The Constantine Trap

Hearing the rhetoric of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists about President George W. Bush has reminded me of the rhetoric surrounding another political leader 1,700 years ago. As one quick example among many, the President of Bob Jones University, Bob Jones III, wrote these words to President Bush after the recent election: “In your re-election, God has graciously granted America — though she doesn’t deserve it — a reprieve from the agenda of paganism… We the people expect your voice to be like the clear and certain sound of a trumpet… we who know the Lord will follow that kind of voice eagerly… The liberals despise you because they despise your Christ.”

Compare this to Bishop Eusebius (c. 260—c. 341) writing in his important Church History about the first Christian emperor, Constantine: “the emperor, friend of God… the mighty victor Constantine, outstanding in every virtue godliness confers… with God… as Guide and Ally, father and son divided their forces against the haters of God on every side… all tyranny was eradicated.” There is more along these lines in Eusebius’ Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine.

Here is the parallel I see. Eusebius and the other Christians at the time actually had fairly good reason to be thankful for the ascendancy of Constantine. The early church had been persecuted numerous times by the Roman Empire. Eusebius’ own beloved teacher Pamphilus had been martyred in a recent persecution. When Constantine seemed to genuinely be a Christian and work to stop persecutions of Christians it came as a great relief.

In a very roughly similar way, conservative American evangelical Christians have felt besieged by a secular elite seemingly determined to undermine their way of life through what Murray Rothbard described as “multicultural, socialistic, condomaniacal, anti-Christian public schooling” and in many other ways. Clearly, the parallel is in one sense weak. American Christians have not been fed to the lions. Nevertheless, psychologically Christians have felt besieged. So just as with the arrival of Constantine, the arrival of first Reagan and much more significantly George W. Bush, who has really made a point of speaking to Christian evangelicals in their language, has meant a feeling of real empowerment after many decades of feeling excluded from the mainstream of society. (I argue in my article on “The Return of the Religious Right” that this exclusion lasted from the Scopes trial in 1925 all the way to the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976.)

So it is not surprising that just as Eusebius and many other Christians in the Roman Empire embraced Constantine with wild enthusiasm, so have evangelicals embraced George W. Bush. Furthermore, whereas early Christians had often avoided serving in the Imperial Army and in many other ways developed their own social institutions with a distinctive Christian stamp, under a Christian Emperor the Christians began to become much more involved with the Empire. The division between the Empire and the Church began to blur with, for example, Emperor Constantine playing a key role in calling the theologically crucial First Council of Nicea.

This process of blurring the lines has already begun in our own time with programs like the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. A representative of that department was invited to speak at a conference sponsored by a Christian organization that I have a great deal of respect for (the conference was held in a chapel at a seminary). As he spoke and the usual statist nonsense was expressed, but in Christianese, my wife and our Christian libertarian friend couldn’t stand it and walked out. I fought back the nausea and sat through it while he explained why the American people could not be trusted to take care of each other without State guidance.

It is worth mentioning the intriguing argument of the historian of empire William Marina in his article “Surviving in the Interstices” that the Roman Empire’s embrace of Christianity was an attempt to sustain the Empire with the vitality of the Christian movement. That is, the Empire needed the Church not the other way around. (Note that this point does not require that Constantine have been personally insincere in his own conversion to Christianity). Similarly, the American Empire has lurched forward with renewed energy now that the evangelicals are on board.


So if there were something wrong with the response of evangelicals, what would be a more appropriate response to President Bush from evangelical leaders? How about something like this: “We are thankful to have a President who openly expresses his devotion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet we remain aware that the mission of the church is separate from the role of civil government. Especially at a time like this, it is of paramount importance that the church’s spiritual mission of mercy and reconciliation not be confused with the civil government’s earthly mission of justice. In particular, it is important that American Christians remain aware that His kingdom is ‘not of this world’ and make it abundantly clear to the world that American Christians and the American government are not the same thing. We remember that President Bush’s time in office will be relatively brief and the U.S. government will continue under other Presidents who may not be so friendly to Christianity. We also know that ‘power corrupts’, that President Bush will face severe temptations to lie, steal, kill and start wars as so many former Presidents and political leaders have done. We will pray for him, as the scriptures command, that the Lord will have mercy on him and lead him not into temptation.”