This last week our class had an extended conversation about the negative or positive benefits of Emperor Constantine becoming extremely supportive of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The question at play always becomes, “Should Christians wield political influence or power in the nation they reside?” More often the divide between an approving or disapproving answer comes down to whether a person is more or less politically active. There are plenty on both sides of the religious conservative or progressive positions who do not believe in being politically active in American politics.
Excuse me for being a little bias, but Dr. McKnight’s evaluation of Constantinianism in Appendix 1 of his Kingdom Conspiracy is one of the best and easiest little essays on the political behavior of American Christians available. I read through this appendix after our class conversation and I’ve pulled out the things that stood out to me most.
Dr. McKnight first defines the problem as a temptation.
“Constantinian Temptation – the temptation to get the state to combine its powers with the church’s power to accomplish, institutionalize, and legalize what is perceived to be divine purposes.”
It’s noteworthy that Christians having political power in their nation is not particularly the problem, but rather the belief that by wielding political and governmental power Christians are able to manifest God’s purposes in this world. For many years there has been a clear issue with the Religious Right seeking to take control of the American government to put into law their ideas of Christian moral and ethical standards. The need to make a larger appeal for a greater number of votes leads to many compromises on the path to such a victory, such as the moral compromise of supporting such a person like Donald Trump. Sadly, the history of Christian political activism has created an American civil religion by stealing Christian moral language to affect voters with sentimentality and seeming religious-level obligation to participate in the political system, all the while stripping away the distinctive Christian convictions which would offend non-Christians in order to attain political power.
Dr. McKnight says it this way,
“Civil religion works by denying everything unique and distinct to a religion and seeking the common ground of cooperation, all to accomplish a political goal… This “civil religion” emerges in American history in another way, the way of baptizing the nation by using biblical language for our civil hopes, civil unrest, and civil activism.”
But the rise of the Religious Left will offer no better solutions for Christians appalled by a seemingly nationalist Christian party like the Republicans. Dr. McKnight reflects on Hauerwas’ critique on politically active Christians on the Left saying,
“[Hauerwas] drew this important conclusion: “What I have attempted to do is to show that the reason Falwell is such a challenge to the Christian mainstream is not because he is so different from them, but because he has basically accepted their agenda.” Exactly, forever and amen. The Christian Left and the Christian Right are doing the same thing –seeking to coerce the public or more mildly, seeking to influence the public into their view point through political agitation and majority rule. Hauerwas describes the ultimate goal of both sides: “their common goal of making American democracy as close as possible to a manifestation of God’s Kingdom.””
There is no question that the gospel has powerful social implications for the local communities of faith throughout the United States and for all of the personal relationships in a Christian’s life. But Christians who use this social dimension to justify vying for political and governmental power in the name of minorities or victims are simply using another ploy to pull people into the scheme that the gospel should be implemented by governmental means. As Dr. McKnight puts it, “The social gospel is Leftist Constantinianism.”
This has become understood by those like Hauerwas who do not wish to obscure Christian belief or language but see no other way to affect society at large without sometimes using political and governmental power. He believes that the whole issue of Constantinianism is one that Christians cannot escape, and therefore Christians must cautiously learn how to live with it (and implicitly stated) use it correctly. The follow quote comes from Hauerwas’ book The Work of Theology in the chapter titled “How to (Not) Be a Political Theologian,
“That it is hard to avoid being Constantinian is clear because, as Sider argues, even Yoder was unable to avoid that fate. According to Sider, Constantinianism is not so much a “problem” as it is a totalizing discourse. That means that the resources one has for mapping a way out of Constantinianism will themselves likely be implicated in Constantinianism. In short, Constantinianism conditions the possibility for its own investigation just to the extent that it determines what is to count as history. That is why Sider argues that more fundamental than the distinction between transcendental and empirical uses of the description “Constantinianism” is the distinction between historicist and eschatological discourse. That means for Yoder “the true meaning of history is in the church. And this history is, at least in part, one of disavowal and apostasy.” But the very narration of Constantinianism as apostasy reproduces a Constantinian view of history.
Sider’s account of the unavoidability of Constantinianism makes clear how, in spite of what I have learned from Yoder, I have in many ways remained a Constantinian. Yet I have never pretended that everything associated with Constantinianism is to be rejected. Certainly Yoder did not think such a rejection was warranted or required, because he often saw much good in some developments associated with Christendom arrangements.”
It is tough to see someone as influential as Hauerwas shift towards letting the Christian Left use political power if properly used, but just a few pages later it becomes even more evident.
“I confess it is with some hesitancy that I use Scott’s account of anarchy to exemplify what a Christian politics might look like. I worry that “anarchy” may suggest that I have no use for institutions that inevitably involve hierarchies of authority. I assume it is never a question of whether hierarchies of authority should or should not exist, but rather how authority should be understood as an aid for the discovery of the common good.”
It is a current talent of the Christian Left to draw Christians into political action under the guise of protecting “the least of these” in American society, but such parallel political activism has not gotten the Religious Right anywhere in the fight to “take back America” from the “crazy liberals.” Dr. McKnight sketches the history of Protestant political theologies in the West that gave birth to the prevalent and multivalent liberation theologies today by point out that,
“What began with common grace, and was pushed even further into the state by the social gospel, was slowly emerging in the Western world as a progressive belief in the capacity for the state to deliver redemption.”
Such truths about Christian political action, both historically and sociologically, color my thoughts about Christians and politics. The importance of our class’s discussion about Constantine is heightened in the midst of a contentious political season in America. Elections have a way of polarizing Christians away from the gospel, believing that the gospel’s redemption can be missionally spread through the means of government power. I admit, I also feel the pull to become involved in the American political system with the hopes that my vote actually might make a difference. But is that difference one for the gospel? I have my doubts to say the least.