an earlier age in which confessional and secular historiography alike wished to portray a corrupt Oriental empire in the worst possible light.  Of course, it derives in part from a liberal and Protestant historiography in which flinging the accusation of “Papism,” which included the alleged excessive meddling of the Papacy in secular affairs, was considered appropriate and even progressive.  If the Catholics were supposedly guilty of “Papism,” Orthodox have supposedly been guilty of “Caesaropapism.”  Never mind that it was the settlement at Augsburg and the Protestant states of northern Europe that created actual state churches in which some measure of Caesaropapism did exist–blame the Greeks and Slavs instead.  The accusation of “Papism” was mostly code for describing all Catholic societies as backward, regressive and dangerous to freedom; it has been a shorthand for all of the hang-ups expressed in the Black Legend and the anti-Catholic hysteria of 1688 and afterwards.  Likewise, Caesaropapism is a term of abuse intended to belittle the most Christianised society in the ancient and medieval world, and it is deployed by moderns, usually liberals (broadly defined), for whom disestablishment or what we have come to call the “wall of separation” was an obvious and necessary good.  For early secular historians of Eastern Empire, Christianity ruined the empire but then in turn became compromised by ties to the state, while for confessional historians from the West emperors such as Justinian typified a system in which the emperor supposedly ruled the Church.  This was all a lot of nonsense, since the emperor did not rule the Church and could be chastised and challenged by it, but that hasn’t stopped it from living on into the present day. 

Healy correctly notes the blasphemous language of many Presidents, a trend that became very common starting with Lincoln and continuing after him, in which they describe their role in quasi-prophetic and salvific terms.  However, this is also not Caesaropapism, but simply the creepy appropriation of Biblical language by the executive to justify its own agenda.

Advertisement