It came together for me in St. Vitus’ Cathedral in the castle (Hrad)
of Prague. I had been making a point of visiting important cathedrals
on my Holy
Roman Empire Tour (see map). But something about
St. Vitus brought a pattern to my conscious attention that had been
in front of me throughout Europe. Though now the capital of the
Czech Republic, Prague (Praha) is historically the heart of Bohemia.
It was briefly the capital of the Holy Roman Empire starting with
the reign of Charles IV (1346-78). Prague again took center stage
when the Habsburg Rudolf II (1576-1611) moved the capital of the
Habsburg lands there from Vienna. (Rudolf II was a truly eccentric
individual, by the way, a great lover of astrology, alchemy & the
painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo,
whose portraits were composed entirely of fruits and vegetables.
He was usually accompanied by his pet African lion Otakar. He died
the day after Otakar died.)
is not a single castle so much as a whole palace town enclosed by
walls. Whoever has ruled the Czech lands has ruled Prague, and the
rulers of Prague always occupy the Hrad including the Communist
government of the post WWII era and now the administration of President
Vaclav Havel. But the buildings of civil administrators are limited
in their charm and character. Far more interesting to me is the
Vitus Cathedral which dominates the third courtyard of the Hrad.
(By the way, the fabulous photos of the Hrad and St. Vitus linked
above are by Philip Greenspun. He is my favourite photographer of
nature & architecture. Check out more of his excellent work, all
available for free from his
Built on the site of a 929 A.D. cathedral, (in turn built on the
site of a heathen altar), the current cathedral was begun in 1344
and not completed until 1929! In the software business, we call
this a “schedule slip”.
The first thing that strikes the eye once inside, after the sheer
immensity of the place, are some truly outstanding stained glass
windows. My favourite are several by Frantisek Kysela, who uses
an unusual technique that makes the windows look like they’ve been
shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces. There is also one by the
Art Nouveau master (and Czech national treasure) Alphonse Mucha whose distinctive
& joyful illustrations you almost certainly know, though you may
not know his name.
After these dazzling features are absorbed though, some of the
most culturally important features remain. The patron saint of the
Czech is honoured in the Chapel of St. Vaclav, (we know him as Good
King Wenceslas). Vaclav was born in 907 and dedicated himself to
promoting Christianity throughout the land. He was murdered by his
pagan younger brother Boleslav the Cruel who 10 years later repented,
converted and had his brother’s body transferred to the spot that
now has the chapel. The chapel itself is quite remarkable: the gilded
walls are inlaid with about 1,372 semiprecious Bohemian stones,
(1372 commemorating the year of the chapel’s creation).
Further along towards the head of the church is the tomb of St.
John of Nepomuk built in 1736 to honour a priest who was killed
by the king in 1393. The legend is that he refused an order to divulge
the Queen’s confession and so was thrown off the St. Charles bridge
bound and gagged. Though the details of his resistance to the State
are disputed, the history of Christian martyrs who opposed the State
deserves an articles of it’s own. While in Moscow, for a final non-Holy
Roman Empire part of my tour, I learned of the martyr Philip. Metropolitan
Philip denounced Ivan the Terrible for the horrifying sin of murdering
his own son. Ivan had his servant Malyuta Skuratov strangle Philip
for this. Just in case the stand of the church was unclear, Philip
was promptly canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church after Ivan’s
death. There may be a clue in these sorts of episodes to the hatred
of contemporary statists for real Christians.
The details about St. Vitus that I’ve mentioned so far only begin
to describe all the ways in which the cathedral is interwoven with
the art, heroes & character of the Czech people. As if to encapsulate
what I had realized, I found a painting in Prague that simply uses
the St. Vitus Cathedral to represent Prague and the Bohemian people.
(Similarly, Tchaikovsky uses the haunting melody of a Psalm sung
by the Russian Orthodox to represent the Russian people in his 1812
This integration of St. Vitus with Czech history and culture is
not unique to the Czech. I could just as well have described the
Duomo & Florence, St. Mark’s & Venice, the Mathias & Budapest, the
Dormition & Moscow or Westminster Abbey & London.
I say all this to make a simple point. Separation of church and
state is a very different thing than separation of church and nation.
The first is relatively unproblematic for the Christian and the
libertarian. It simply means excluding the use of aggressive force
from being used either against or on behalf of the church. This
should be unproblematic for Christians since, as St. Irenaeus of
Lyons said: “with God there is no coercion.” The blood of the martyrs
is the seed of the church, not the blood of the pagans.
But separation of church and nation, (by nation I mean here the
people and their culture), for an historically Christian nation
involves a radical tearing of a people from it’s own history and
culture. Robert Conquest in The Harvest
of Sorrow describes successive campaigns by the militantly atheist
Bolshevik regime to separate the Russian nation from the Russian
Orthodox church. They wanted to demolish churches and cathedrals
without sparking a peasant revolt. So they decided to establish
a precedent by taking just the church bells while spinning some
story about a greater need for the metal in the bells. The Russian
peasantry often were not fooled and would try to prevent the taking
of the bells or the demolition of their village church. Many were
shipped to the Gulag for their efforts.1
Militant atheists killed 2,691 priests & 3,447 nuns in Russia,
6,832 priests & members of religious orders during the Spanish Civil
War, millions of Russian Christians and made a ferocious attack
on Judaism that nearly decimated European Jews altogether. Richa rd
Wurmbrand suggests a different interpretation of the 20th century
than a battle between two systems of political economy. He and his
wife, having lost relatives in the mass murders of the National
Socialists because of being Jewish, then were tortured and imprisoned
for many years by the Romanian Communist regime for preaching Y’shua
(Jesus) as the Messiah. Wurmbrand wondered what the ferocious attack
on religion had to do with a humanitarian concern for economic equality.
Why did Communists in Romania force prisoners to perform black masses,
with feces as ‘bread’ and urine as ‘wine’? (Solzhenitsyn reported
similar things from the Soviet gulags). Wurmbrand argued that the
20th century was a titanic spiritual battle above all, with the
arguments over political economy a subsidiary element to the real
struggle against Judaism and Christianity.
Interestingly, in investigating Karl Marx, Murray Rothbard came
to strikingly complementary conclusions despite a rather different
perspective as a secular Jew. Rothbard argues that most fundamental
to understanding Marx is understanding his almost religious millenarian
vision which preceded his work on economics. Even this vision was
in turn preceded by a youthful turn towards “militant atheism”.
Rothbard writes that “It was this hatred of God as a creator greater
than himself that apparently inspired Karl Marx.”2
The ideological descendents of the Bolsheviks are our American
progressives and multi-culturalists. They continue, in a more constrained
way, a battle to separate church and nation even now. They praised
Communists while they were murdering Christians by the millions,
apologizing for, concealing and just plain lying about these terrible
crimes, (what would you say about someone with a track record of
openly cheering for people who mass murdered Jews?) They are not
above using the sword of the state to enforce their wishes on a
nation. And they are certainly not above pursuing their evil goals
while masquerading under the libertarian slogan of ‘separation of
church and state’.
In the 1930s under Stalin, the Soviets destroyed the largest cathedral
of Moscow, the golden domed Christ the Saviour Cathedral, and replaced
it with a pool. Built almost 200 years ago to commemorate the Russian
defeat of Napoleon’s French Revolutionary invasion, this church
was nearly as striking a landmark of Moscow as the Kremlin itself.
A highlight of my trip was to see the completely rebuilt Cathedral,
just completed in 2000, towering once again over the former capital
of militant atheism.
W. Carson [send him
as a software engineer, studies Political Economy at the graduate
level at Washington University and works with inner city children
in St. Louis through a ministry of his church. See his reviews of
Films on Liberty.