Constantine the Great, however, was far from Christian. Throughout his life, he remained a worshipper of Sol Invictus (the Invincible Sun) and retained the title of "Pontifex Maximus," which meant that, in addition to his duties as emperor, he served as the chief priest of the Roman pagan religion. (Ironically, the Catholic Church continues to bestow that title on its popes.)
Although Christianity was not the official religion of the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine--that came later when Theodosius took the throne--it was tolerated and protected, which explains why so many Christians in the fourth century readily embraced their new emperor. How could anyone view the end of brutal persecution as a bad thing? In addition, Christians had a strong ally in government.
From Constantine's perspective, his acceptance of Christianity was probably more a marriage of convenience. There were numerous external and internal threats to the empire, so it was naturally easier to work with the Christians than to eliminate them. Their religion was spreading throughout the empire, so why not use that to his advantage? He could win over a growing minority segment of the population by ending their persecution while at the same time appeasing the majority by maintaining the old pagan practices. One of the ways he accomplished this was to merge Christianity with certain aspects of paganism, not the least of which included the celebration of Christmas and Easter.
But the acceptance of Christianity as a legitimate religion by the Roman Empire had its downside. Alistair Kee, in his historical treatise Constantine versus Christ: The Triumph of Ideology, noted that Constantine's reign was "a fundamental turning-point," adding, "From that time the imperial ideology, with all its implications for the accumulation of wealth and the exercise of power over the weak, was given religious legitimation by the church."
Over the centuries, Constantinian Christianity spread like a cancer. Christians became more militant and took up the sword to advance the Kingdom of God. Churches were no longer merely bodies of believers gathering together for worship and fellowship; they evolved into huge, elaborate cathedrals built on the backs of the poor. Popes, cardinals and bishops ruled as merciless tyrants, waging war, imposing burdensome taxes and executing those who dared to challenge their authority. Worst of all, the Bible was kept out of the hands of the layperson; only the clergy had the right to read and interpret scripture.
Christendom brought with it a renewed persecution of Christians. As we saw during the Reformation, believers were martyred not because of their "unbiblical" beliefs, but because they were seen as a threat to the social, political and economic hold the church-state had over the people.
It was this hold that led the framers of our Constitution to establish a separation of church and state. The separation they envisioned, however, had nothing to do with removing the Ten Commandments from courthouses or banning prayer from schools. They merely wanted to prevent government from interfering--both negatively and favorably--with the religious practices of its citizens.
Baron de Montesquieu, who was an inspiration to many of America's Founding Fathers, addressed the issue of the separation of church and state in his book The Spirit of the Laws. He saw the greatest threat coming from those in government who would embrace religion as a matter of official policy:
- A more certain way to attack religion is by favor, by the comforts of life, by the hope of wealth; not by what reminds one of it, but by what makes one forget it; not by what makes one indignant, but by what makes men lukewarm, when other passions act on our souls, and those which religion inspires are silent. In the matter of changing religion, State favors are stronger than penalties.
Not surprisingly, the result of this alliance isn't a more God-honoring system of government. In fact, there are some striking similarities between the Roman Empire of Constantine and the United States of America. What we are witnessing is the rise of a modern Constantinian church-state, characterized by a shift among Christians toward a more militaristic worldview.
You may recall Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, who stated unequivocally that terrorists are "after us because we're a Christian nation." Boykin implied that our "Christian nation" is leading the charge in what is in fact a spiritual war against Satan, and he also said that Bush is "in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this."
It seems George W. Bush, also a professing Christian, agrees. During a 2004 campaign meeting with an Amish group in Lancaster, Penn., the president said, "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job."
"Christianese" is like a second language for Washington politicians. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush (or was it God speaking through him?) announced the beginning of his "war on terror," claiming that it wouldn't end "until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."
Compare Bush's statement with the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 12:30: "Whoever is not with me is against me …" It was no coincidence. Bush knew that his worldwide crusade could only work with the support of his evangelical Christian base. And, sad to say, those on the "religious right" were all too eager to join in the bloodshed.
But none were content to limit the fight to terrorists. Bush expanded the conflict to include nations that had not even attacked our own. When he labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "Axis of Evil," he was sending the nations of the world a not-so-subtle warning that they dare not mess with America. In essence, Bush was securing his place in the hearts and minds of Christians as Emperor of the Holy American Empire.
It's as if our leader received a divine revelation and we are simply following along, thinking that we are doing God's will. As Constantine's armies rallied behind the cross, we hold aloft the American flag as our sacred symbol--and by this sign, we conquer.
Unfortunately, what Constantine claimed to have seen was not a sign from God. It goes against the words of Jesus, who said to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world" (John 18:36).
The Apostle Paul reinforced this when he wrote, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12). And yet American Christians today praise the holy crusade against terror as if the spiritual forces of evil can be defeated with troops, bombs and democracy.
We Christians need to realize that even though the American flag is displayed prominently in so many church sanctuaries, Christ does not share his throne with the state. When lying politicians invoke the name of God as they are sworn into office, we should be offended that our Lord's name is being taken in vain. When people criticize U.S. policies, we need to consider that America isn't the church, and the Body of Christ isn't bound by national borders or restricted to any particular geographic location. And when the government promises financial incentives to churches, we must remember that we cannot serve two masters.
Failure to distinguish between God and country, church and state, can be a deadly sin. As Alistair Kee wrote of Constantine the Great:
- He conquered the Christian church. The conquest was complete, extending over doctrine, liturgy, art and architecture, comity, ethos and ethics. And this is the greatest irony, that Constantine achieved by kindness what his predecessors had not been able to achieve by force. Without a threat or a blow, and all unsuspecting, the Christians were led into captivity and their religion transformed into a new imperial cult. … But this achievement, unheralded then, unrecognized now, represents Constantine's greatest conquest, the one which has persisted largely unchallenged through the centuries in Europe and wherever European Christianity has spread.