This week’s class on Church and culture overviewed some basic ways that Christians have learned to interact with governing authorities. A large part of this conversation was guided by our reading of Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History by C.C. Pecknold.
Pecknold explains that in Greco-Roman thought the person’s highest goal in life was to be a productive member of their society. The highest form of this was to be an active citizen. A human was “a political animal”, as Aristotle would put it, because humanity survives as a group learning to live together. Through this social life together, called a politic, humanity would either flourish as communities or pass away into the abyss of time. Humans would need to seek better and better ways of communal life, particularly as they amassed more and more power that could be exerted over others, which resulted in the creation of the ambitious city-states. The citizen existed for the good of their city-state. In other words, citizens were expected to live according to a particular kind of politic based on their city. Each city believed it should rightly govern all that is within its power according to their particular politic, or way of communal life.
This meant that a politic was not a chosen ideology as much as an inherited ideology. In our American contemporary society, there are numerous visions of what America should become, but they are always enactments of an ideal political belief that some political group holds. In the ancient world, politics was already a form of existence in society in which an individual found themselves born into and had to perform according to. While performance is still essential to social life in our own culture, politics is believed to be a set of ideological values that can be, and should be, consciously chosen and supported rather than simply obeyed.
Pecknold seeks to show that Christians created a new form of political existence in the ancient world. They did this by creating a communal identity that was not based on geography or ethnicity. Instead, their political identity was determined based on their individual or familial allegiance given to King Jesus. This had massive implications on the relationship between the person and the governing authorities. No longer was it the simple obligation for a person to obey the government or politic of their city, but Christians obeyed the governing authorities in so much as King Jesus’ teachings allowed. Those same teachings taught Christians to serve their cities in substantial ways, but not out of loyalty or allegiance to the authority and power of the city itself. These strange political claims of Christians led to persecution in many different instances.
As Christianity was given more and more prominence within the Roman empire Christians were faced with new situations to apply their new political relationship with government. Someone needed to give voice and clarity to Christian way of life interacting with governing authorities in this world. This someone ended up being Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, after Rome was successfully raided by the barbarians in A.D. 410. Augustine’s The City of God sought to write a Christianized Roman history and political theology. In it he explains how there are two cities, each city being more a social group with particular allegiances, morals, desires, and ways of life, called the City of God and the City of Man. These two groups, or cities, live among each other, both geographically and ethnically, but are radically different. These two cities, or people groups, even act the same way in many instances, such as eating and getting married, but for the City of Man these things are partial, corrupt, and selfish. Whereas in the City of God such mundane realities of life are filled with the presence of the Spirit as they are directed towards God in King Jesus.
Augustine here realizes something for Christians that becomes essential for Christian political theology for every age to come. The City of Man cannot govern in way that is truly good or just because it is not filled with God’s presence. But if those in the City of God govern, then even the those in the City of Man can benefit from goodness and justice. Government is recast by Augustine. No longer is government to project power and authority as a particular politic, but government is a tool that should be used to bring about goodness and justice in creation. And who better knows what God’s goodness and justice is for this world better than the Church? After all, it is the Church who is empowered by the Spirit to teach the world about the King of kings, King Jesus, and help the nations learn to obey the things he has taught the people of God.
The long history of the Church, particularly the bishop of Rome who would become known as the Pope, amassing political power then ensues. Of course, there are both good and bad reasons for greater and greater power amassing. For instance, Peter Lampe in From Paul to Valentinus shows that the bishop of Rome became initially powerful as the appointed elder or bishop in Rome to administrate the care for the poor in the city. Since Rome was both the political and economic center of the world, the bishop of Rome was both appealed to and often did care for other cities that were in need of guidance or needed financial assistance. Later, as the Roman empire shifted its political and economic power east to Constantinople, the bishop of Rome was helpful leader for those left in the city, and especially in the suffering and hardships faced in the West after the fall of Rome in A.D. 476.
The Popes then helped create and sustain the unity of the Holy Roman Empire beginning with the coronation of Emperor Charlemagne in A.D. 800. The Church’s role, particularly through the Pope, was one that was above or working with the governing rulers of the Holy Roman Empire until the time of the Protestant Revolts of the Reformation in the 1500s. These seven hundred years of Church’s political rule is often referred to as Christendom.
But did the Church rule governments because it desired power to rule like the ancient city-state governments? While some used their power for selfish gain and hedonism (Pope Innocent VIII was not that innocent!), many did not. A good example of the Church’s political theology during Christendom is revealed in the controversy between England’s King Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. King Henry sought to appoint his own bishops in England because bishops ruled over large areas of land in their diocese and it would be politically unifying for the civil war prone land of England to be taught political obligation to him as king through religious support. Pope Gregory reprimanded the king by declaring that the Church’s bishops were not within the power of the king in any land. In the end, Pope Gregory threatened to excommunicate King Henry for such isolate behavior leading to the public shaming of the king groveling before the pope in order to be forgiven.
Pope Gregory believed that such political and religious force had to be placed on the king because the Church would not go back to a time when the governing authorities would attempt to dictate how the Church is to behave in this world. Augustine’s political theology of the two cities had come to a powerful expression in Christendom. The Church had amassed enough political power to protect itself from being at the mercy of the governing authorities. In fact, the Church now had the power to make the governing authorities conduits of justice and goodness along the teachings of King Jesus.
As we talked through this history of political theology in my class I was struck by how this history challenges America’s problematic relationship between Christians and the government. Both sides of the American political theater have convinced Christians to sell the Church’s language and morals for the benefit of non-Christian political groups. But there is a paradoxical group in particular that I have interacted with heavily since coming into graduate studies. This group would term themselves as Neo-Anabaptists. Many of them believe Evangelicals have sinned terribly by selling themselves into American Christian Nationalism by voting for Donald Trump, a sentiment I am sympathetic too. And their neo-Anabaptist ideas have worked their way deeply into good number of Evangelicals. One of the most important Neo-Anabaptist ideas is being anti-Constantinian, or against the political theology of Christendom. They do not believe that is good thing for the Church to exert political power or influence in this world. They believe that the attempt to exert authority over a government inevitably corrupts the Church and that Christians should disavow any politically coercive power that would legislate Christian morality over others in society.
While these are the beliefs verbally espoused, I often recognize that these same individuals plan to vote intentionally against Donald Trump in the 2020 election. How could this be possible? The political theology of Augustine expressed so much in Christendom boils down to this idea; Christians should use whatever political power they have to obligate the government to enact goodness and justice according to Christian teaching. Those Christians who believe Evangelicalism has sinned so terribly by attempting to control American through voting for Trump also say they just want the government to stop harming immigrants, to protect the poor, to curb the use of language that seems to publicly supports abusive or violent behavior, to enact systematic justice, etc. All of which are admirable Christian beliefs.
For many Neo-Anabaptists, the attempt of the Religious Right to coerce the government to obey certain Christian beliefs via voting is an expression of Christian Nationalism, a belief that America is and should be a Christian Nation to the exclusion of others. Often coupled with Christian nationalism is the idea that American lives are inherently more valuable precisely because Americans are naturally tied to Christianity. Whereas the lives of people in other nations are seen as less valuable because they are tight to a different religion or ideology in the eyes of Christian nationalists. For example, those who live in Middle Easter nations because they are assumed to be Muslims or China because they are see as communists, even despite the presence of Christian minorities.
I do believe that someone who is against Christian Nationalism is able to vote against Donald Trump. (This, of course, doesn’t justify voting for a Democrat.) But someone convinced by the Neo-Anabaptist idea that Christians should not control or collude with political power cannot, according to their ideas, vote against Donald Trump. What I want to stress is this; the person who believes it is their duty to correct the evils of Trump by voting is using the Augustinian political theology (or Constantinianism) that characterized the politics of Christendom. Therefore, those who are voting against Trump are simply attempting to create an American form of Christendom, and their mirror counterparts are those who will be voting for Trump to express the exact same political theology and conviction.
Christians on both sides of the American political divide are seeking to make the government adhere to what they believe is the most Christianized ideology of America should be. Every voting Christian has become a little Pope Gregory VII seeking to make demands on governments. The difference being that in Christendom the Church was unified in an institutional expression that had the power to make such the demands effectively. Today, nationalist and progressive American Christians are not unified identity as the City of God. Instead, American Christians have sought to join two new cities, the City of the Republicans and the City of the Democrats, both having become blinded by the allure of the City of Man.