Why Theocracies Ruin Everything for Everybody

Posted: March 7, 2021 in Uncategorized

There was a time when Christianity was a movement, an enthusiast sect within Judaism that turned to a peasant prophet named Jesus as spiritual guide and master. So enduring was his legacy, they said, that he lived on, even beyond the cruelty of Roman crucifixion. His message and martyr’s death so spoke to some Jews and many Gentiles that a movement took root not only in Palestine but in the larger Greco-Roman world. Because the movement was small in number it was usually ignored. But other times, not unlike Jews, they were targeted for persecution.

During the reign of Constantine (CE 306-337) Christianity became the religion of the realm. Before we jump to any glorified conclusions, Constantine did not pursue this so much out of deep piety as for the sake of unifying his empire. He needed one religious center, much like the position occupied by the Roman gods of the past. In addition, he convened the Council of Nicaea (CE 325) to arrive at some uniformity for the church – setting the Biblical Canon, dates for holy days, devising a creed that articulated a common Christology, and the beginnings of canon law. Again, it was not his ecumenical passion that inspired Constantine to call the council. The church had to be on the same page so that the religion of the realm would be on the same page.

Some describe this turning point in history with blaring trumpets that announce the beginning of the Christian era. The truth, I think, is much more sobering. The announcement that Christianity was to be the religion of the realm most likely marked the ending of the real Jesus movement. What took its place was something else, a theocracy, a merger of empire with religion.

And what is the problem with that?

A theocracy requires at least two ingredients. First, an autocratic government that exerts absolute power. Second, an authoritarian religion that subscribes to and is willing to enforce its version of absolute truth.

That means an empire uses religion to legitimize its position and actions. And a religion benefits from the endorsement of the empire. The empire has everything to gain, of course. But what of the religious dimension?

For anyone who isn’t part of the empire-religion duo, theocracies are always bad news. In the case of Constantine and church every other religion suffered and would suffer through the centuries. The theocracy authorized persecution of minority religious voices. The theocracy provided social privilege to Christians and discrimination to non-Christians. It is bad in almost every regard and has been through all times and places, regardless of the empire or the religion involved.

But the theocracy shared by Constantine and Christians wasn’t only harmful to non-Christians. It also gutted the essence of the Christian movement. Yes, Roman citizens may have scampered toward Christianity for the sake of the social benefits that could be enjoyed. But that did not strengthen the faith. Rather, it weakened it. It weakened it even as greater numbers and power were realized.

And this was the genesis of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the centuries following Constantine who fled from Christian civilization to seek the hard way to God, a way that had been lost. As some have said, they fled from the church like rats swimming away from a sinking ship.

Whereas Constantine needed a uniform religion to unify his empire, Christians became seduced by the power. Their seduction led to corruption and an abandonment of real Christian values. All was rationalized, the end justifying the means.

This is one of the reasons that the founders of the US Constitution took such care in making sure that the state neither endorsed one religion as the religion of the realm nor abridged the freedom of any religious tradition. But just because those are prohibited, that does not mean that they do not arise. They have and do. Again, whenever the formula is approximated theocracy may manifest again: autocratic government and authoritarian religion.

In our own time just such a theocracy has arisen. The government was that of the autocratic regime of Donald Trump and his enablers. The religion was white evangelical Christianity.

Donald Trump, like Constantine, had little use for religion, in particular white evangelical Christianity, except as it provided more votes and more power. Christian faith is incidental to Donald Trump, if not absent. He gives empty lip service to it. Conveniently for him, white evangelical Christianity came pre-packaged with a legacy of white supremacist and racist underpinnings. That was a happy coincidence, as his entire life showed evidence of a thoroughgoing white supremacy and racism, no secret now to anyone. That is how he courted the extreme white supremacist fringes with impunity. Since the former President is amoral, he could simply add that racist contingent to his layered base of supporters. White supremacist movements often appeal to some distortion of Christianity to justify their dark designs.

The most cynical among us will say, well, what did he have to lose? Not much, in the short term. He could use all those wedge issue factions to his advantage.

But the white evangelical church is another matter. It has lots to lose. By coveting the levers of power as it did it mortgaged its soul in the process. It so compromised anything resembling Christian values and so overlooked the immorality and corruption of the regime to which it had become united, that it lost whatever remained of an authentic faith. The younger generations have already registered their verdict in their distancing from churches that look anything like this. They, too, are swimming away from the sinking ship. And for those who were never aboard in the first place, they will not be inclined to book their cruises on the good ship Christianity soon if at all.

If the white evangelical church so sold its birthright for a bowl of porridge, this judgement is appropriate. The remaining question is whether they can repent for their sins of idolatry and blasphemy, charting an altogether new course, one that does not rely on theocracy, white supremacy or bigotry. If they can, if they can return to the faith of the founder of their movement rather than clinging to some projection of Republican politics onto the god of their own making, there might be a chance for them. Since they have been sailing on the wrong side of history, that verdict is yet to be seen.

Comments
  1. Gloria Beranek says:

    Delightful, meaningful reading full of metaphors and other figures of speech.

  2. AUDREY SPIELER says:

    Eye opening!!!!

  3. Kate Weir says:

    wow. This is really good. Kate Weir, Ed.S., M.Ed., LPC-S, Registered Play Therapist – Supervisor Director, Kindred Collective, LLC

    2800 Forum Blvd. Suite 4A Columbia, MO 65203 ph: 573-340-5145 fax: 573-370-1213

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