U.S. Christians should thank Constantine, not Jesus, for their power

U.S. Christians should thank Constantine, not Jesus, for their power April 1, 2020

Keep this in mind: When top American government leaders invoke the notion of “religious tradition” as justification for pursuing theocracy in the U.S., they are actually referring to a political rather than spiritual notion.

judeo-christian tradition islam history politics america
Satirical greeting card invoking the medieval Crusades. In fact, the Christian crusades were mostly a tool of political power. (Herry Lawford, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

For example, when the Founding Fathers crafted America’s seminal Declaration of Independence and Constitution, they were laser-focused not on establishing a foundationally religious nation ruled by God but a secular one governed by human beings. In fact, the Founders — Jefferson, Madison, Adams, et al. — designed the founding documents purposely to keep faith as far from government in the new land as possible.

That always-evangelizing Christians then succeeded over the centuries in interlacing their faith in all things American, including deeply into government and tax-funded public life at odds with the Founders’ intentions, does not today mean that the U.S. is now a “Christian nation” with a Christian “religious tradition.”

It is a secular democracy in which religion is foundationally subordinate.

America is still a majority-Christian country, to be sure — about 70 percent of the populace is affiliated with the faith — but the government was originally and purposefully created nonreligious and remains so. So, the accurate way to describe our nation is as democratic republic with a secular governance tradition, whose majority population at the moment happens to adhere to one particular religion. The nation is not governed by the Christian doctrines of its majority population — it’s alleged “religious tradition” — but by evidence-based, wholly secular reason as the Founders envisioned.

Indeed, this faux conjoining of governance and religion is a continuing historical deception. At least for Christianity and Islam, the two dominant monotheistic faiths worldwide currently, government power bequeathed influence to religion, not necessarily the other way around.

This is pointed out in an article the year’s first issue of Skeptic magazine (available only by subscription), titled “Can We Ever Explain It All? Eight Key Points From World History.”

“The differences between Christianity and Islam, in terms of the relation of church/mosque and state, are really about how they intertwined with the power structure,” wrote Chris Edwards in Skeptic. “When Roman Emperor Constantine (reigned 306-337 A.D.) elevated Christianity, he seemed only to know that the religion featured one god, and this fit his desire to have an empire with ‘one God, one emperor. Because Christianity was already three centuries old and had aq core message of sorts, certain aspects of the faith did not fit well with the power structure; hence the separation of secular and religious powers that developed.”

In other words, when Constantine deigned to acknowledge Christianity in his realm, he did so to simplify his temporal, meaning worldly governance, not to incorporate its supernatural religious dogma and its presumed absolute authority (by church leaders) into his rule.

So, if Constantine had not purposely removed Christianity’s stigma in his empire, the faith may have evolved along a different, possibly far less consequential trajectory in Western history. Some other faith might now dominate in the United States. In this sense, an emperor’s enormous political power, not a faith’s irresistible popularity, was the key original factor in Christianity’s rise.

I refer to this in my new book, Holy Smoke: How Christianity smothered the American dream. I’ve long believed that without Constantine’s momentous intercession in support of Christianity in the 4th century — a kind of deus ex machina moment of salvation for the faithful — America likely would have evolved into a far different spiritual (or nonspiritual) place.

Politics is the thing, not religion.

Likewise with Islam, Edwards contends in his Skeptic piece:

“[Islam’s prophet] Mohammed and Islam were both created from whole cloth to establiksh a religion/political power that suited the needs of 7th and 8th century Arabs who suddenly found themselves ruling an empire roughly the size of Rome at its height. … Clearly, something happened in the seventh century that caused the Arabs to conquer outside of their peninsula. However, it is more likely that the Bedouins had raided north many times before the 630s [Mohammed died in 632 A.D.] but had bumped into the Byzantine and Persian empires at a time when those empires possessed real military strength.”

But the Arab conquests early in the 7th century corresponded to a slump in Byzantine and Persian power when both those civilizations grew exhausted by constant warfare against each other, Edwards explains.

He argues that the conquering Arab leaders late in the 7th century incorporated Islam and its prophet into their governing strategy as they came into contact with other monotheistic civilizations, Christian and Judaic.

“Mohammed and Islam were born as a literary tradition and as a legal code [the Holy Quran] for governing an empire,” Edwards asserts

Thus, the Arab leaders co-opted Islamic doctrines because they “reflected” rulers’ temporal needs, not because Islam dominated Arab life at the time and thus was an inexorable ruling template. Of course, as we see today, Islam did ultimately grow to dominate Arab life after receiving its imprimatur, its sanctioning, from the caliphs.

Once again then, politics is the thing.

Edwards concludes that the idea of “religious tradition” in history is often wishful and unfounded.

“No historical veracity at all should be given to the gospels [or] Islamic tradition. Too many world historians cite religious traditions as being facts in the same category as, say, the 2008 election of Barack Obama, and this causes confusion.”

So when, say, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr invokes the “Judeo-Christian tradition” as America’s founding doctrine, he’s not only wrong but proclaiming the polar opposite of the secular tradition our Founding Fathers fervently labored to embed in their new land.

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