My friend Chuck Gutenson, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written an excellent piece – “Constantinianism of the Left?” – on his Imitatio Christi blog. He explains the history and meaning of the term “Constantinianism”:
In 313, the emperor Constantine, who had recently become a Christian, issued an edict making Christianity the official religion of the empire. In so doing, Constantine tightly bound the survival of the empire with that of the church, and the church went from being a marginalized, disempowered group to occupying a central place in the corridors of power. In exchange for this new-found power, the church was expected to serve as a cohesive force within the empire as well as to give religious cover to the emperor. Many consider this “an unholy alliance of religious and political power.” In our contemporary setting, when someone is charged with Constantinianism, they are being charged with too closely uniting these two – religious and political power – so that the church begins to see the state and legislation as a way to accomplish its goals.
He notes the charge often made against progressive Christians engaged in politics is that, in attempting to come up with some solutions to social problems through legislative and other political activity, we are putting too much faith in the state. (Something which is also true of conservatives.) And, he says, we may be guilty of the charge:
Too often, our presentations emphasize so much the need to change public policies and institutions that it is entirely understandable that our critics would think we have forgotten we are members of the church first and of the state second. We can easily sound more like advocates of a particular political agenda than advocates of the Gospel of Jesus. The focus, of course, should be that we are advocates of the Gospel of Jesus, but that commitment to the Gospel leads to a particular kind of political advocacy. Second, we must also own that, by and large, our use of Scripture is rather slipshod. Frequently, when you read pieces on the Christian case for progressive politics, they read as if we have arrived at a particular set of political positions on other grounds and that we have then gone to Scripture in search of passages that give the appearance of supporting our case. (Of course, the same can be said of those of more conservative political leanings.) I sincerely believe that the folks I know who are active in progressive politics are firmly committed to the Gospel of Jesus and I believe that their political activism grows out of their faith. We must, however, do a better job of making this evident. If we do, we will go a long way toward undermining the charge that we are merely engaging in a “constantinianism of the left.”
It’s a useful admonition, and Chuck goes on to suggest four steps that can more seriously ground political activism in faith. They are good and important suggestions. I commend Chuck’s piece for thought and reflection.