It is worth noting that a political figure, the emperor, arrived at this conclusion ahead of the church. Of course, his motives were more political than they were theological. Theodosius was trying to find a way to end the bloody conflict that had raged for years in the eastern and western parts of the empire over the issue of Christ’s nature — was he human, was he divine? The embrace of the Trinity was as much civic policy as it was religious doctrine.
Things have not changed much in the intervening 1,700 years. Church leaders and politicians are still involved in a lively debate over what it means to be a Christian. The politicians have their own motives in this debate — how to win over people of faith who are also voters. And people of faith have their own motives — trying to be faithful to their faith.
For me, the question becomes which group is having the greater influence on the other group. Are Christians making the political process more just, honest and fair? Or are politicians succeeding in re-casting the debate about faith in more political terms?
We cannot overlook that this whole discussion is complicated for voters in the United States by that pesky part of the Constitution that mandates no religious test shall exist for public office. But as we have seen over and over again in the course of our history, the ideals of the Constitution are often subordinated to the desires of the people to get what they want.
Over the past three decades, there has been a decided push on the part of many Christian conservatives to assert the reality of a Christian state. In their reading of history, the framers of the U.S. Constitution had as their primary objective the creation of a Christian nation. Never mind that the Constitution does not mention God or Jesus a single time. In fact, in all our founding documents, beginning with the Declaration of Independence, the best we can get from the Founders is a few scant references to a vaguely defined “creator.”
Hardly the full-bodied political theology of Theodosius.
What we have achieved is a sort of anemic hybrid of the faith. Wanting so much to have their faith affirmed by political leaders, many believers are content to re-define what it means to be Christian in overt political terms. Faith values are reduced to conservative economic policy such as tax cuts for the rich. Many conservative faithful also support a strenuous commitment to national security, even when that commitment takes the form of war waged on doubtful principles.
This is not to say that politics has remained unaffected by the faith community. We have only to look at Iowa, where the faithful clamored for candidates to represent their faith views, and candidates worked overtime to convince the faithful that they were doing just that.
Sadly, as politicians wrap themselves in the vestments of faith, and as the faithful adopt as their liturgy the language of politics, both faith and politics are diminished.
Those Founders who worked to keep faith and government away from each other are starting to look pretty smart these days.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.