Game of Thrones: Winter May be Coming, but Separation of Church & State is Forever

Cersei Lannister looks on as she... separates church & state. (Screengrab via HBO)

*Spoilers through the recent season finale of Game of Thrones*

Game of Thrones, the ever-popular fantasy epic which airs on HBO, may be about dragons, undead hordes, and numerous other unbelievable subplots, but some aspects of the show mirror real life more than we might like to admit.

Several months back I wrote an article for focusing on how attempts by the rulers of King’s Landing, namely Cersei Lannister, to strengthen their rule by empowering supposedly loyal religious orders were extremely shortsighted. While Westeros may not have an established tradition of the separation of church and state, secularism tends to be the best option for governments that wish to prevent infighting among various religious sects or that wish to stop any particular religious order from becoming too powerful.

But the Lannister family, already weak following the deaths of numerous kings and nobles, needed both military strength and legitimacy, and so turned to an extremist but respected religious order called the Sparrows for help, first by making the leader of the Sparrows the chief religious figure in Westeros, and then by allowing the Sparrows to create a private army.

Predictably, the Sparrows weren’t content to serve a secular master, and so they began taking over state functions, persecuting heretics (including Cersei and other royal figures), and enforcing their religious agenda as the law of the land. This included a ban on homosexuality, laws against certain styles of dress, restrictions on merchants, and all of the other typical regressive policies found in the numerous theocracies that exist in real life.

By the end of the latest season of Game of Thrones, the Sparrows had imprisoned many of the show’s leading characters for violations of these religious laws. Seeing no other way out of the situation, Cersei eventually kills most of the Sparrows (as well as scores of innocent civilians) by blowing up a building being used by the Sparrows while they tried Loras Tyrell for the “crime” of homosexuality.

The audience is meant to look on in awe at Cersei’s scheming ways and brutality, but all I could think about was how unnecessary all this was. All of the legal trials, the false imprisonments, the murders, and all the other suffering that came from first empowering and then destroying the Sparrows could have been avoided if those in power had simply refused to cede state authority to religious extremists.

While the appeal of religious legitimacy is nearly irresistible to both real and fictional politicians who preside over a period of unease and uncertainty in their respective countries, the cost of co-opting the religious orders that provide this legitimacy is always too large. Eventually, these religious groups, who place religious law over secular and temporal law, will act on behalf of the interest of their religion and not on behalf of the needs of the people who they rule over, and the result is widespread suffering and anarchy.

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