How Bush Survives
Once again, Christians have given George W. Bush a pass for his unconstitutional actions. My question is: Why? How does he survive?
Basically, Mr. Bush gets away with his usurpations because the evangelical public views him as a sincere and earnest Christian. Christianity has come to be identified with the state in such a way that would have shocked the earliest Christians. How did this fundamental transition take place?
The sharp distinction between the pre- and post-Constantinian church may help us answer this question. Tertullian (150-220), an early Christian apologist, argued that if law was not based on justice it was tyranny. He affirmed a strong notion of conscientious commitment to the “good,” even if that meant disobeying a law. As he wrote in his Apology, “If I have found what your law prohibits to be good…has it not lost its power to debar me from it?” He furthermore insisted that a law is not only to be justly administered, it must be seen to be just by those who were expected to obey it: “…it is not enough that a law is just, nor that a judge should be convinced of its justice; those from whom obedience is expected should have that conviction too.”
Unlike President Bush and most neocon evangelicals, Tertullian affirmed a sharp distinction between the divine and human spheres. “As the divine and human are ever opposed to each other, when we are condemned by you [the state], we are acquitted by the Highest.” Ultimately, it was this kind of radical obedience to God that formed the basis of Tertullian’s response to the state. It led to the sort of uncompromising resistance and a measure of indifference to the complexities of civil rule that characterized (former) Judge Roy Moore’s stance in the Alabama Ten Commandments case.
The contrast between Tertullian’s Apology and Eusebius’s (260-337) panegyric written to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Constantine’s reign on July 25, 335 is remarkable. Constantine had become the supreme ruler in the West, having seen (according to tradition) the sign of the cross in the sky with the words In hoc signo vinces, “in this sign you will conquer.” Largely as the result of a series of bloody and treacherous deeds, he had become the sole ruler of the Empire and had made Christianity its official religion. It was at this point that a fundamental shift in the church’s perception of the state took place and a new attitude toward political power was assumed by Christians.
Although Eusebius never acknowledged the emperor as divine, he regarded him as more than a mere mortal. In his “Oration in Praise of the Emperor Constantine Pronounced on the Thirtieth Anniversary of His Reign,” he came to view the emperor as the favored one whom God “receives,” “a transcript of divine sovereignty,” “an imitation of God himself,” a representative of the divine Logos who “reigns from ages which had no beginning.” He was a “friend of God” and “an interpreter of the Word of God,” one who frames “his earthly government according to the pattern of that divine original, feeling strength in its conformity to the Monarchy of God.”
Thus with the rise of Constantine a decisively new phase of church-state relationships had been reached. The political implications of the early church’s radical monotheism were cast aside, the monarchy was sacralized, and the church elevated civil authority to a status not hitherto known within Christianity. Note carefully that this was not the result of official persecution by the state. On the contrary, it was the church’s willing theological legitimation of Constantine that sealed its political captivity.
It seems to me that this close relationship between church and state is a major reason, perhaps even the ultimate reason, why so many evangelical Christians excuse the unconstitutional federalization of our country, a process that has only increased in celerity since the Bush administration came to power. But the ideological foundation was laid in the fourth century. Since that time the concept of political rule (and blind obeisance by the public) would enjoy a theological legitimation against which opponents of a particular civil authority could only prevail in the most extenuating circumstances.
Tertullian of Carthage was not primarily interested in political renewal at all. He simply wanted a government that would leave the church to affirm its obedience to God without unnecessary interference from the state. It was this theological commitment that led to political confrontation between the church and the Roman state. The highest loyalty that Tertullian believed he could bring to the state was to convince it that its authority was under God and that it therefore was accountable to Him. But that was then. Today, accommodation for political advantage is the name of the game, even if this means theological compromise.
Alistair Kee once noted: “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.”
And that just about says it all.
November 25, 2004
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.