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“Tolerating” Christianity Into Irrelevance

THE MYTH OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

By Kenneth R. Craycraft Jr. | April 1999
Kenneth R. Craycraft Jr., formerly a professor of theology at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, is a law student at Duke University. He lives with his wife and five children in Durham, North Carolina. This article is excerpted and adapted from Craycraft's book The American Myth of Religious Freedom, to be published this month by Spence Publishing Company.

In A.D. 313, the Emperor Constantine instituted a new, revolutionary tactical policy regarding the problem of Christianity in the Roman Empire: He would try to eliminate its corrosive, subversive presence by instituting the new idea of “religious freedom.” He would “tolerate” Christianity into irrelevance, and enlist its support for doing so. This was the conversion of Christianity to “Christendom,” and it solved a centuries-old problem. Some 1,500 years later, Christendom rededicated itself to authentic Constantinian faith when, in 1791, America’s Bill of Rights was added to its fledgling Constitution. Like the original version, this new Constantinianism managed to convince Christians that their interests were the same as the interests of the state; that they had been merged in such a way that Christians need not have any fundamentally presumptive suspicion toward the state. And like the original version, this meant that the state could proceed to protect its pursuit of domination without having to worry about the judgment of those who should have known better.

Up to A.D. 313 in the history of Christianity, the standing policy had been one of persecution. This nettlesome, fanatical Jewish sect was seen as a threat to the stability of the Empire, and therefore had to be eliminated. To be sure, the level and methods of persecution ebbed and flowed. But persecution did not work. In the words of Tertullian, “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the persecution, Christianity flourished in the Empire. So after more than 250 years of expensive, tedious persecution, Constantine tried a new tack. It was hard enough to hold an Empire together without the divisive presence of these petulant Christians. But rather than try to eliminate Christians, Constantine would try to strike a bargain with them that would effectively do the same. Rather than kill them, he would try to domesticate them. He would induce them to abandon their insubordinate witness against him, by joining their interests with his own. Constantine realized that he would never get Christians to bow to him under threat of death; he knew his history well. But maybe he could accomplish the same end by tolerating them. Perhaps they would bow to him — serve his interests, aims, and goals, while subordinating their own subversive witness to his needs — if he granted them religious freedom.

He did, and it worked. The best witness of this process is not the famous Edict of Milan, important as that was. Rather the new, successful policy is exemplified by a lesser-known document, also written by Constantine in 313, and directed to Anulinus, the prefect of Carthage, granting the clergy exemption from Imperial service: “It is my wish…that those…who are usually called clerics be completely exempt from public duties, that they be not drawn away from the service due to the Divinity…but may rather fulfill the service of their own law without any hindrance. For it seems that, when they render the greatest homage to the Divinity, then the greatest benefits befall the commonweal.”

Now what could possibly be wrong with allowing priests to be exempt from military, police, or jury service so that they could mind the altar and parish? Surely, this was a good thing. Well, no. Before the Edict of Milan, it never would have occurred to any Christian to work for the betterment of the Empire. Now it is assumed that all will, but that the clergy will be exempt so that they can concentrate on their ministry.

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