What with Campaign 2012 hurtling into its last lap, the fourth game of the World Series being contested in Detroit, and Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the East Coast, it completely slipped my attention that Sunday, October 28, was the 1,700th anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. There, Constantine defeated Maxentius, seized the Roman imperium, and began the process by which Christianity became Christendom. But up in his Canadian pastoral redoubt on Wolfe Island, the ever-alert Father Raymond de Souza was paying attention, and his thoughtful reflection in the National Post on the legacy of the imperial embrace of the Christian Church, and the subsequent practice of church establishment, prompted a few thoughts of my own on the Milvian Bridge and us, shortly before Election Day 2012.
Christian communities have played an enormously influential role in shaping American history since the colonial period, precisely because America was never a part of political Christendom. Cultural Christendom, yes; but not political Christendom, for while there were established churches in the colonies at the time of the Revolution, those establishments sat uneasily with various dissident Protestant groups (often Baptists of one sort or another), and even more uneasily with the colonies’ minuscule Catholic population.
Those ecclesial establishments survived the first years of American independence under the Articles of Confederation. But when the time came to give the new United States a proper Constitution, a critical mass of Christian opinion — Christian opinion, not secular opinion — held that the new national government should be constitutionally proscribed from getting into the business of ecclesiastical establishment. Thus was the First Amendment, under which having “no establishment” would serve the free exercise of religion, born. And state establishments of Congregationalism or Anglicanism, though not addressed in the Constitution, quickly fell by the wayside of American history.
Non-established and self-sustaining American Christian communities in a free and self-governing United States were thus a sign of contradiction at a time when various forms of the “Constantinian settlement” still prevailed in the West. Outside America’s boundaries, the Constantinian idea that the best possible arrangement was one in which the state gave favor and financial support to one established church continued, leading to political aberrations such as Josephism in Austria (where the son of Empress Maria Theresa considered the Church “a department of the police”) and theological oddities such as the British cabinet, under Disraeli, deciding whether certain kinds of candles could be used on altars and certain prayers used at Anglican services. To be sure, America was not without theological strangeness. But as Alexis de Tocqueville shrewdly observed, religion was the first of American political institutions precisely because it wasn’t a political institution: Absent the evangelically stifling embrace of the state, religious conviction flourished in America on its own terms, deeply shaped cultural and social life, and thereby influenced politics.
It’s also worth noting that the one part of the Western world that has, to date, resisted thoroughgoing secularization is the part of the West that stood outside the Constantinian orbit. And while there are many reasons for the collapse of Christian vitality in much of Europe, few serious analysts of Europe’s apostasy doubt that the slackness and complacency that come from ecclesiastical establishment is one significant factor in the de-Christianization of the historic Christian heartland.
The day before he met Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine is said to have seen a sign in the sky — according to some, the cross; according to others, the Chi-Rho, a Greek monogram for “Christ.” Whatever he saw, he took it as a sign of divine favor from the God of the Christians and, in recompense, took the historically fateful decision to make the world safe for a previously persecuted Christianity (as Father de Souza nicely put it). Seventeen hundred years later, Western Christianity has now largely disentangled itself from the Constantinian arrangement on church-and-state.
The Catholic Church, for example, flatly rejected any future Constantinian settlements in 1965, in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, and in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which denies political authorities a role in the appointment of bishops (a battle the Church has been fighting since Pope Gregory VII met the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II at Canossa in the early 11th century). Yet a new Constantinianism has come into view these past four years; and its “sign” is neither the cross nor the Chi-Rho, but the rainbow of the Obama campaign logo.
Like so much of the Obama administration’s social and economic policy, the Constantinianism of the administration is more European than American. In Obamacare and other initiatives, the administration has sought to replicate the European social-welfare state and the European state’s typical relationship to the national economy. The Constantinianism of the administration, although informed by the secularism implicit in that rainbow logo, is an attempt to bring America’s religious communities into a more European relationship to state power, not through church establishment in the classic sense, but through regulation.
Thus we have had the Obama version of the investiture controversy (who gets to choose religious ministers?), played out in the administration’s efforts to repeal the “ministerial exception” to equal-employment-opportunity law (which permits religious communities to order their internal lives according to their own self-understanding). And we have had the Obama equivalent of Josephism in the Obamacare “contraceptive mandate,” although in this instance the effort is not to make the Church into a “department of the police” but into a subdivision of the Department of Health and Human Services.
There is another odd historical twist to the story of the Milvian Bridge and us.
During the battles over religious freedom at Vatican II, one of the last Catholic defenders of church establishment — and thus of the Constantinian settlement — was Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Secretary of the Holy Office, who had long buttressed his support of Catholic establishment with the claim that “error has no rights” (and by “error,” the doughty Ottaviani meant non-Catholic religious conviction). The bishops of Vatican II rejected that claim, on the ground that persons have rights, be their opinions true or false; thus the right of religious freedom, as the Council fathers finally taught, “is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.”
And here is the ironic twist: The secular Constantinians in the Obama administration are also the new defenders of the Ottaviani proposition that “error has no rights.” If the Evangelical Lutheran Hosanna-Tabor congregation in Redland, Mich., doesn’t agree with the U.S. government about Hosanna-Tabor’s employment practices, well, the congregation is wrong, error has no rights, and we’ll see you in court. If the Catholic Church doesn’t agree with the United States government on what constitute “reproductive health services,” the Catholic Church is wrong; and as error has no rights, the Church must be compelled under threat of serious financial penalties to do the government’s bidding (even though the government has a myriad of ways to distribute contraceptives and provide sterilizations and abortifacient drugs). As for the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Obama Justice Department has declined to defend, well, those who support DOMA are clearly wrong, according to the U.S. government; such an egregious error (an offense to everything symbolized by that rainbow logo) has no rights; thus these wrong-headed people can be portrayed as irrational bigots, and the law they seek to defend can be pilloried as a mirror image of the old segregation laws.
Barack Obama as the Holy Roman Emperors Henry IV or Joseph II? It may seem a stretch. Still, the record is clear, and the historical parallels to the investiture controversy and Josephism are suggestive. The strategic goal of binding the churches (and indeed every other civil-society institution) ever closer to the federal government is plainly in view. A court jester is at hand (the vice president of the United States, who recently opined that transgender discrimination is “the civil-rights issue of our time”).
But America can say goodbye to all that on November 6. And in doing so, it can reaffirm its own experience of religious freedom, which has given biblical religion in America an unparalleled vitality in the developed world.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.