Constantine and George II.

Author:Doerr, Edd
Position:Brief Article

It is good practice, from time to time, to step back from the trees and take a good look at the forest. Too close attention to arboreal diversity can cloud one's vision of the larger picture.

As an erstwhile history teacher who has been involved professionally with such matters for over forty years (twenty-five of them as the writer of this column), I can say without fear of contradiction that running through the entire span and breadth of human history are themes involving the complex relations between government and religion, between coercive power on the one hand and belief and practice regarding important issues on the other.

As constitutional lawyer Leo Pfeifer once put it, history is filled with governments using religions as engines of their purposes and religions using governments as engines of their purposes. One might add that history is also filled with cases of symbiotic relationships between religions and governments.

All this was pointed out nicely by historian Paula Fredriksen in her lengthy review of H. A. Drake's new book, Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance, in the June 18, 2001, New Republic. Fredriksen argues that Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and then made Christianity the state religion early in the fourth century as part of an effort to deal with political problems. What happened next, she writes:

The bishops were too powerful to be mere pawns in an imperial game. They had a program of their own. Constantine's initiatives [interesting choice of words] served only to enhance their power. Constantine wanted to use the bishops as one foundation of his empire-wide coalition of moderates, but the bishops wanted to use him. They wanted him, first of all, to settle issues of internal cohesion. That is, they wanted the emperor to enforce party discipline. Thus the very first victims of the new Christian government were other Christians--in the view of the bishops, "false" Christians, or heretics. The reign of one of Constantine's successors, Julian, proved, Fredriksen goes on, "what the orthodox themselves had always maintained: that tolerance and Christianity--`true,' orthodox Christianity--were incompatible." After Julian's death, Fredriksen writes:

The orthodox bishops roared back with a vengeance. Unconflictedly re-embracing power, they likewise embraced coercion: tolerance, as they saw it, was a creed for losers. ... State and church were now on the same page.... And the rest...

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