The Politics of Being Christian

The Empire chastened him, flogged him, frequently arrested and jailed him and eventually executed him, but St. Paul never wavered in his contention that civil authorities, from the Emperor down to a slave’s owner were to be respected and obeyed unless they demanded worship. Jesus also approached Roman authorities, who were very nervous about him, in much the same way.

The Romans had good reason to be on guard. The Jews of Palestine had a long history of rising against the Roman government. Of all the extensive occupied territories of the far-flung empire, it was among the most troublesome. Rumors and accusations flew that this man, with an obvious popularity and following, considered himself the King of the Jews, the Messiah who would lead the next rebellion. To clarify that his kingdom was not an earthly one and therefore not in competition with Rome, was so counter to expectations that even most of his disciples did not grasp it, let alone others.

Yet when the Christian community finally got it that civil authorities were to be respected, they persisted, even through persecutions. The earth is the Lord’s, civic administration is a vocation, a calling, ordained of God to bring peace and order to that earth. When the Fourth Century reign of Constantine legalized Christianity and not long after made it the official religion, the Christians had already long since made it clear that their political allegiance was to the Emperor.

Neither subsequent nor previous centuries were of the same mind as the early Christians, leading to our considerable confusion on the subject in modern times. To understand what it means to be a Christian in the contemporary American Republic requires a look at the Old Testament as well as the New, and the centuries after Constantine as well as the three immediately preceding him.

As is well known, the history of mankind did not go well after the Fall. Several millennia later, even the patient Lord “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth” (Genesis 6:5-6). Despite the massive cleansing at the time of Noah, things did not improve. After some time, and against the wishes and advice of the Lord, the people insisted on having a king (see 1 Samuel 8). It is foundational to note, therefore, that the royal government of Israel is a system seen by God as undesirable, even when a patient and forgiving Lord works with and within that system. All theology addressing public structures and order must start with the basic viewpoint that a perfect world would not have “secular” government nor patriotism towards it. Rather, in that perfect and pre-Fall structure, God governed directly and patriotism was absorbed by him. In the fully restored creation foreseen by St. John in Revelation, the city of God will again receive direct government.

Meanwhile, much of the sin in the world expresses itself through government. In the Old Testament, both the monarch and the nation were to rule and live in complete obedience to God’s will, in theory. In practice, Israel and its kings frequently paid no attention to God’s will. The nation itself divided. Prophets calling for repentance were mostly ignored or persecuted. It ended badly, with conquest, ethnic cleansing, and exile being the miserable condition of the people more than once. Shortly after the time of Jesus in Palestine, even the temple was destroyed by the authorities, people exiled again and the kingdom ended for all time. Those who would see the modern state of Israel as a continuation of the Old Testament kingdom simply re-enforce the distaste of God expressed in 1 Samuel 8, and the large gap between God’s will and earthly government. The Zionist movement founded Israel from a totally secular and socialist viewpoint. The current politics of Israel are chaotic and diverse, with those who see the need to do God’s will being in a distinct minority.

The Roman and Byzantine Empires, once Christianity became the state religion, were compared by some to the Old Testament nation of Israel. Certainly the emperors were seen by many as anointed and protected by God in the manner of the kings of Israel. The emperor became the guardian of orthodoxy and was pro-actively involved in the great councils, even presiding at times. In practice, orthodoxy was defined as what the emperor endorsed. Since different emperors believed different doctrines, patriarchs and other leading church authorities were often replaced with the coming of a new emperor with different beliefs than his or her predecessor, which greatly complicated the ability of the catholic faith to function in peace and order. Since the purpose of government is to provide a peaceful and orderly environment in which the faith can thrive, the Empire was counter-productive rather than supportive. Those who would see Byzantium as the “golden era” of Christianity may want to rethink the impact of “Christian” emperors.

As these empires faded and new nations came into being, much of Europe continued the concept. The Russian empire was based directly on the Byzantine model. The “Holy Roman Empire” of the Hapsburgs lasted all the way until the end of the First World War, seeing itself as the continuation of the Roman Empire of yore. Gradually, the Church established itself as possessing doctrines not amendable by monarchs and of itself existing independently of rulers, even if closely interacting with them. The Middle Ages in western Europe even witnessed the Church exercising disciplinary authority over rulers, effectively if not always in a godly and wise manner.

Two ironies are observable in this. The first is that the Church often became the evil governing institution itself, from jailing and executing dissenters, to raising funds for material needs by what amounted to taxation, and even approving crusades (the same concept as contemporary Islamic jihads) of bloodshed and conquest which left scars still troublesome today.

The second irony is that the Reformation, is so often seen today as freeing western civilization from tyranny and planting the seeds of democracy. Yet in Reformation lands, the Church was brought under the direct control of the ruler. Orthodoxy in practice meant what the ruler believed, be it an Anglican, Lutheran or Reformed monarch. The state church developed in tandem with the rise of the modern state, ending the Church’s institutional freedom and conducting religious affairs as a department of the state. The interests of the national church were to be identical with those of the state. Or else!

Out of this history, from Genesis until now, have come the factors in the religious development of the United States, which will be addressed next week.