What follows is a review essay from 2011 of two books on religion and politics, with decidedly different subjects. Will it help Democrats pick Mayor Pete over Professor Warren? Will it inspire Republicans to abandon President Trump? Will it even offer guidance on health insurance premiums and gender-neutral bathrooms? Not really. But it may help Christians to avoid reading too much religious significance into what Augustine called the City of Man.
Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture, by Wayne Grudem. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, 624 pages, $39.99, cloth.
Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, by Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010, 373 pages, $27.00, paper.
The vast literature on religion and politics summons up Qoheleth’s oft-quoted remark, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Eccl. 12:12). Remarkable indeed is the amount of published material on questions surrounding church and state, at least in the United States. For instance, in 1960, when despite strong anti-Catholic prejudice John F. Kennedy prevailed over Richard Nixon as the first Roman Catholic president, the number of books published on church and state ran to eighteen, up from five titles during the previous year. Figures returned to 1950s levels until 1976 when the bicentennial primed the pump of scholarly output. In 1976 publishers produced seventeen books. The presidency of Ronald Reagan and the presence of the Moral Majority would help to sustain the market: in 1980 eighteen and in 1981 fifteen books were devoted to church and state themes. By 1984 when the critique of secularism was taking hold, the number of books rose to thirty. Since then the numbers have only escalated: forty-seven in 1990, seventy-four in 1996; forty-four in 2000; eighty-one in 2004, and 188 in 2008. Obviously, if dinner conversations unravel when interlocutors introduce religion and politics, and if controversy sells, then publishers hoping to generate a return on their investment in an author, paper, cover art, and advertizing might look to religion and politics as a valuable topic. Still, doesn’t Qoheleth have a point? Hasn’t all this publishing wearied the subject, if not the readers?
The good news is that the titles under review demonstrate that more can be said, even if readers debate whether it needed to be. (For what it’s worth, these were two of sixty books published in 2010 on religion and politics.) Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible is textbook in size and arrangement of material, running from basic principles (about one-quarter of the book), to specific issues (about two-thirds) ranging from American foreign relations with Israel to farm subsidies, and concluding observations (one-eighth). Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine is part biography of the first Christian emperor, assessment of his policies, and apology for Constantinianism (more below). Leithart is specifically intent to defend Constantine from the sort of criticisms leveled and made popular by John Howard Yoder, the Anabaptist ethicist who coined the term Constantinianism to highlight the ways in which the church’s entanglement with the state leads to unfaithfulness and even apostasy.
The cover art for each book is revealing. For Leithart’s the image from a reproduction of Constantine in an act of worship tells readers where the book is headed—a portrait of the emperor as a Christian one. Grudem’s book features the dome of the U.S. Capital building with a U.S. flag flying in front. What each author ends up doing is baptizing his subject. In Leithart’s case, Constantine is a model for Christian politics. For Grudem, the United States and its ideals of freedom and democracy are fundamentally Christian versions of civil polity; he even includes the full text of the Declaration of Independence in the chapter on biblical principles of government. The result is two books, published in the same year, written by two white men of conservative Protestant backgrounds in the United States, equipped with biblical and theological arguments, both making a case for Christian politics from wildly different political orders—one a Roman emperor, the other a federal republic. Readers may reasonably wonder if these authors are letting their subjects—the United States and Constantine’s empire—determine Christian politics or are basing their arguments on biblical teaching and theological reflection.
Grudem’s book gives the impression of starting from biblical and theological ideals before moving to application. Few will disagree with his distillation of biblical teaching about civil government. Grudem argues that governments should punish evil and reward good, God is sovereign over all earthly powers, Christians have a duty to submit to the powers that God has ordained, and that magistrates should recognize the limits of their power to change human hearts. Less certain is Grudem’s contention that popular sovereignty, democracy, and liberty are political ideals taught by Scripture. His explanation of these points is not necessarily wrong, but neither are his arguments extensive—Grudem’s desire for a comprehensive account of the subject means that he must sacrifice depth for breadth. And when he does explain a biblical principle, the ideal looks less like a good and necessary consequence of Scripture than it does an expression of Grudem’s own political outlook. For instance, he objects to regulations that would force the use of paper instead of plastic grocery bags and uses this illustration to show that any “increase in governmental regulation of life is also an incremental removal of some measure of human liberty” (94, emphasis Grudem’s). Examples like this suggest that Grudem is approaching Scripture—as we all do—looking for justification of previously held convictions. But this is much more of a temptation for the topic of politics, because the New Testament—at least—has so little to say about the nature and obligations of civil government after the fall of Israel. Christ and the apostles had another government in mind.
Another reason for Grudem’s failure to distinguish carefully between personal convictions and biblical teaching is his decision to begin a book—purportedly “according to the Bible”—with a discussion of the right view of Christianity and politics. In his organization of material, Grudem places “biblical principles” in chapter three behind “wrong views” about Christians and government and his own “better solution.” This arrangement suggests that the author may be setting the agenda for the subject rather than Scripture itself. The wrong views include: government should compel religion; government should exclude religion; all government is evil and demonic; do evangelism, not politics; and do politics, not evangelism. Instead of these, Grudem proposes significant Christian influence on government as the biblical solution. Biblical support for the idea that Christians should seek to influence civil government according to God’s moral standards comes from the examples of Daniel in the Old Testament and John the Baptist in the New. Grudem also finds inspiration from the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. These examples, along with relevant biblical, historical, and theological reflection, lead Grudem to conclude that pastors have some responsibility to teach and preach on significant moral issues at stake in elections and that Christians have an obligation to be well informed and vote intelligently. Since Grudem himself includes sections on Cap and Trade legislation, the CIA, and farm subsidies by the federal government, readers might well surmise that pastors have permission to teach and preach on as many issues as Grudem treats in his account of biblical teaching on government. Yet, some readers would also be befuddled to find where Scripture actually speaks to governmental regulation of electronic media implicitly or explicitly.Leithart is more direct in defending Constantine than Grudem is in affirming the American form of government, but whether the former actually advocates imperial rule as the Christian norm for politics is debatable. Leithart is especially eager to defend Constantine from the charge, popularized by John Howard Yoder, of Constantinianism. According to Leithart, who summarizes Yoder, Constantinianism refers to “the wedding of piety to power,” or the “notion that the empire or the state, the ruler of civil government rather than the church, is the primary bearer of meaning in history” (176). This “heresy,” as Yoder referred to it, could happen at any time and he, as an Anabaptist, was inclined to regard the magisterial Reformation as Constantinian. But because the church first gained a position of dominance through the civil rule of Constantine, he bears the name for this particular affliction.
Leithart’s book is less a defense of Constantine per se than the political theological compound of state-sanctioned churches. To be sure, the book helpfully sets Constantine in the context of imperial politics and offers a series of charitable readings of the emperor’s activities and policies that other historians have judged to be un-Christian or cynical. Leithart himself sounds fairly cynical himself toward the end of the book when he summarizes Constantine’s career:
He liked to see the big picture and could be impatient with details. He had a strong sense of justice, and when aroused by what he believed unjust, he could be imperious, brutal, hectoring. He was aggressive and ambitious but was a strategist with the self-restraint to wait out an opponent…. He enjoyed the kitschy gaudiness of the court and its adornments; the flowered robe rested easily on his shoulders, he liked his jeweled slippers, and he did not think a golden throne too much. But he also knew that he should treat it with disdain, and that disdain was sincere too. He was an imperial performer who liked performing but knew he was assuming a role…. His religion went to the edge of superstition; he was a dreamer and visionary and never quite gave up the expectation that examining a liver or the stars might yield a clue about the future. He believed that the Christian God guaranteed the success of his wars and that God had called him to support the church. (301-2)
But if Leithart judges Constantine a mixed bag, he is impressed by Constantine the emperor. Crucial here is the idea that Constantine “baptized” Rome. Leithart is not referring to washing persons with water as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace but to what Constantine did to end the sacrificial system within the Roman Empire. Of course, Israel had its own pattern of sacrifices, and the pagan religions of Greece and Rome had their own rites of animal sacrifice. But with the end of Rome’s religious sacrifices, Leithart argues, came the announcement of the gospel to the empire’s political order. And in the same way that baptism begins the Christian’s life of faith and repentance, so Constantine’s “baptism” of Rome started the empire and its successor (Christendom) on an era of Christian history. “For millennia every empire, every city, every nation and tribe was organized around sacrifice,” Leithart writes. “We are not, and we have Constantine to thank for that.” (329) And the basis for this end of sacrifice was Constantine’s determination to welcome the church into his realm, the one political order that had already been “de-sacrificed” thanks to the final and ultimate sacrifice of Christ.
Lacking in Leithart’s important point about the end of religious sacrifice is a notion that also eludes Grudem’s grasp—namely, that the New Testament, Christ, and the apostles offer no prescriptions about civil polity other than that believers should submit to the established authorities. They did prescribe a spiritual polity—the church—and in that order the sacrifices of both the Jewish and pagan peoples came to an end. But the Christian church was an adaptable institution that could exist—even despite persecution—in a variety of political orders, whether a pagan empire or a federal republic. In which case, both books assume what they do not prove. Each author in his own way suggests that for a kingdom as substantial as Christ’s to be great, it must have a civil expression. Leithart even says in his very last sentence that if modern civilization is to avoid “apocalypse” it must also come forward to be baptized the way Rome was (342).
In point of fact, Constantine’s baptism of Rome could not prevent the empire’s fall any more than restoring a Christian influence in the United States will avert the American republic’s demise. Christ died for his church, not for political orders. The only way for civilians to avoid judgment is not through the policies of Christian rulers but by being baptized and joining the body of Christ. No matter where such Christians live, no matter what the political order to which they submit, their future is secure if they belong to the king who is also a prophet and a priest.