Elections: Constantine, Trump, etc. (2015)

Many people are sitting out elections or forced out of them. You may have never voted yourself – it would be interesting to hear why, if so. Some people in our Doing Theology time on May 2 never vote out of conviction. They might be rare in their conviction, but not in their practice. As of 2012, 27% of African Americans, 41% of Latinos, 42% of young adults (age 18-29), and 31% percent of unmarried women were eligible but unregistered to vote.

In the 2008 election, 2 to 3 million registered voters were prevented from voting because of various administrative problems, and 9 million eligible Americans were not registered because of residency rules or registration deadlines. The number of people barred from voting in 2008 because of such problems exceeded the popular vote margin of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her… wherever,” Donald Trump said of Megyn Kelly.

Even in this entertaining election cycle in which more people have voted than usual, huge numbers of people have never voted. Are they turned off by the odd things candidates say or the new extremes introduced by the fringe on the right (and also on the left)?

Why all the hubbub? I said it all goes back to Constantine.

I say that Americans have an attitude and a set of assumptions that can be traced clear back to the 300’s when it comes to how important they think their elections are.

It was in the 300’s that the Roman Emperor Constantine made a lot of changes that have been affecting the church around the world ever since. Constantine helped invent a “magisterial” Christianity in Europe and it has made most rulers since then extremely self-important. In the case of the United States’ Christianized, Enlightenment “democracy,” the whole electorate has been taught to be self-consciously a city on a hill, shining the light of freedom over a needy world with their vote for the most powerful office on the planet.

When we do theology about elections we run into the line that has always separated Reformed Christianity from Anabaptist. The Reformed Christians can be called part of “magisterial” Protestantism, retaining the sense of “magisterium” that also marks Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox members of the Church. Alistair McGrath says that reformers like Luther and Calvin, who had a huge influence in European and American forms of the church, taught that, “The magistrate had a right to authority within the church, just as the church could rely on the authority of the magistrate to enforce discipline, suppress heresy, or maintain order.” In addition, the term magister relates to the emphasis on authoritative teachers. Often this is seen in the names of theological schools descending from magisterial reformers (i.e. Lutheran and Calvinist).

“Radical” reformers, who were later called Anabaptists, thought the church had fallen from grace and wanted to restore it. They traced the root of the fall to point of the fusion of church and society of which Constantine was the architect, Eusebius the priest, Augustine the apologete, and the Crusades and Inquisition the culmination.

The vision of Constantine at the Milvian Bridge.
When Constantine claimed Christianity, he turned the church right-side up, so to speak, from its former upside-down reputation. He consciously thought he was baptizing the empire. Perhaps his motives were good. Many Christians in his day, like the historian of the Church, Eusebius, thought he was the gift of God to end persecution and to honor the faithfulness of the church as it triumphed over the evils of Rome. Christians in Constantine’s empire extolled him as their champion. Bishops personally escorted him into battle against rival nations. The church quickly adapted to this new opportunity and used empire means to achieve Kingdom ends. The adaptation meant the end of God-ordained, missional non-alignment with imperial powers.

The Anabaptist’s disgust with Constantinianism is not about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the ends toward which they wield such power. The shift labeled “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.

  • Jesus demonstrably did not take the same route as Constantine, although he received the title king.

When the Messiah came, he distanced himself from the Jerusalem establishment (John 2:13–21).

Jesus did not reconstitute Israel land-based empire based in Palestine but prepared his people to be scattered across the world by his Spirit (John 4: 21– 24; Acts 1: 8).

Jesus unmasked the powers’ claims to be benefactors and self-consciously adopted the suffering servant posture (Luke 22:25– 27).

Jesus proclaimed a kingdom whose citizens are committed to peacemaking, enemy love, and transnational disciple-making (Matt 5: 38– 48, 28: 19).

Previously scattered Jews from as far back as Jeremiah’s time formed synagogues throughout the world that became central to the church’s missionary expansion (Acts 9:19-22, 14:1, 17:1– 3).

The earliest Christians viewed themselves as aliens, exiles, strangers, and dispersed ones (Jas 1: 1; 1 Pet 1: 1, 2: 11-12) whose citizenship is in heaven as opposed to Rome or Jerusalem (Phil 3: 17-21).

  • American Christians and the American government have generally taken a Constantinian view of the world.

Why is America the watchdog of the world? It is Constantinian. That’s how Ronald Reagan can quote Jesus about a city on a hill via John Winthrop from the oval office. The state may have exiled Jesus in a quest for pluralism, but it has not lost its role as spiritual teacher and arbiter of public morals and faith. Washington is a large shrine to America’s saving purpose in the world.

John Howard Yoder said: “The most pertinent fact about the new state of things after Constantine and Augustine is not that Christians were no longer persecuted and began to be privileged, nor that emperors built churches and presided over ecumenical deliberations about the Trinity; what matters is that the two visible realities, church and world, were fused.” That is one reason Americans can spend two years electing the president. People think it is VERY important. When both Cruz and Kasich dropped out of the Republican race they both referred to God. Even Bernie Sanders has defended his spirituality.

When we were discussing these things the other night, someone brought up Romans 13 (and they could have included 1 Tim. 2 and 1 Peter 2) to defend this fusion. Anabaptists argue that those passages are about the responsibility of rulers to keep order, not about waging ideological wars against other states. The police function of the state must be kept limited. It can be so only when it is not used for bringing into existence an ideal order. In other words, it never falls upon the state to bring in the Kingdom of God. Do you wonder if one of our most Christian presidents believes this?

So there are big questions for the Jesus follower when presented with Trump’s or Clinton’s (or Sanders’) power-seeking, and promises to improve the land as well as the world with their leadership.

  • How does a Christian relate to elections? Nonparticipation? Prophetic? Compliance? Engagement?
  • Is there anything such as separation of church and state? Can Christians ever not be involved in society?
  • What should happen in this election and why, according to some direction you get from the Bible or the Holy Spirit (or however you say you are led)?

We did not dare presume to have all the answers, but we did feel some general direction. We are pretty much descendants of Anabaptists and the pre-Constantine church. Here are a few one-liners that hint at what we were hearing:

  • Do the Bible study about Jesus’ relationship with the rulers (above) in your cell. People are not doing this theology, they are done in by the media.
  • Help people listen. People are stuck in their own way of seeing others.
  • Love God, Love People. How? Love prayer. Whether you vote or not, do not get distracted from your central purpose by relentless propaganda.
  • Fight the system behind the person (Ephesians 6). There is a spiritual battle going on and it is not summed up by who wins the election.
  • The main way we respond to the ways of the world is to build the alternative: the Kingdom of God being lived out as the people of God, the church. We go to the system from the church and return to the church. We hope the grace we bring transforms and changes the world, but when we are not assured of that, we know who we are and where we come from and we preserve the possibilities of a better world by existing.
  • The Bible can’t really be seen if it is read from an empire perspective.
  • We should mentalize the election. Let’s get to our emotions and pray.
  • We should pray the election. Has anyone prayed about the election to get their opinion?
  • This might be the big question in doing theology about elections: “Is my citizenship in heaven?”

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