Christians should respect those in authority, pray for our leaders, and be lights in the world. Seems simple enough. But relations between church and state have vexed believers from the time of Constantine to the days of the Christian Coalition. And never were they more complicated than during the days of Lotario de’ Conti, who was born to aristocratic parents near Rome in 1161. Lotario was brilliant. Though he was short of stature, his keen eyes and dark face were magnetic. He was blessed with social ease, excellent speech, a warm smile, and a flare for poetry and song. He was religious.

He was elected Pope Innocent III at age 37.

The young man immediately asserted that Christ had given the successors of Peter the right of ruling the whole world as well as the church. “The state should be related to the Church as the moon is to the sun.”

But when Innocent appointed Stephen Langton as England’s Archbishop of Canterbury, King John defied him. An irreligious man, John forbad Langton to set foot in Britain and swore “by the teeth of God” to banish every clergyman from the land, to put out their eyes and cut off their noses.

On March 24, 1208 Innocent placed England under an interdict, a religious ban. All religious services were cancelled, churches were closed, church bells silenced. The dead were not given Christian burials and the Mass was not celebrated. Innocent released the British people from loyalty to John and nudged France to prepare to invade England.

Brought to his knees by the ensuing public outrage, John acknowledged Innocent the victor; and his surrender so weakened him before the English people that shortly afterward at Runnymede on the Thames he signed the most famous document in English history, the Magna Carta. The first article affirms “That the Church of England shall be free.…”

Innocent III raised the papacy to its zenith, but the pressures of it led to premature death. “I have no leisure,” he mourned. “Scarce can I breathe.” He died from exhaustion at age 55, finding the task of ruling both church and state too much for mortal man, even one of his skill and brilliance.

Be strong and brave! Be careful to do everything my servant Moses taught you. Never stop reading The Book of the Law he gave you. Day and night you must think about what it says. If you obey it completely, you and Israel will be able to take this land. I’ve commanded you to be strong and brave. (Joshua 1:6b-9a)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Mar.24.

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