Volume > Issue > America in the 1980s: Under the Sway of "Conservative" Constantinianism

America in the 1980s: Under the Sway of “Conservative” Constantinianism


By John Lukacs | April 1987
John Lukacs is Professor of History at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. His most important book is Historical Consciousness, and he has written for The New Yorker, Harper's, and other periodicals. Born in Budapest, he calls himself "an old reactionary." His first appearance in the NOR was in May 1977.

In the 2,000 years of Christianity, its internal dangers have been twofold (it is in the nature of Christianity that its greatest dangers are always internal, not externab~ One of these dangers has been the recurring temptation of some Christians for anarchy. The other kind of danger has been the temptation of other Christians to seek security in their association with tyranny. In the history of Christianity, the temptation to anarchy has been manifest in the numberless heresies that have been gnawing and tearing at the body of the Church since the beginning of Christian time. On the other hand (this may be more than a metaphor: at the right hand of the crucified Christ), the drawing power of tyranny has not been less dangerous. Tyranny, especially after a time of anarchical disturbances, is always more respectable, hence more popular, than anarchy. Tyranny, at least in its first and dominant phase, exists and functions because of its strong majority support, whereas anarchy is almost always the work of a minority. At this stage of history, when the Church is threatened by a profound crisis (but then the Church is always threatened by a profound crisis) the peculiar condition of the American church may be that it is threatened by anarchy as well as by tyranny. This is what many American “conservatives” do not understand, since many of them are, wittingly or unwittingly, proponents of that tyranny. But – contrary to the beliefs of many “liberal” Catholics – that tyranny has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the authority of Romanism and the Pope. It has everything to do with the authority of Americanism and with that of the present President.

The drawing power of tyranny may be summed up in one word: Constantinianism. It is the natural tendency of men to seek satisfaction from the alliance of their church with the power predominant in their world. Such a state of matters, and such states of mind, have had protean manifestations throughout history. Its first example was that of the relationship of some of the Christian churches with the Emperor Constantine. In secular terms, no worldly ruler has ever benefited the Church as had Constantine, when he (for reasons known to God alone) chose to ally himself with the Christians and decreed, for the first time in history, their official acceptance, in the Edict of Milan, A.D. 313. Yet – to the eternal glory of the Roman Church and, indeed, of all Western churches – Constantine has not been canonized. He was not proclaimed a saint because his personal life was far from admirable. It has been otherwise with some of the Eastern Christian churches, whose liturgy and even theology is closer to Rome than that of most Western Protestants, but whose history, alas, is not. In these churches – including the Greek Orthodox, the Russian, the Rumanian, the Bulgarian, etc. – Constantine is a saint. But, then, most of the Eastern Christian churches have been autocephalous – which means, not only independent from and hostile to Rome, but also nationalistic. Caesaropapism, that is, the unity of church and state – and not merely in a legal sense – was their inheritance from the Constantinianism of Byzantium. Most of them, and most of their believers, have had no wish to disassociate their faith in God from their faith in their rulers. The results of such Constantinianisms were often disastrous; and not only for the cause of Christian unity. A sad example in the 20th century was the collapse of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917, which occurred together with the collapse of Tsarist rule. Great Russian Christian writers such as Dostoevsky, as well as foreign visitors to Russia, had waxed sentimental about the profundity of Russian religious faith and the artless attachment of that saintly simple people to their church. Yet in 1917 the influence of that church on the people proved to be nil – unlike in Poland, where the nationalist and supranationalist Catholic Church would sustain the people in their worst tribulations.

But the examples of Constantinian predilections in the West, too, have been too numerous to mention. From the Middle Ages through Louis XIV and Napoleon to Mussolini and Hitler, there have been many Catholic hierarchs seeking not only accommodations with powerful rulers but deriving satisfaction from them. What has happened during the last 150 years in Europe (and in many other places of the world, too) has been the gradual transformation of monarchical loyalties into nationalist ones. Modern Constantinianism is nationalistic. It led to many lamentable events. Many Orthodox priests in Rumania were fanatical supporters of the leader of the anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi Rumanian Iron Guard (who called himself the Envoy of the Archangel Michaeb+ on occasion they were active in inciting and contributing to the murder of political opponents and Jews. The record of certain Catholic (mostly Franciscan) priests in Croatia during World War II was, alas, similar. The President of Slovakia at that time was a Catholic priest, who had chosen to ally himself with Hitler and not merely condoned, but justified, the deportation of Jews from that country to the death-camps.

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