review of “The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World,” by Allan R. Bevere (part three)

Allan R. Bevere, in his book, The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World points out that even though the Constantinianism of the Roman Empire is gone (and the Constantinianism of the nation-states of Europe is fading, largely due to their secularization) Constantinianism today is alive and well in no less than America.

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, two of the most influential American founders put their stamp indelibly on this new republic. There is no doubt that they wanted to keep religion separate from the state, i.e., they did not want a state-church union. Actually they both had respect for the nonorthodox Deistic version of Christianity, in good keeping with their Enlightenment ideals.

As long as the church was severed from the old ties of the past so that it could not assert itself in state affairs, they were more than happy to receive the benefits to the state the church could give. In fact the church was good, perhaps even indispensable  in their minds for the good of this new state, even as it had been indispensable in Constantine’s mind for the good of the Roman Empire state. Both were religious after a fashion. Jefferson attended services regularly, and his Jefferson Bible is well known in history. And there was no American founder who seemed more concern with virtue, and specific marks of it than Franklin. The church’s doctrine in Jefferson and Franklin’s view was at best irrelevant and beside the point, although they could put up with it as long as the church met the desired end:  simply to make good citizens of the state.

Allan calls Jefferson and Franklin Constantine’s modern lieutenants. Even if unwittingly, by their formative influence in the fledgling republic they continue, even though in a different form, the heart of Constantinianism. The church had come to see itself as having a role in world affairs strictly as a support or arm of the state. The church’s piety had become largely private and invisible as far as the political sphere goes. It had indirect bearing on the world, but no direct influence on it, since the church was mainly about one’s relationship to God, to be worked out in the world with no direct challenge to the powers that be on the terms of God’s kingdom come in Jesus. In other words, the church would not interfere with the state, on how America would be run, but would lend its support to America by making good citizens who would help make America and its ideals work. And to a large extent it was the church, and Christians who did just that.

Although the church itself did have its own set of ethics, there would be the continued inherited tendency through Constantinianism, to apply those virtues to the fulfillment of the nation-state. And the tradition would continue, began by Ambrose and Augustine, who applied worldly ethics especially from Cicero so that the church could participate fully in all the necessary machinations of the state.

The Sermon on the Mount and the teaching of the kingdom of God coming to earth in Jesus had long since been abandoned as far as having any practical bearing for present life. There could be application only in part and in limited ways since the church continued to be immersed in the “reality” of the state. Even though the form of Constantinianism had changed, essentially nothing had changed. The church would continue to see politics in terms of the state, and would seek to influence and be a player in such, on the state’s terms.

In fact the church would not only utilize worldly philosophical sources to be actively involved in the affairs of the state. It would also find a hermeneutic, or way of interpreting scripture which applies directives and promises from scripture to the state which were addressed to and apply only to the two nations God has called into existence to be his people, Israel and the church, the church called “a holy nation” as “the people of God.” Both the religious right and the religious left of today are equally guilty of carrying on this tradition. God’s politics is not to be found in either, but as we will see tomorrow, is found elsewhere. All but lost at least as far as understanding goes, but found in no less than the church itself.

part one
part two
part four
part five, the conclusion