It's an old adage that politics makes for strange bedfellows. Perhaps the latest example of this might be liberal California senator Barbara Boxer's support of the California Mission Preservation Act, a bill signed into law last week by the president. The Act sets aside $10 million over five years as funds for the restoration and preservation of California's twenty-one missions, their artwork, artifacts, and indigenous plants. Boxer emphasizes on her website that aside from their historical significance, the missions bring in substantial income for local businesses from tourists visiting the state. The Chicago Tribune offered a helpful comparison on that point—the missions bring more money into the state's economy than any other public attraction, excepting Disneyland.

All well and good, but there's a catch—one that Boxer has apparently decided to overlook. Nineteen of the twenty-one missions are owned by the Roman Catholic Church and, moreover, have active congregations. Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit in a federal court last week, asserting the bill violates the Constitution. Says Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director, "If this type of assistance is upheld, every house of worship in America that is deemed 'historic' could demand upkeep and repair courtesy of the taxpayer. The Constitution simply does not allow the government to force a taxpayer to subsidize the maintenance of houses of worship. That's a core principle of separation of church and state."

It's a contention the Franciscan friars who founded these missions would have thought strange— yet also strangely familiar. They operated not under the aegis of a republican government bent on accommodating the various branches of Protestant (and even Catholic) traditions, but under the direct authority of the Spanish crown. In fact, the Spanish royal court and the church had an arrangement so unlike our own today that the friars would have found Lynn's argument absurd. But they also understood how the entanglement of church and state worked against them.

A Marriage Made in Madrid
A native of San Diego, I grew up with the missions—studying them in school, visiting them on family outings. I loved wandering through the adobe-walled courtyards of the mission, enjoying the soothing sounds of nearby fountains and feeling the cool touch of the floors beneath me. I delved into the history of the missions, what life was like for Indian converts, and acquainted myself with the dreams and work of the missionaries. And I looked forward to praying in the serenity of the mission's sanctuary—at least when tourists weren't pouring through.

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Sometimes our family would venture across the valley and visit the other historical fixture of San Diego's Old Town. The presidio, still towering over California's Interstate 8, tells the story of the missions from a significantly different perspective—one of colonial control, military excursions, political maneuvering. Built to withstand attack, the small but well-stocked presidio was a monument to military efficiency, a refuge for those fleeing attack. It was a refuge the missionaries and their converts would look to more than once.

Just what led up to this arrangement? In 1492, the year Columbus sighted land in the West Indies, the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella finished a long but victorious reconquista of the lands stolen from them centuries before by Muslims from North Africa. For this service, and for their promises to convert the "infidels" in the newly discovered territories to Roman Catholicism, Pope Innocent VIII granted to the monarchs extensive rights over church matters—a grant otherwise known as the patronato real. The king, it was said in the 16th century, wielded two swords—one as ruler of the realm and the other as vicar of the church in the Indies.

Innocent realized that the king benefited most from this new arrangement. But Spain was a bastion of Roman Catholicism, and the pope knew that Spanish exploration gave him the opportunity to spread the faith in previously unknown regions. Church and state would colonize the New World together, and each would help the other. By evangelizing the Indians and familiarizing them with Spanish culture, the missionaries would prepare them for citizenship and loyalty to the new state. And the crown, by providing peace and stability in the land, would make such proselytizing possible.

What method would they use to accomplish these goals? The Spanish crown first tried to "civilize" the indigenous peoples of the New World with the encomienda, a system that granted a Spanish colonist "charge" or "responsibility" over a group of Indians in return for his services to the crown. Yet it soon became apparent to missionaries such as Bartolome de las Casas that colonists were abusing the system. In 1573, the crown replaced the encomienda with the reduccion, a mission compound separated from Spanish colonial society and protected by a nearby fort, or presidio, in which soldiers from the army were housed. Under this new system, missionaries could then instruct their converts as they wished without much outside interference—that is, until they felt that the natives were ready to enter Spanish society.

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Duking It Out with the Governor
This was the context for the California missions—a task taken up by the Franciscan "religious" order, since "secular" bishops were charged with caring only for their own flocks, not pioneering new ones. By the 1630s, the Franciscans had built a thriving community of 50,000 converted Indians in New Mexico. They exercised remarkable control over their own affairs, drawing only on the services of a nearby presidio when military protection was needed. Now the friars were poised to expand their work along the Pacific seaboard.

Events in Spain were to change all this, however. The Bourbons, a family originally from France, took control of the throne at the beginning of the 18th century, and they brought a "progressive" agenda along with them. Philip V set out to revitalize the economy, passing laws favorable to commerce, business, and competition. He also brought a high degree of centralization to the government, implementing a series of reforms designed to increase government efficiency. In addition, Philip decided it was time for the court to intervene more directly in the affairs of the church.

The missionary enterprise in California, then, was one dogged by increasing governmental interference. As the Spanish court became more "progressive" under the influence of the Enlightenment, it saw the patronato real less as a partnership and more as an opportunity to subjugate the church to the aims of the crown. Junipero Serra, father and presidente of the missions, clashed with every governor appointed to California. Pedro Fages, commander of the military in California from 1770 to 1774, insisted on having the authority to choose which soldiers protected the missions, arguing that all civil and military power belonged to him alone. Serra resented this intrusion, as he wanted to hand pick the men who interacted with Indian converts. He feared (with good reason!) the immoral designs some of the soldiers had on Indian women. At the mission of San Gabriel, Spanish soldiers once lassoed and raped some women, in one case killing a native husband who was attempting to protect his wife. The women, in turn, protested by aborting children conceived by these violations.

Serra also sparred with Felipe de Neve in 1778, when the governor insisted that the missions be "secularized," thereby allowing the Indians some form of self-government. In truth, the missionaries were working toward this aim, but Neve's demand came at a time when Serra and his friars did not feel the Indians were ready for such a change. Neve exacerbated the problem by challenging Serra's legal right to confirm baptismal converts. The scheme backfired on Neve, however, when Serra took the matter to higher authorities and the Commandant General sent an order to the governor that he was in no way to impede Serra from administering confirmation to the Indians.

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Nor did this friction abate after Serra died and left the missions to his successor Fermin Lasuen. Diego de Borica replaced Neve as governor in 1782 and soon after expressed his frustration over how slowly the missions were progressing in the crown's stated aim of "civilizing" the Indians—saying that the process would take another "ten centuries" to complete. And when one friar expressed concern over beatings the missionaries inflicted on disobedient Indians, Borica jumped at the opportunity to accuse the missions of mishandling the missionary enterprise and abusing the Indians.

To this, Lasuen pointed out that their methods were actually mild for the time: "In an average school, a person would receive more punishment for not knowing his lessons than he would receive here for living in concubinage." Moreover, Lasuen said, the missionaries actually sent their most troublesome cases to the presidios for correction, where the soldiers "keep them there as prisoners, but in reality as peons."

What to Do with Today's Missions?
Of course, let's remember the padres did appreciate the protection the presidios offered them. Consider the attack on the San Diego mission on November 4, 1775, when approximately three hundred Indians surrounded and torched the compound, killing the friar Luis Jayme in the process. Were it not for the four soldiers stationed there—and the help procured from the nearby presidio—nothing would be left of the mission. More often than not, Serra and his missionaries worked in concert with the state.

Congress's current efforts to underwrite the missions only faintly resemble the patronato real. In truth, the comparison is something of a stretch. But I can't help but wonder if the padres might have something to say about governmental interference in the church's affairs, even if that interference appears to be a positive one. Considering how much difficulty they encountered with the presidios, Serra and Lasuen might well have preferred to be left to do the work of their missions alone.

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Steven Gertz is assistant editor for Christian History & Biography. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

Related Elsewhere:

News elsewhere on the missions includes:

California's historic missions crumbling, need millions for preservation | The mission, 9 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, appears pretty good for its age, but all's not well. Upon closer look, Nelson lamented how the "convento," built in 1805 as the living quarters for the Spanish padres who settled the American Southwest, has crumbling exterior walls, due to ground moisture. The structure is now a museum. (Knight-Ridder, Dec. 08, 2004)
Money for missions: Keep the faith, baby | Americans United for Separation of Church and State is suing. They worry — and not unreasonably, given the scary pieties beaming forth from Pennsylvania Avenue these days — that this is about helping any church to separate every state from its tax money. (Patt Morrison, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 8, 2004)
Advocacy group announces lawsuit over California missions bill | An advocacy group announced a lawsuit Wednesday over legislation to restore California's aging Spanish missions, arguing that the law violates the principle of separation of church and state. (Associated Press, Dec. 01, 2004)
California missions foundation gets $10 million in matching funds | In a lame duck session of Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that would funnel $10 million to the California Missions. The Senate unanimously approved the bill in October. (The Sacramento Union, Nov 18, 2004)
California missions restoration bill heads to president | Legislation to restore California's historic Spanish missions headed to the president for his signature Wednesday after final passage by the House of Representatives. (Associated Press, Nov. 17, 2004)

Christian History Corner, a weekly column from the editors and writers of Christian History & Biography, appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:

Advent: Close Encounters of a Liturgical Kind | 'Tis the season when even the free-ranging revivalist pulls up a chair to the table of historic liturgy. (Dec. 03, 2004)
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Shaken Up by the Peace-Lovers | A trip through Pennsylvania's Lancaster County. (Nov. 24, 2004)
Eat, Drink, and Relax | Think the Pilgrims would frown on today's football-tossing, turkey-gobbling Thanksgiving festivities? Maybe not. (Nov. 19, 2004)
Now That You've Got Political Power, What Are You Going to Do with It? | History offers warning and hope for our modern-day Christian populism. (Nov. 12, 2004)
How to Pray for Our Troops | This Veteran's Day, let's commend our men and women of the services to the God who brings good even from the most evil circumstances. (Nov. 05, 2004)
Reports of the Revival | The Confederate camp became "a school of Christ." (Nov. 05, 2004)
Courting the Catholic Voter | A new book tells the fascinating story of how America's Catholics decided past elections. (Oct. 29, 2004)
The Politicians' Patron | As the Roman Catholic "patron saint of politicians," Thomas More is not quite a model for all seasons. (Oct. 22, 2004)
The Vanishing Act of the Church in Turkey | A church worn down by Christian rivalry and Islamic jihad hangs on in the land of Nicea and Ephesus. (Oct. 15, 2004)
Cockroaches and the Nicene Creed | To an accompaniment of whale songs, the worshippers glory in God's creation; there's no service quite like the annual blessing of the animals at St. John the Divine. (Oct. 08, 2004)
Romanticism Gone to Seed—Part II | Have the holiness and Pentecostal movements really been "hyper-vertical" and "anti-domestic"? (Oct. 01, 2004)
Getting the Word Out | An exhibit at the Huntington Library shows how Bibles big and small gave power to the people. (Sept. 24, 2004)
The Roots of Pentecostal Scandal—Romanticism Gone to Seed | The sexual stumblings of prominent ministers point to a hidden flaw in Pentecostal spirituality. (Sept. 17, 2004)