The issue of church establishment is one which Christians need to start thinking seriously about again and commence reading, writing and debating the teachings of Scripture and of the historical church. In the West our debates and discussions and research will of necessity be largely academic and theoretical (although not completely so) because of the small (and shrinking) proportion of the population that is Christian and because of the dominant strength of secularism.
The same cannot be said of other regions and countries, where Christian growth is explosive. It is also true that in countries where Christians live under authoritarian governments and the church continues by means of state permission, the issue of church and state is alive and very pressing.
But we in the West have one great contribution to make to this discussion: we have proven that a secular public square, neutral to religion, is a chimerical myth. It is an oxymoron.
Better to argue that wine is a non-alcoholic drink. The state is incurably a religious institution and it operates in accordance with religious constructs insofar as all religions deal with values and ultimate beliefs regarding human birth, life, and death--and all things in between. A particular state always reflects the establishment of one religion or another in its laws, rules, and regulations. The West has foisted upon itself an irrational proposition that the state can be above religion and religious belief and that it takes to itself responsibility for those parts of life which are secular and irreligious. It has failed miserably--as was inevitable.
Even those professedly irreligious now see the folly of the West's position and argue trenchantly that neutrality is an impossibility and that the so-called neutral public square is an imposition of a particular perspective, philosophy, and world view upon all citizens. This is the West's great negative contribution to the debate about liberty and a Christian state establishment. Christians in the West are also slowly learning a related lesson: there is no such thing as private faith. There is only faith which inevitably has both private and public expression and reification.
Because these issues are of great moment, renewed study of Constantine the Great is essential. Constantine, as Roman emperor, established the Christian church in some important ways. He was not entirely consistent in his actions. There were few precedents to draw upon. Mistakes were obviously made. Nevertheless, mistakes and weaknesses and inconsistencies ought not offend us. There is still much to learn. Here are some of the most important things to consider:
1. His policy of toleration of all religions.Peter Leithart points out that it is the fourth point that would rile most today in the West. It strikes down the pretension of state neutrality with respect to religious belief. It runs counter to Western notions of liberty.
2. That religion is a matter of freedom and liberty of conscience.
3. Freedom is an opportunity for conversion to the true, Christian faith; but conversion cannot be forced, nor bribed.
4. The state was not neutral towards religions, but was most definitely Christian, reflecting the Emperor's own faith.
The apostle of religious freedom in the West is John Locke. Yet from the very beginning Locke ended up arguing for secular oppression and interference in religious practice under the guise of religious freedom. In other words, Locke demonstrates philosophically the reality which is now increasingly emerging before our eyes: state neutrality towards all religions eventually turns the state into a persecutor of religious belief.
Locke, says Leithart, assumes that the essence of religion is internal; the realm of the magistrate is that which is external--or what we today would call the "public square".
The church's realm is the care of souls, and everything external is committed to the civil magistrate. Such a definition of religious as nothing more than inward "belief" or piety is at odds with most major world religions, and is certainly at odds with Christian orthodoxy. [Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of and Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2010), p.142.]Locke also employed another foundational premise which is theologically radical--yet it also demonstrates apostles of neutral public squares draw upon religious dogmas and theological precepts to make their case.
In addition, Locke's claim about the character of religion depend on an equally radical disjunction of Old and New. If you want a de-Judaized faith, Locke provides it. He describes the Jewish commonwealth as "an absolute theocracy" and contrasts it with the faith of the new Testament. "If anyone can show me where there is a commonwealth at this time, constituted upon that found [i.e. established by God]," he wrote, "I will acknowledge that the ecclesiastical laws do there unavoidably become a part of the civil, and that the subjects of that government both may and ought to be kept in strict conformity with that Church by the civil power." It is nowhere to be found: "there is absolutely no such thing under the Gospel as a Christian commonwealth." (Ibid.)So, if a Christian commonwealth is an impossibility, what sort of commonwealth ought we to have? Well, one where the civil magistrate controls public religious expression, of course.
Though [Locke] claims to be arguing for toleration and freedom of religion, he ends up ceding final determinative authority over religion to the civil authorities. . . . [Believers] are inclined to "mix with their religious worship and speculative opinions other doctrines absolutely destructive to the society wherein they live." Catholics are especially apt to do this, in Locke's view, since they blend "opinions with their religion, reverencing them as fundamental truths, and submitting to them as articles of their faith," and therefore "ought not to be tolerated by the magistrate in the exercise of their religion . . . " (Ibid.)
But it gets worse. The Western apostle of religious liberty goes on to argue against religious groups which call for loyalty and attachment to fellow adherents greater than to fellow citizens. When a sect such as this becomes numerous, the
magistrate should do what he can "to lessen, break, and suppress the party, and so prevent the mischief." Quakers are tolerable because they are few, but "were they numerous enough to become dangerous to the state," they "would deserve the magistrate's care and watchfulness to suppress them." Magistrates would act even if Quakers are "no other way distinguished from the rest of his subject but by the bare keeping on their hats." Hats are a "very indifferent and trivial circumstance," yet too many people wearing the same hat might "endanger the government," and thus it is the magistrate's duty to "endeavour to suppress and weaken or dissolve any party of men which religion or any other thing hath united, to the manifest danger of his government." (Ibid., p. 143).Beware the subversive hats! Leithart points out that Locke's true position is nothing more than a theoretical endorsement of de Tocqueville's "tyranny of the majority". We might also add that in practical terms Locke's magistrate resembles Hobbes's Leviathan.
Not that this was in any way to be regarded as religious persecution. No, of course not. For religion is only ever inward. It has nothing to do with hats.
Locke is the apostle of the secular public square. He correctly shows us how it inevitably leads to religious oppression as we are now experiencing in the West. Try home schooling your children in Germany, for example. Or try wearing a burka to school in France, or a pendant cross to work in the United Kingdom.
Constantine's policy in these matters was more coherent than Locke's because it was more honest, says Leithart.
Locke pretends to offer a level playing field but tilts it in the direction of a latitudinarian and sectarian Protestantism. Constantine openly favoured one religion, Christianity, and dedicated the empire's pulpit, its incentives, is persuasive powers to encourage ultimate unity in religion. He allowed other religions to continue, in the hope that their adherents would convert. (Ibid., p. 144)We expect that if indeed a new Christendom emerges in the Southern hemisphere these issues will come inevitably to the fore Constantine has much to teach us, both positive and negative.