Constantine, Putin, Trump and the co-opting of religion

The Australian kangaroo and the American white-tailed deer are said to have evolved to dominate a very similar ecological niche. Both comprise the greatest number of large, undomesticated, plant-eating mammals on their respective continents, and both are amazingly adaptable to the pressures of human appropriation of the land. They are both, however, less adaptable to the threat of the automobile.

In my view, we can say a similar thing about the Russian Orthodox Church and American Evangelical Christianity. Both subgroups of Christianity have evolved to dominate much of their territory and culturally-visible religious “air-time.” When the U.S. media says the word “Christian” today, they almost always mean “Evangelical Christian,” despite the numerous other denominations with much longer pedigree and widely different views on social issues. As I have noted before, a male Baptist from Alabama and a female Episcopalian from Massachusetts have little common ground on any social issue of importance, but only the Baptist’s views are commonly reported as “Christian.”

Both Russian Orthodoxy and American Evangelicalism have also adapted into cozy relationships with autocratic and non-religious governing forces. I am assuming here that you realize that both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have never really personally practiced any traditional “religious ethic” in their respective professional or personal lives. If that is news to you, then you are probably in the wrong place.

About a year ago the “Erasmus” blog of The Economist magazine, which periodically explores “the interplay between religion and policy,” wrote about the parallels between these two variants of Christianity, as well as their closer relationship with each other since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. [1] Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, appears to be a key link between both the Russian church and President Trump.

Constantine the Great’s “great bargain”

My perspective on this relationship is that we are seeing an application of the “alternative lesson” of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (CE 272 –337). The “traditional story” is that Constantine boldly converted to Christianity and then made the Roman Catholic Church the official religion of the empire.

The “alternative story,” and the version most accepted by historians not in the most conservative religious movements, is that Constantine did not really convert to Christianity until he was on his deathbed, but he used the Edict of Milan (CE 313) to legitimize the faith, thus stopping its persecution throughout the empire and stabilizing the political situation. Christianity did not become the “state religion” until the reign of Emperor Theodosius I in 380.

It is the intent of Constantine’s decree that has long been debated. Rather than an act of religious conversion, most scholars now see this Edict as a political move. In essence, he realized that if he gave the Church “control over Heaven,” that is, over the day-to-day behavioral lives and “post-life” fate of the citizenry of the Empire, the church leaders would willingly give him “control over Earth,” that is, unfettered political power over the populace and the political fealty of the church leaders to the Emperor.

To Constantine, this likely was a “good deal.” The Church “ran interference” for Constantine, keeping the opposition down, which allowed him unfettered power to enforce Roman law, to levy taxes, and to eliminate dissidents with impunity. Constantine does not have the reputation of having been a particularly “kind and benevolent” leader. Rather, he freely exercised the raw political power available to him as necessary; he would have not survived otherwise. In recognizing the Church, however, he found a politically-astute way to have someone else help with general pacification.

The earlier writings of the Apostle Paul, coincidentally from the Epistle to the Romans, and famously quoted recently by Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, were helpful in this regard, and it is helpful to read these words in the context of heavy Roman rule:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7 NRSV)

In short, Constantine co-opted the Church, and the people were then under the heavy boot of two authorities. The Church controlled much of daily life and began to extract wealth from the people with the permission of the State, and meanwhile the State was free to levy more taxes for its own support, to continue foreign adventures, and to depend on the Church to keep down opposition at home.

The Putin-Russian Orthodox Alliance

After years of subjugation and loss of power during the Soviet era, the Russian Orthodox Church was freed of its bonds as Perestroika surged through Russia during the 1980s. The rise to political power of Vladimir Putin, becoming prime minister in 1999 and later president, saw an even closer alliance between the Church and the State.

There are strong parallels here to Constantine’s “great bargain.” The Russian Orthodox Church now has greater power than it has had since the 19th century, but it comes with a different set of political restrictions as compared to its existence under the Soviets or the czars. In a similar vein, the Church exercises a heavy “moral conservatism” on the people in some areas, such as the active suppression of same-sex relationships, and it has also has made it much more difficult for other Christian organizations to function, such as limiting proselytizing by Protestant groups, Mormons, and others. [2]

At the same time, the Church has openly embraced Russian nationalism and provides unquestioned support to Vladimir Putin’s political activities. And as with Constantine, Putin and his friends are largely exempt from the religious restrictions under which the rest of the people live.

Essentially, we have Constantine’s “great bargain” reconstituted, with the Church providing “Heavenly blessings” and the State in near-complete control over political and economic life, and all the while enriching the political elite. Vladimir Putin is now reputed to be the richest man in the world, and the Russian Orthodox Church has regained much of is economic power as well. [3]

Donald Trump and the American Evangelicals

And if you haven’t guessed by now, I see a lot of parallels between the co-opting approaches of Constantine and Putin toward the dominant religion in the relationship between Donald Trump and the loosely-defined Christian Evangelical movement in the United States. So how can I do comparison this without offending someone? I probably can’t, but let’s try.

First, let’s start with what I think is an undeniable fact. Most American religious bodies have traditionally shied away from overt and official ties to American political entities under the longstanding doctrine of “separation of church and state.” Ironically, American Baptists were among the most adamant about securing this separation pledge at the time of Thomas Jefferson, because they perceived the threat of the Anglican Church becoming the “State Church” of the new nation. Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802 was sent specifically to address this threat. [4]

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

One of the major exceptions to this rule would be the African-American churches, and some white churches in partnership, before and after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is accurate, I would assert, that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal citizenship rights for black Americans after the Civil War was an open lie, and it took a political “whop on the side of the head” to address this very fundamental social inequity. Many churches and ministers took on the open political advocacy required to secure the first rungs for civil rights of black Americans, because the Presidency, the courts, and the Congress failed to do so. It is better to see this, in my view, as a Constitutional failure, not because of the churches, rather because of the government itself failed to enforce its own Constitution for many years (and, arguably, still).

Baptist minister Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was founded in 1979 and found its voice during the Reagan years. Initially trying to include conservative Catholics, Mormons and Jews in his mission, Falwell made open alliances with politicians and provided, through their church constituents, financial and organizing support in opposition to expanded civil rights for minorities, as well as standing against emerging challenges from feminists, the uncloseting LGBTQ community, and advocates of reproductive choice. The noted historian of religion Garry Wills recently noted that the “religious right has long been not a religion but an ideology.” [5]

By the end of the Reagan administration, the Moral Majority proved increasingly an unwelcome place for Catholics, Jews and Mormons, and it lost a lot of its financial base. However, many Baptists, Pentecostals and other conservative religious denominations found renewed life under the general “Evangelical” label.

The rising political power of the megachurch

The rise of the megachurch, such as Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California and Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Church in Illinois loosened staid traditional worship throughout the 1980s with contemporary music styles and informal preaching methods, aided by new audio-visual technologies. These churches were organized more as “franchisers” rather than as traditional denominations, yet stayed close to five “Fundamentalist” doctrinal principles dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. Biblical references to social justice, by the way, were not among the classic five principles despite their centrality to the preaching of Jesus. [see note 6 below]

Originally focused on “praise-style” worship and family ministry, these groups reignited their drive for open political power after Barack Obama was elected President, exposing the American Southern cultural roots of many of the founders, such as Jerry Falwell, Junior, son of the Moral Majority founder, and the aforementioned Franklin Graham. Fealty to the Republican Party and open opposition to the Black President on social media became unspoken (and spoken) doctrinal planks in many Evangelical churches.

Note also that the “Juniors” Graham and Falwell have long been more political voices than religious ones (as suggested by the Garry Wills quote above). Indeed, Falwell’s formal theology credentials are minuscule. He runs his father’s Liberty University now more as a business and political base. By this time, they had both become personally very wealthy, thanks to the mailing lists and sponsoring church congregations cultivated by their fathers, using religious exemptions to tax laws to great personal advantage, and they increasingly began sounding more like “aggrieved cultural Confederates” than “Christian” in their public messages.

The 2016 election

During the initial months of the 2016 Republican primary season, Texas Senator Ted Cruz sought to form a close alliance with Evangelical groups, and indeed used the support of influential Iowa religious leader Robert Vander Plaats to win the important Iowa caucus. However, in an amazing sequence of fast, one-by-one character assassinations of the large Republican Primary field (including Cruz, Jeb Bush and at least fourteen others), and without much Evangelical objection to this nasty tactic, Donald Trump not only demolished his political opposition, but also got most of the Evangelical leaders on board, despite the businessman’s infamous and tawdry past (and present). [7]

This is where I see the American version of Constantine’s “great bargain” coming into fruition. Donald Trump basically promised the Evangelicals control over the very label of “Christian” in public life. “Christian values,” which were really more Fundamentalist doctrine rather than broader Christian ethical norms, would be forced on the populace (especially reinvigorated opposition to the LGBTQ community and women’s reproductive rights) in return for unquestioned political support no matter how outrageous the personal conduct and speech of Mr. Trump. And like Putin and Constantine, none of the traditional Christian norms of decency and moral probity would be demanded either of Trump or his appointees. [8]

Again, Trump promised the Evangelicals “control over Heaven” in exchange for his own autocratic “control over Earth.” And like with Constantine, it proved a “good deal.” Most modern scholars would say that Constantine got that “good deal” because he didn’t really believe “Heaven” existed, so he gave away nothing. In case you have missed it, Trump appears to believe the same way.

That’s where we are at, folks. History repeats itself, with religion itself co-opted by the Emperor.

And personally I will admit that, to me, “Heaven” is whatever eternal resting place does not include the Juniors Falwell and Graham, even if that is an urn of ashes sitting on top of the refrigerator.


Notes:

  1. Erasmus. “The Axis between Russian Orthodox and American Evangelicals Is Intact.” The Economist, 14 July 2017.
  2. Showalter, Brandon. “Christians in Russia Under Attack From Putin’s Law Banning Evangelism Outside of Churches.” The Christian Post, 21 July 2016.
  3. Morris, David Z. “Vladimir Putin Is Reportedly Richer Than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos Combined.” Fortune, 29 July 2017.
  4. “Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists.” Library of Congress.
  5. Wills, Garry. “The Pious Presidency of Jimmy Carter.” The New York Times, 26 Apr. 2018.
  6. American Christian Fundamentalism has much of its roots in the Niagara Bible Conference of the late 1800s and a series of essays entitled “The Fundamentals,” published between 1910 and 1915. These centered on six “fundamental” points of Christian doctrine, which largely remain the focus of American Evangelicalism today:
    • The doctrinal inerrancy of the Bible.
    • The literal nature of the biblical accounts, especially regarding the miracles of Jesus and the six-day Creation account in Genesis.
    • The virgin birth of Jesus.
    • The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ.
    • The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (“Christ died for my sins”).
  7. For my take on how this fast reversal of longstanding moral norms occurred, see my earlier post on “The math of changing your mind.”
  8. For a look at the lack of “ethical nuance” in Fundamentalist views on abortion, see this recent post. For a look at the Fundamentalist language excusing of Trump’s violation of their traditional moral values, see this recent post.

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