Politics and Philosophy

Exploring Political Issues Through Philosophy


Christianity as ideology


The Rise of Christianity


Political Ideology


William F. Pray





I.                   Defining politics

II.                Ideology

A. defining ideology

III.             Christian ideology

IV.             Rome and late antiquity

A.  Historical context and the development of Christian ideology

B.     History, Politics and Constantine’s motives

C.     Transition to Christendom  

V.        Summary



            Christianity is not merely an other-worldly belief system.  Christianity is very much a real-world player.  Christianity has been a potent driving force in the turning of human events – events that have brought about both human advancement and human disaster.  Both in the past and the present, Christianity cannot be consider a passive, historical interloper.  The religion developed as an active, then assertive, and finally aggressive historical force working in league with political actors to decide flesh and blood issues of moment.

            In support of the above observations this paper will argue for the following positions:

First, rather than the usually treatment of Christianity as a theology, this is a study which will identify and study Christianity as a political force complete with a political ideology. 

Second, it will be the position of this study that Christianity, as an idea-system, was, at the very inception, a political manipulative.  By manipulative it is meant that Christianity, along with being a spiritual factor in the lives of it congregates, was molded and fashioned by the political players of the time for ends which can only be described as social control.  There is nothing particularly sinister in this, as existing within an historically developed idea-system renders the player unaware of the origin of the ideas.  Unless the ideas are closely examined they can appear to the player as both obvious and natural and therefore beyond the immediate reach of good and evil.

The address of both of these historical points will necessitate a short descriptive discussion of both politics and ideology.   Following these short discussions, we will offer a phenomenological analysis of the concrete, historical roots of Christianity as political ideology.  We will assume that the reader has some modest acquaintance with Roman history in late antiquity and the early European medieval period.


I. Defining Politics

Politics is a societal expression of will.  At its most basic level politics are the rules and traditions that govern the willful expression of power.  This power is exercised for the purpose of allocation of societal resources. 

Expressed in blunter terms, politics is the determination of who gets what, how much of it they get, and how soon they get it.  We can say with certainty that politics is the willful expression of power that ultimately leads to the allocation of the goods and services available in any society, past or present.  However, let us be clear: because politics is a social expression of will does not mean that it is about all the inhabitants of a social order surviving together, and certainly not surviving equally. As politics runs its course in any given society, it is the ultimate determiner of who survives the best and who barely survives at all.  This has both physical and emotional dimensions. Eating is an obvious consequent of political decisions, and just as important, but less obvious, so is self-esteem a derivative of political will.  

These questions of power relations between individuals are, in all societies, reflected in the structures of Tradition and the Law.  Behind these structures, especially the structure of the Law, is the threat of coercion, which in its rawest form is violence. Violence always stands behind the Law, and the Law is the claim of violence to ethics and morality. 

It is important to note that politics itself is not coercion and violence.  Far from it.  In fact, politics is the concealment of coercion for the purpose of avoiding naked violence to settle disputes over the allocation of resources. This is so because the wanton and casual exercise of violence can lead to unpredictable and unstable and frequently unwanted results.  It would seem obvious that open coercion, and certainly naked violence, can threaten the smooth distribution of social production.   Raw uses of power in the form of open coercion and violence are therefore not desirable and wisely resorted to only as a last straw grasped by those in the positions of power. 

The successful political act is that act which utilizes violence within its own concealment.  The goal of politics is therefore the force of violence without the use of violence.  For political efforts to be successful a stable and predictable flow of distribution of social resources must take place without recourse to raw violence.  This is usually a tricky and difficult goal to achieve as the distribution of the social product is typically unequal and always has the potential to produce tension within the social fabric.  To achieve the stable and continued unequal distribution of the social product politics must call upon many resources.  Chief among these resources mustered by any political apparatus is Tradition and respect for the Law.  Both of these components, Tradition and Law have their root in ideology.   In the case of this specific study we mean this ideological soil to be in large measure Christian political ideology.



The notion of a ‘Christian political ideology’ is an odd one.  We are accustomed to thinking of religion as a belief process quite apart from most discussions of an ideological system, especially a political ideological system.  This is a mistaken viewpoint, but (as will be demonstrated) one with its own ‘ideological’ direction and purpose.  Therefore, before we discuss Christian political ideology we need to arrive at a working acquaintance with ideology itself.


A. Defining ideology[1]

It is most instructive to come to an understanding of ideology from a personal perspective.  So, seen at its most personal and individual level, ideology is largely an inherited system of ideas that serves in three ways to establish cohesiveness in human life, albeit not always successfully. 

First, all ideologies serve to interpret and explain the human world around us. Ideologies can tell us the ‘who,’ and the ‘how,’ and the ‘why’ of our lives.  This explanation involves the basic existentialist stuff that surrounds our lives.  Consequently, some of these ideologies would fall, loosely speaking, beneath a religious mantra, and others are more obviously philosophical or scientific, but in general all these idea-systems serve to create existential coherence and are therefore a comfort for our emotional and psychological lives by offering explanation for the unexplainable. 

Second, at the social level, and sometimes historical level, ideologies not only explain, but further, through the vehicle of explanation they mediate.  Nearly all ‘social’ ideologies explain how and why we fit into our place, not just in the existential world, but also in the societal world.  In so doing, these largely inherited ideologies serve the useful purpose of allaying not just our existential anxieties, but also our social anxieties.  This is a most important function of ideology.  Ideologies allow social systems to run smoothly through the vehicle of a dominant system of ideas that serves to mediate friction between social groupings; in the personal sense, ideology eases friction between the individual and social groupings.  Ideology is the single most important factor in establishing and maintaining social cohesion.

Third, as this societal friction is frequently over the distribution of social goods and resources, the ideology that is best in this regard is one that accomplishes this by extending this mediation through an idea-system that justifies through the legitimizing of particular power relationships.  The form of the justification and the type of friction ideology smoothes over will vary from historical setting to historical setting, but typically reifies in very definite political structures.

To summarize, these three types of ideologies, those that explain, those that mediate, and those that justify, correspond, roughly speaking, to the three most vital aspects governing human life: the existential, the social and the political. 

While in this paper we will discuss on all three types, it is with the last, the political, that we will be most concerned.  It must be again noted that the types of ideology are not pure, except theoretically, and do not appear independently.  Political ideology, our concern here, does often ‘appear’ to adopt or subsume parts of the other two types, usually for political ends; the tangential appearance of the other types of ideology is sometimes coincidental, but may also be deliberate manipulation.  Where possible we need to draw a distinction between conscious rigging of political theater and the unconscious infection of the other, related ideological systems.

It is also important too to keep ideology phenomenologically distinct from other human experience, such as culture and social psychology. This is not to say that there are not points of intersection and overlap, for there certainly are.  But, in general, ideology manifests or reifies itself in a manner different from cultural or social-psychological experience.  For example, racism, as ideology, finds reification as Nazi doctrine, (though this is not all that Nazism is). On the other hand, cultural or social-psychological dimensions of racism, do not rise to the level of reification or necessarily even conceptual expression, but live on in the barely conscious ‘them’ and ‘us.’ Indeed, even by the very act of rejecting the ‘ideology’ of racism we affirm its ‘cultural’ existence.

To distinguish itself as ideology, that is, as a thinking cluster different from other forms of ‘understanding’ such as cultural understanding, we must make the following six descriptive observations.

First, ideologies interpret.  Ideologies must reflect tangible happenings, or things, in the real, existing material world.  Ideology must have common roots in actual events all humans can recognize a offered interpretation.  These things or occurrences might be distant, or historical, but they must be verifiable.  This insistence on tangibility does not mean that the interpretations offered will be the same, or that all ideologies will be an accurate reflection of the real world, but this empirical qualification will distinguish ideology from, for example, astrology or voodoo.   There are other reasons to distinguish belief systems from ideology, as will be discussed later, but this grounding in empirical consistency is the single most important qualifier.  This empirical qualifier is important if for no other reason other than that it allows us to verify the accuracy of the ideological interpretation.  All ideologies are correct interpretations within their own systems, but not correct interpretations when measured against each other.  Some ideologies are simply more accurate at interpreting reality than others.

Second, ideology is to a great extent an inherited system, one that is absorbed without total consciousness of the social osmotic process. At birth we are arbitrarily flung into a particular setting and situation complete with a historically produced matrix of societal relationships.  In short, we emerge in a rationalizing idea-cluster not of our own making.  This idea-cluster has encompassing organizational functions that serve as home base.  In many ways this home base forms the foundation for what we might call our common-sense.  It can be noted that common sense (i.e., the inherited system) is neither universal nor timeless.  For example, it is no longer common sense that the sun revolves around the earth.  However, the setting and historical situation in which we find ourselves is interpreted by idea-clusters and idea-systems that are not only impossible to avoid, but not entirely desirable to avoid: even when utterly wrong, these idea-clusters are our experiential world, offering us systems of thought that make sense of time and place and being.

We might also quickly draw a distinction between ideological interpretation and opinion.  Opinion, correctly used, rests on conscious and intentional learning, as when a chemist passes judgment on molecular bonding, or a farmer assesses the appropriateness of crop rotation, or a musician suggest harmonizing cords.

Third, ideology is not cultural inheritance.  Although ideology, like culture, is not necessarily fully conscious of itself, it can become a consciously intentional thinking system; culture is not an intentional thinking system.  In addition, ideology is not, as is culture, a largely unconscious system of shared values and unconscious interpretation of shared symbols, languages, and actions.   Culture allows us a smooth and seamless functioning with our social environment.  Ideology, on the other hand, serves to explain and mediate the concrete world through a legitimizing content; cultural ideal-clusters neither explain or justify or legitimize. Culture possesses vague concurrences of thought, but is outside the conscious and deliberate development of ideas produced by thought.  Culture possesses values without rationality, reaction without concrete cause, and triggers response without analyzed justification. Culture is a blindly automatic process and not a conceptual system characterized by directed thought.  As a totality, culture is simply the irrational’ we are’ that is beyond alteration through conscious manipulation.

Fourth, it is important to distinguish ideology from belief systems and superstition.  While ideology is typically a closed system of ideas that can substitute for rational thought, it is not a system that is fundamentally irrational. It is not a system that has become detached from material reality and is rootlessly adrift.   Through conscious manipulation of the ideas within the idea-system, changes to the internal dynamic of the ideological structure can be brought about.  On the other hand, in an irrational system characterized by belief or superstition, intelligible internal change through rational manipulation of the idea structure is compromised by the prerogatives of non-tangibility. In other words, separated from the real world makes any thought possible, no matter how absurd.  This is not the case with ideology.

Fifth, ideology is a closed system of ideas that fosters a world view which tends to historically legitimize a given social order whose concrete existence most often benefits certain groups to the detriment of other groups.  In addition, and for reasons of self-interest, (but not always because of self interest), ideological systems stubbornly resists outside scrutiny or analysis.  An obvious example would be the racist ideologies acting to legitimize slavery in the western world.

Sixth, ideology can function to greatly restrict an accurate vision of one’s own self interest, though this is not an exclusive action, and admittedly it is a very contentious position.  To be more precise, ideology, as a gross restrictor of self interest, is more accurately called false consciousness, which is more a derivation of ideology than a fact of ideological perception, per se?  Be this as it may, ideology can still restrict accurate vision as in the case of the soldier who willing sacrifices his life for a cause (i.e. an ideology) bearing no direct benefit to himself.  This is easily exampled by the lost lives by countless soldiers down through the ages.  We may look at losses on both sides of the American Civil War, with those willingly sacrificed lives of the Confederate soldiers being most egregious in this regard.  One need not disrespect the sacrifice to understand this. The contention here is the argument that the self-sacrifice on the part of the soldier is the result of an alignment of self-interest with the ideology.  A fast analysis of which social group(s) the ideology in question supports, and which group(s) it oppresses, should quickly put this contention to rest.

Although ideology does not always conform exactly to all of the points described above we can still see that a correct understanding of ideology leads us way beyond the typical explanation of ideology as merely a theme or tool of a political party, or a political system. Themes of political or other social parties can more properly be called either theory or doctrine or dogma. This is supported by two reasons:  First, ideology cannot be called dogma, doctrine, or theory as these make a conscious and literal claim on truth.  Ideology represents a largely unconscious world-view and truth is not a direct concern.[2]   Within the ideological world-view such things as truth have been rationalized through the idea-system with the result that they are either taken for granted or have become completely beside the point.  Second, dogma and doctrine (not so much with theory) represent a defensive posturing consciously derived from belief or ideology as a hedge against potentially destructive alien systems of thought.  Ideology operates more as unconscious social glue.  While there can be points of intersection, ideology will typically precede doctrine. and belief will precede dogma.

For our purposes here it is enough to say that ideologies are, at the individual level, a largely unconscious process that quiets the discomfort and anxiety we may feel within a given social environment.  This is its existential function.  When necessary, to assuage anxiety, we can even jump from one ideological platform to another.  This is because it is not only possible, but likely, that we carry several ideological systems within our frame of mind, and do so simultaneously, and without apparent conflict, even where analysis shows that these systems are at odds with one another. An obvious case is where ‘loving thy neighbor’ falls into sharp conflict with the cutthroat practices of ‘marketplace capitalism.’  We simply glide from one ideological platform to another, as necessitated by revolving and recurring situations.  Thus, the trading of ideological platforms smoothly manages internalized societal tensions.

Ideologies serve not simply to mediate, but also to buffer us from apparent chaos in the world around us.  In a very real sense ideologies bind us to a social order as well as assist us to successfully negotiate through a social environment prone to friction, friction being one of the hallmarks of all social environments.  This is a clue to the source of power for most ideologies.  Ideologies are not just clung to, but are actively pursued.  Those ideologies that accurately interpret reality may fling us into terrible states of anxiety.  These ideologies are less comfortable, if more insightful.  Other ideologies, through their ability to distort reality through misinterpretation, make possible the avoidance or pacification of anxiety that would possibly ensue from the resulting conflict. Distorting ideologies allow those immersed in the idea-system the luxury of avoiding painful contact with the real world. This is largely accomplished by the internal dynamic of the ideology.   That dynamic is one that causes the amelioration of existing tensions and anxiety to be the goal of the ideology and not the result.  This is not to say that the ideology is in some degree or another false consciousness. Distorting ideologies, in the sense of their power to mediate conflict and reduce pain, can be said to have a ‘legitimate’ social function.[3]

            From where do these idea-systems come?  There is no uniform answer to this question, no exact formula, but it is safe to say that ideas spring from a synthesis of our inherited idea-system together with the experience of our everyday, practical encounters with concrete reality. These idea-systems emerge from our need to manipulate and control our living situation as they evolve in collaboration with inherited systems.[4]


III. Christian ideology 

We need to remind ourselves that we are engaged in a phenomenological analysis of Christianity as ideology and not as theology. For this study the distinction between a private belief system and an ideological redeployment of that belief-system is a pivotal one.  Although the two may be rooted in the same historical circumstance, their separate development appears as a result of practical circumstance.  Like a Venn diagram, the boundaries between the two blur and coalesce.  In spite of this, to fully understand the impact of the ‘political ideology’ we must struggle to analyze it as an independent and practical entity.

To illustrate this point of practicality we can look to the relevant example of the important Arian controversy which bubbled to the surface in the early 4th century.  Although this is a controversy we will return to in greater detail below, we should note here that the Arian debate concerned the very nature of the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ.  Was Jesus divine or human?  The controversy can only be described as a crisis of faith or a heresy threatening the structural consistency within the Christian belief system[5]. Although there is a flavor of existential explanation within the controversy, giving it a faint cast of ideology, the Arian controversy was only secondarily existential. More importantly for the descriptive analysis, this was a controversy which struggled with the fact that there was no discovered empirical or material basis.  This controversy was finally decided at Nicaea, in 325 C.E., at a Synod called by the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, a man whose pragmatic sense led him to be one of the greatest of the Roman emperors. It is through Constantine that this theological dispute was turned into a political entity.

As pointed out above, the absence of an empirical and material base would seem to determine that the Arian controversy was overtly a contest within a belief system.  Consequently, the issue would seem to be primarily a theological controversy, and only by extension an ideological problem – again, ideology being marked by a material grounding which extends to a development of an empirical dimension for description and discussion. What can be said of the theological decision regarding this particular controversy is that the ramifications of the Nicaean Creed[6] offered important substance to certain ideological developments. While these ideological developments were to eventually reify and impact imperial and medieval political structures, the decision made at Nicaea in 325, which determined the divinity of Jesus, we need to underscore, was theological and not ideological.  The theology is for us only of secondary concern.

The time strictures are also relevant.  We will be looking at Christian ideological development from a little before Constantine the Great’s official establishment of the Christian religion to just before 900 C.E., with emphasis on that time frame from Constantine’s conversion to Christianity through the mid 7th Century[7].  It is during this period that events led to the success of Christianity as a religion and at the same time transformed it into a serviceable political ideology.  

In keeping with the descriptive analysis of ideology observed above we would have to say that to qualify as any of the three types of ideology, (existential, social, or political) Christianity must posses most, if not all, of the following earmarks.  (1) It must have roots in empirically verifiable historical events or societal relationships; (2) to a substantial degree it needs to be an inherited idea-system; (3) has the potential for intentional thought; (4) has at least the potential to be a closed idea-system whose internal logic can readily substitute for rational thought; (5) it supports a status quo that benefits certain socioeconomic groups as opposed to others; (6) it has the potential to restrict a clear view of material self interest, especially that of a subjugated class.

Although we have listed empirical roots as the first qualifier, we will consider this element last as it requires the most careful description.

First, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that Christianity is part of an inherited continuum that issued from the Jewish crucible then flowed into a foundational relationship with the cultural soup for that population living within the modern Judeo-Christian world.  This is the case even for those not in any way directly caught up in Judeo-Christian orthodoxy.  Islam will serve as an example.

In the beginning Christianity was not a sharp break with the Judeo religious culture from which it emerged.  It drew its sustenance and authority from Judaism and only slowly surfaced, after many generations, into the light as a distinct belief system, largely by the midwifery of Roman politics and Roman Emperors.  Prior to the intervention of Roman politics it is clear that the earliest developmental processes of Christianity are linked to Christianity’s inherited Jewish theology.  Christianity is therefore both inheritor and heritage.

            Second, Christianity certainly qualifies as a purposeful, and goal orientated system whose ‘thinking’ can be consciously directed; it obviously has the potential for intentional thought.  Any of the ecclesiastical historical pronouncements, from that of the Synod at Nicaea in 325, through Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, and on to the most recent of Papal Bulls, leave no doubt as to the capacity for intentional thought.  In fact it would be awkward at best to argue that any of the thinking behind church activities is without conscious purpose.  This brings us to the next point.

Third, that Christian orthodoxy is a closed system substituting for rational thought and is painfully slow to respond to outside empirical observation seems true. For example, consider the Catholic Church forcing Galileo to recant his claim concerning the earth’s position in the universe vis-à-vis the sun. 

Fourth:  As a result of relevant historical roots, one of the directives of an ideology is to legitimize the standing of one social group over another.  The question of rather or not Christianity offers support for existing and unequal social orders, is a true hot button topic. To get our finger off the button it is advisable to step back from contemporary social alignments. We can do this by fixing our view on historical arrangements which lie outside an immediate ideological distortion.  For example, the unequal social relationships between both groups and individuals are easy to recognize if we take in a broad view of medieval, which is to say feudal, arrangements.  That these inherently unequal relationships were supported by the Catholic Church is difficult to argue with.  While this support was not uniform through the universe of the Church, that is, individual clerics might have rejected support of the Church’s social positions (William of Ockham, comes to mind) the official idea-system certainly qualifies historically as ideological support for the feudal social order.

This politicization of Christianity, and its nominal support for certain conservative social and class arrangements, is not accidental, nor is it a new twist to an older world view.  Respect and obedience to the power of the state and its rulers is encouraged in all Christians, not just Catholics. It is encouraged in Christians even by the titular head of the movement, Jesus Christ:  “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  Following the progenitor of the movement, read Paul, a man who never knew Jesus, yet was arguably one of the most intellectual, scholarly and influential of the apostolate church leaders. In many ways Paul created Christian doctrine and established the structural rules that grounded the Church.  If we are to believe that he wrote much the New Testament text we must conclude that this great figure of the Church meant Christians to be satisfied with their station in life and obey and honor earthly authority.  The State, at least in this life, was absolute and could command both loyalty and obedience.[8]  All were to remain content with their lot in life, even to the point that slavery was to be excused for the good harmony of earthly society.[9] According to the founders of Christianity there is no obvious conflict between earthly and heavenly authority.  This is not to say that such conflict cannot arise, but only that it is not an inherent and integral part of the Christian idea-system. As the history of Christianity continues, just the opposite will unfold as the ideological status quo.

We can bear witness the supportive role of the official Church for conservative, even fascist elements in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), or the duplicity of the Church hierarchy in the rise and solidification of Nazi Germany, or the unwavering support of the Vatican for Augusto Pinochet’s, anti-communist Chilean dictatorship (1973-1990).[10]  While individual members, or priestly sects, such as the Jesuits, might press and act in support of social restructuring, the Christian idea-system, per se, does not support the overturning of existing social orders.

Given the effects of time and history on ideology nearly all of the Christian sects came to support a hierarchal circumstance where the elect and the profane are clearly defined and identified with their social roles, and their social positions.  For accuracy it need be noted that this is a somewhat later development of Christianity, but the seeds were present from the very beginning as is located, for example, in such as Book Five of Augustine’s The City Of God. 

A careful theological reading of Augustine allowed certain sects of Christianity to avoid this life as a dead end street through the notion of predestination.  Just such a reading as this was given Augustine by John Calvin.  Some are saved and others are damned, and that – certain sects will argue – is preordained by God. The historical sects that figure on predestination are, generally speaking, direct off shoots of the anti-Catholic reformers (e.g. Calvinism and to a lesser degree, Lutheranism).  More contemporary and popular sects, such as Presbyterianism, also offer forms of predestination suggesting that those individuals that are predestine for salvation are marked by worldly success. In contemporary societies garbed by equalitarian ideology none of this is elucidated in quite the same language as that used by John Calvin.  However, the elements are still present, in spirit, nonetheless.  This ‘spirit’ can correctly be interpreted as ideological support for a hierarchal social order.

Fifth, Christianity is clearly in a position to restrict a sharp view of the individual’s material self interest.  This is not a necessary element of Christian theology, but an ideological, qua political, by-product – this ideological transformation processed synthetically. One of the most powerful lures of the Christian religion is the other-worldly concept of heaven and hell.  It is not at all clear that without these other-worldly structural elements, and without their politicization, Christianity would have survived the first couple of decades after the death of the original leadership.  The political by-product in the service of the theology enters because of this other-worldly ingredient: Focus on successful living in this world can be by-passed in favor of the eternal bliss in the next. One need not be overly concerned with being a slave in this world because of the freedom that awaits in the next, according to Paul.[11]  Clearly, such a position can act to suppress immediate self interest in this material world in favor of rapture in the next.

Sixth:  In discussing ideology the lack of material roots pose a distinct problem. The key here is to carefully distinguish, as we have been doing, Christianity the theology from Christianity the ideology.  Christian theology is a metaphysical belief system, and as such has no empirically propositional roots in the material world.  However, as we will show, Christianity, from the very beginning, is also a real world player among history’s political institutions, and therefore has to be seen as having political roots in the material world. This cannot help but produce a real-world ideological system.

Developmentally, and in search of the material roots of Christianity, the Christian religion like most religions shows very uneven growth.  The Christian religion began as a small cult, with the earliest commentary or writings beginning around 40 years after the death of the leader of the movement, Jesus[12].  Most people in the western world are familiar with the purported life of Jesus, at least enough so that a retelling of the most popular version is not necessary.  But the material beginning of the Christian movement is another story, which is to say, how did the Christian movement got off the ground in the first place?

Cults normally arise because they fit into an available niche in the social order.  In the absence of close observation of the earliest spreading of Christianity making sense of the development is difficult.  However, historically two things appear to be clear. 

First, the earliest beginning of Christianity took place in one of the most unstable and violent times in human history. This was especially true in Roman-occupied Judea where the desire for salvation was not just a spiritual yearning but had brutal physical dimensions.  This cannot be too strongly emphasized.  For even though we might intellectually understand the bloodthirsty Roman occupation of Judea, being out of touch with the metaphysics of the era makes it very difficult to fully grasp the spirit of the time and the contributions this inherited element brought to the ideological development. This brings up the second point.

Second, the birth of Christianity took place at a time when stories of miracles, demons, omens and apocalyptical visions were commonplace and fully believed.  Today we scoff at the kind of magical stories and supernatural horrors that the people of the time took utterly for granted.  This inability on our part of put ourselves in the mental frame of mind of pagan antiquity prevents us from the clearest possible grasp on the power that ‘otherworldliness’ had over the way people perceived their society and nature, and consequently how they organized their lives.  For us, after five hundred years of rationalism and the dominance of science and empiricism, the fact that we are out of touch with this superstitious cultural outlook is not so remarkable. 

It is important to look into the details to flush out the picture.  In the beginning Christianity was merely an offshoot of Judaism, fueled with some of the more magical aspects of paganism, such as walking on water, feeding the multitude with a few loafs and a fish, or raising the dead.  No one, not the Romans, not the Jews, not the practitioners of the new faith, considered Christianity in any other way. The question arises, then, how did this tiny Jewish offshoot find its niche and develop into world wide phenomenon?  What did Christianity bring to the historical reality of the time that allowed it to find root and grow?  To a large degree the answer lies in this inherited spirit of the times, at least during the time of Christianity’s inception.

At its inception, Christianity was spread by word of mouth, reproduced again and again in face to face exchanges where the new magic of this new cult was portrayed, personified and emphasized.  Under the brutal Roman occupation that murdered over one millions Jews, nearly one fifth of the total population of Judea, the times appeared not just dangerous, but apocalyptic, and tales of an ‘end of days’ seemed not far fetched.  Again, it is difficult for us to imagine the wanton carnage that was brought by sword and spear to the people of Judea.  The kind of blood letting that was witnessed by the population, and the terrible emotional and spiritual impact, were traumatic indeed – a fertile bed for visions of apocalyptic solutions. 

In the beginning Christianity appealed primarily to the illiterate and poor, those in greatest need of hope for an end to their this-world suffering offered by the next-world.  In the beginning the poor and the downtrodden were offered salvation and a chance to worship in an atmosphere of charity and freedom.  The new god was a god accepting of them because he was one of them.  This “Lamb Of God” was as one of the poor and the meek who brought with him salvation and an end to their suffering.

It is not fair to characterize these poor as merely gullible.  These poor of Judea were desperate and alienated from both Judaism and the dominant pagan religions.  Judaism and the pagan religions were not for the poor and the under-classes.  They were for the well-to-do, the status seekers, class conscious and class ascendants.  The Christian cults began to develop first in communities of the social flotsam, the base and outcast of the realm.  Through the new cult a sense of community began to develop where the poor could find refuge, assistance and the promise of a future afterworld life unconstrained by their poverty and lowly position.  These things set the various Christian cults apart from Judaism and the many pagan religions where wealth and social standing presided over the blessings of the Gods, and to a certain extent, protection from Roman might.  In some ways Christianity was the revenge of the poor and the weak against the Gods of the powerful and high born.  Christianity grew out of the basest of material life, promising resurrection to the social living dead.  For the Christians there was the promise of a glorious afterlife.  The Christians had, after all, a leader who had beaten the cruelty of Rome and risen from the dead.  Most importantly Jesus promised the same salvation to all who would believe.

In the hundred years after the death of Jesus the Romans, in the process of assaulting the Jews in Judea, inadvertently scattered the new cult of the Christian-Jews across the Middle East.  The carnage in Judea affected not just the Jews, but the whole of Asia Minor, and eventually the empire itself.  In a ten years period from 63 to 73 C.E. the Romans killed over a million habitants of Judea; and it has to be remembered that this was not mechanized killing.  This was slaughter done with spear and sword.  Given the lesser population of the time and the viciousness of the bloodletting, the fear and trauma must have been awesome.  Many fled out of Judea, Jews and Christian-Jews alike.  In the pursuit of two brutal wars against the inhabitants of Judea, Rome spread the new religion among the Gentiles.

Considering the weak beginning of the movement, it is not necessary to look into the question of whether or not Christian-Judaism represented any sort of overt revolutionary stand against the Roman occupation.  Perhaps rebellion against Rome was the case, or perhaps it was just the Roman preception of Jews and Christian- Jews, or perhaps neither is correct. In all likelihood, the Roman military authorities probably thought little or not at all about this new and obscure Christian-Jewish cult.  For our purposes here, it is only important to recognize that throughout the ancient world religion and politics were not easily separated from each other. From this bundling stems much of the modern wrangling over whether it was the Christian religion that was being persecuted, or a Roman attempt to stamp out the possible political derivations of the religion.  We should also note that this lack of easy separation of politics and religion remained true in the western world until around the mid 18th century.  This separation being one of the significant changes that helped speed the close of the Modern Era (1500 – c.1920).

It was during these Jewish Wars by the Romans that the Christian-Jews began to whither in Judea, leading the proselytizers of Christianity, such as Paul, to move into the Gentile world to spread the new religion.  Success in the Greek world was made all the easier by the pagan traditions.  In the Greek world, and the Roman, human beings becoming divine and Gods becoming human had a long tradition.  Coupled with the belief in the possibility of a glorious here-after, something of only dim construction in both pagan and Jewish traditions, the Gentile world proved fertile soil for the Christian seed.

Christianity began as a Jewish-cult.  By the turn of the 4th century this cult, during its early struggle with real world conditions, manifested some or all of the ingredients of a coherent, ideological framework.   Even before wholesale intervention by the politics of Rome, Christianity had already developed (1) material roots in the Roman occupation, (2) inherited both Jewish and pagan spiritual traditions, (3) possessed the potential for intentional thought.  These first three were largely preconditions presented by history and cultural considerations that were largely beyond the immediate control of the players in the drama.  Over time, the other three ingredients (analyzed in greater detail later) would emerge with the intervention of Roman politics.  These three – (4) a closed system of thought that (5) benefited certain groups over others and (6) restricted those deposed social groups from a full realization of the political agenda which controlled their material self interest – would emerge more willfully directed by the players with conscious intent. 

Between 100 and 300 C.E. this new cult spread as far as Rome, but remained small, secretive, and hostile to the Gods of the Romans.  To be secretive is bad enough for the authorities, but to be secretive and hostile to the pagan gods, whose good will was necessary for the well being of the Roman state, was intolerable.


IV. Rome and Late Antiquity

One way to look at the history of late Rome, as well as late antiquity, is to see it as the unfolding and inauguration of Christian ideology.  Of course, Christianity is not the sole historical legacy of Roman antiquity.  The development of bureaucratic organization, structural engineering and the craft of war all stand as examples of important, if not always positive, contributions by Rome to human organization. These are, however, all legacies of a practical nature.  The longest lasting metaphysical, that is ideological, residue left by the late Roman period is found in the evolution of the Christian idea-system.  

            The evolution of Christianity involved both the theological and the political, with the theology, qua ideology, coming with increasing regularity to mediate and justify political developments. Though the principle focus here is broadly ideological rather than narrowly theological, it is obvious that the two emerged together, and until toward the end of the Modern Era were always difficult to separate. From the Crusades to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)[13]  there are numerous and overt historical examples of the impracticality of such a clear separation.  To be sure, the kinds of ideologies at work in these events were overtly political, but they are also plaited through with Christian sanctification.  Though Christian ideology will act as mediation and justification in these situations, the historian will typically prefer to focus on that ideology which best supports an unencumbered analysis of concrete political conditions.  Even granting certain internal inconsistencies in religious thinking, which can hamper a full understanding of the overall political development of the West, the dominant religious idea-system must be considered and analyzed, along with the hosting, concrete conditions.

Before going specifically into Christian political ideology it is a necessary preliminary step to look into the nature of religion in Antiquity.  Particularly appropriate is the state of religion in the society of the late period of the Roman Empire.  But first, religion in Antiquity did not have the same relationship with political structures that was to develop in the Modern Era (1500 - c.1920).  The legal, as well as conceptual, divorce of church and state is a relatively new phenomenon, as it only began to emerge in the mid-Modern period.  In Antiquity, there existed no such separation between religion and the state.  Religion and the state were one.  This is critical to understand in order to fully grasp the rise of Christianity as a political ideology in the late Roman period. 

It was a symptom of political health in Antiquity when unity existed between the dominant religion and the state.  The blending of church and state greatly facilitated the ease with which the ruling order could use ideology for mediation and justification of the unequal social order.  Just as the co-mingling of religion and politics was a unified world view that those under its aegis took completely for granted, so too, was the use of religion for justification not a fully conscious process on the part of the ruling, political classes.  All appeared as it was intended to be.  That is, within the strictures of the idea-system, the player saw nothing amiss.

The Roman state religion contained the last of the three elements of political ideology we promised to analyze in greater detail: (4) it was closed and not open to general debate, (5) rather conscious or unconscious, it certainly benefited the ruling classes in their manipulation of the subjugated classes, (6) it hid any clear agenda of the decision makers from the those outside the circles of power.  Understanding these points will make somewhat clearer the threatened disruption to political control that could be brought about by unofficial, upstart religions, particularly those that professed to offer these exploited people the support of a god.

All three of these elements are found first in the Roman pagan religions. 

First: there was no toleration for debate as the Roman Emperors stood at the pinnacle, often taking on the mantle of a god, or a conduit to the Gods.  They would claim to be the Pontifex Maximus of the Gods, or the Vicar of Jupiter Capitolinus, both of these being common expressions for the religious function of the emperor; the similarity of these offices with later prelates of the Church is obvious.  As the emperor spoke for the gods, to question his authority was to question the gods.  And of course, as the priests of the pagan religions were in the service of the imperial government, it was effectively a closed the system to outsiders and outside influence.

Second: none, except for those emperors who were insane, actually believed they were gods, but that the Gods spoke through the emperor was never doubted by a superstitious population. The Emperor’s word was the word of the Gods, and all who listened and believed in the pronouncements of the Gods, believed in the Emperor and his divine abilities.  That this was a belief in the emperors divinity could be used to manipulate the population and legitimized imperial authority is also obvious. 

Third, how much of this ideology the ruling order actually believed in is secondary to understanding the power of the ideology to disguise the actual power relationships and the agenda of the elite from the general population.  Control and sole proprietorship of the state religion, qua ideology, was one of the greatest of the imperial powers.  Even if many of the emperors were not fully conscious that they possessed that power, that power was theirs, a power behind which to hide and control.

In general, the politics of Rome, which is to say the concrete power relationships, were always manipulative, dangerous and subject to unexpected demands from forces beyond the immediate control of the imperial machinery.  We might add to this that Roman politics were almost always individualistic, opportunistic and cynical.  We will go into the particulars of this below when considering the historical context, but for the moment, it is enough to note that the atmosphere of power politics in Rome’s late period was not conducive for any calm and reflective development of a coherent idea-system.  Indeed, the study of ideology, per se, was well beyond the intellectual resources existent at the time.  The rise and development of Christian political ideology as Roman political ideology was opportune and taken on by fits and starts, as was, for that matter, the development of Christianity as an existential ideology.

The Christian idea-system roiled with the tumultuous politics of the time and only coalesced and at the end of a long and often bloody birth process.  This process took place within a definite reality, a well-defined, concrete historical process.   For our purposes here, it is probably not useful to go into detail concerning theological debates within the church at the time of the ascendancy of Christianity. The theological debates within the church concern both those ideas that survived the historical process and those that did not. Some are more important than others, but none of them directly concern us here.  For example, the question of who exactly was Jesus Christ is not as an important a question as who his followers thought he was.  Dispensing with the theological issue makes possible the examination of those real world struggles that launched Christianity as the ideological force.  Recognize that although there were definite religious overtones to the many resolutions of these concrete struggles, our concern here is with the ideas that survived those political and historical entanglements of the time and not the otherworldly debates.  The entirety of the theological debates is covered in many fine works, works that analyze these theological debates taking place in late antiquity in great and honest detail.[14]  For us, in this search for ideological development, the concern is discovered within the shifting political, that is the shifting power relationships, in late antiquity.  For it is within those shifting relations that nurtured the rise of final triumph of Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. 


A. Historical context and the early development of Christian ideology

Right from its very beginning, the history of Christianity is the history of a declining Rome. The two histories are inseparable.  In fact, if it were not for the historical and political disposition of the late Empire, Christianity, as a religion, and most certainly as an ideology, would have existed and faded away as an obscure cultish offshoot of Judaism. As it was, the Empire and Christianity became so intertwined – the one a hardened political system and the other an otherworldly, developing spiritual system – that it is difficult to see where one ended and the other began.  The fact that the end of Rome’s western domination appears to slide so seamlessly into a Europe managed by a provincial feudalism is largely made possible by Christian ideology.  The ideology and the infrastructure of the new Church made the development of these harsh and oppressive feudal arrangements not just justifiably possible, but fully legitimized and integrated into the world view of the populace.

This raises a pertinent consideration, one that can clearly distinguish the world view of antiquity from that of later times. Empires, particularly Rome (though there were others, such as that carved out by Alexander) suffered from an absence of theme, the missing of a consistent systematic worldview that we must see as a lack of ideological coherence. Pagan religions hardly made up for this lack of a world view. The works of Plato and Aristotle acted as critical reflections, but did not act to legitimize the raising of empires. This black hole of ideological coherence was to have far reaching practical considerations for many of the ancient empires. The absence of systematic political idea-systems undermined many of the ancient, imperial infrastructures.  Internally consistent idea-systems are the metaphysical glue binding political infrastructures to their concrete realities.  Modern ideologies, as opposed to antiquity, offer contemporary political infrastructures a greater sense of coherence and stability.

This missing coherence in political ideology meant that many of the ancient political empires possessed little or no sense of legitimacy. As many of these entities were simply military constructs held together by brute force they were present merely as a matter of power.  This lack of ideology became painfully obvious when the titular head was removed from the scene. Smooth transitions were impossible.  Bloodbaths for control of the political infrastructure typically ensued, with all of the attentive societal disruptions, and no lasting stability.   

Both the cause and result of this lack of a legitimizing political ideology is that many of the empires of antiquity, such as Rome, were affairs of a personal nature, or a succession of personal affairs[15].  Some of these personal relations attempted to survive through some form of nepotism, with nepotism itself held together by coercive power with only a nod to tradition or pagan religious flimflam. While these traditional and dogmatic elements were always present in the Roman state sponsored religions, for the most part when the personal dictator of the Empire was removed the Roman world was up for grabs.

Once the Roman Republic was overthrown, individual personality came to the fore once again as the central motif, always with the army as ubiquitous theme-maker. Starting with Julius Caesar, power came at the tip of a sword, ungrounded in any ideological justification.  There was no natural law of succession as there was no idea-system to support the political structure.  Rome stumbled from ruler to ruler, a political vacuum in search of legitimacy.  The difficulties, downsides, and drawbacks of this lack of ideological glue became all the more glaring as the Empire entered its long decline.  The last great emperor, Constantine, made a great attempt to understand and reverse this decline and in so doing drew on all the available resources to bring legitimacy to his one man rule. Constantine was the first to employ Christianity as a resource.  In all likelihood, he did not understanding the long term implications of his political actions.

Constantine ruled Rome from 306 (or 324, depending on one’s definition of rule) to his death in 337.  Constantine received a very decent education at the Emperor Diocletian’s court and by his early 20’s was campaigning to secure Rome’s Danube bordor.  By all accounts the matrial arm of his rule was honed and he was on his way to being a general of coniserable talent.  His political skills were yet to be developed.

Recall now that Constantine’s mother and stepsister were Christian.  There is little doubt that this was an important fact in Constantine’s life.  The effects on Constatnine of his mother’s choice to follow this new Christian religion will probably never be clearly appreciated, but it must not be underestimated. Constantine’s rule was marked from beginning to end by the emergence of Christianity.

  In 303 Constantine witnessed Diocletian’s ruthless persecutions of the Christians.[16]  To fully digest the meaning of these Christian persecutions it is necessary to have some understanding of the relationship between the Jewish people and the Roman state.  Judea had always been a special problem for the occupying Romans.  The Jews were a stubborn and rebellious group.  The Romans correctly understood this cantankerousness as emanating from their religious ideology.  In the hundred years straddling the birth of Christ the Romans slaughtered nearly a milion and a half Jews in order to bring the province under control.[17]  The most heinious of these Jewish Wars fell just after the birth of Christ.  There was no mechanization for this slaughter, no explosives, no gas, only the sword and spear to accomplish this genocide.  While the majority of these victims of Rome were Jews, many were from the new upstart religion that worshiped the Jew, Jesus Christ, as a God or god like figure.

This is in no real way to prove that Diocletian’s anti-Christianity was not politically inspired.  Diocletian was a reactionary of sorts and desired to rekindle the ancient glory of Rome, which meant the old codes of conduct and a revival of the pagan religion.  To a certain extent, it would follow, stamping out upstart cults opposed to paganism was just part of the planned revival.[18]  This revival was bundled to some very practical concerns for the earthbound Emperor Diocletian.  Religion was one of the pillars of imperial rule, and by extention, support for that emperior who held office.  Christians held themselves apart and aloof.  Along with standing in the way of his planned revival of the old Roman glory, Diocletian correctly saw the rise of Christianity as a force undermining the legitimacy of Roman occupation of large sections of the eastern proviences.  Christians were a visible, resistant minority, having migrated from Judea to as far as Rome and Iberia.  They proved to be resistant to legitimizing imperial standards by refusing to participate in traditional pagan ceremonies, advising against military training, and collecting together in secret societies praying to a god that demanded an allegiance before that due the emperor.  By the end of Diocletian’s rule the stress on the empire must have seemed to Constantine as epitomized by the Christian presecutions.

The history of Rome at the entrance of Constantine was a virulent and confusing time.  The context was the existence of multiple and antagonistic emperors overseeing territories under almost constant siege.  The reality of the time was unrelenting frontier penetration by tribal raiders, and the continuous friction between the four emperors. Assaulted from without and torn from within, the political system was always threatening to unravel.  Controlling the historical forces behind these threats was probably beyond any one individual.  Constantine did the next best thing. If Constantine could not dominate these historical forces, his greatness was reveled in his ability to manipulate them.  Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is perhaps the most forceful, and most fateful, of these manipulations.

Constantine’s conversion to Christianity gave full vent to the development of a potent and unifying idea-system. It was through Constantine’s good offices that the ideology of the Catholic Church was raised to political authority.  Of course there is no way of knowing what precisely was in Constantine’s mind at the point of his conversion, and there is no rational reason to assume that his conversion to Christianity was not genuine in every respect.  However, even given that, it is still critical to bear in mind that Constantine was a real ruler in a real situation fraught with struggle and danger for him and the Empire he ruled.


B.  History, Politics and Constantine’s motives .

          The story of the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is one of history turned legend.  The legend has it that the emperor Constantine saw a cross in the sky and an inscription that promised victory in an upcoming battle.  Armed with this divine foretelling, Constantine crushed the opposition and was on his way to becoming the sole emperor of Rome.  Of course, this is the legend. The actual reality of the event was almost certainly different.

By the turn of the 4th century four emperors (the Tetrarchy) came to rule the Roman Empire, a volatile and cumbersome system which evolved in response the slow disintegration of control over vast and difficult holdings.  This slow disintegration was reflected in the fragmenting of the state religion.  Probably in response to the anxiety brought about by the increasing social instability and political uncertainly, numerous religions and cults were springing up throughout the empire.  Most were of local interest only.  The ‘victory’ of one of these cults, these ideologies, over the others would greatly facilitate political control.  The question is, if Christianity made up only about 10 percent of the Roman population, why did Christian ideology emerge victorious as the Roman state religion?

To get a grip on this question, it is far better to understand the political and material realities presented by Christianity than the theological aspects. These material realities are certainly the elements that would not be overlooked by a great political statesman like Constantine.  They can be listed as follows:  (1) Christianity stood outside the imperial circle, and was therefore an opposition force adding its weight to the Empire’s fragmentation. This fragmentation was a situation that could not be allowed to continue.  As this situation that had been unsuccessfully dealt with by the great persecutions of the Christian sects, co-option was a bold step open to Constantine. (2) Christianity had a social and intellectual infrastructure that was both coherent and spread throughout the empire.  (3) Christianity’s governing structure was looking increasingly like that of the Roman state.  The far flung bishops, from Rome to Alexandria, were similar to the Roman Praetorian Prefects, the Dioceses would reflect the Metropolitans, then the Christian rulers of the provinces were the Archbishops, and the cities had their bishops.  Certainly this would have been recognizable to Constantine as a ready made, supportive political infrastructure.    (4)  Military cohesion and loyalty was being affected as increasing numbers of soldiers were being moved to take up the new religion.  They were no doubt drawn by the promise of an afterlife, something that would naturally appeal to soldiers always in the shadow of death.  (5) The new religion was affecting the great sea of poor in the empire, potentially creating a mass of disloyal population — or of loyal supporters. None of these elements of control would have been overlooked by a politician as ambitious and intellectually astute as Constantine.  If Emperor Constantine was nothing else, he was a strong and decisive leader who had proven in the past to understand his options.

At the time of his famous ‘Christian vision’ (312 C.E.), Constantine was locked in a life or death struggle for control of the western empire with a second emperor of Rome of the Tetrarchy, Maxentius.  Constantine’s army had marched and fought from Gaul, across the Alps, and down through northern Italy.  When Constantine at last arrived at the gates of Rome, his army was exhausted, outnumbered five to one, and demoralized from a march far from home.  Constantine, a more than adequate military commander, certainly recognized the need to offer his troops a morale boost. 

It is at this point that we need to reflect on the existing idea-systems of the time, particularly those among the tribes of the Rhine where Constantine recruited most of his troops.  These pagan soldiers were not only uneducated and illiterate, they were also strong believers in ideologies of animism and the magic of the sign. They organized their lives around the magical intervention of the gods.   Everywhere they looked there were symbols and signs, signs foretelling the future.  From a reading of the entrails of goats, to the sudden death of a bird falling out of the sky and landing at their feet, the interpretations by pagan priests were believed and acted upon.  It is very difficult for us, with our strong linage of science and empirical study, to comprehend the system of ideas in which these men were gripped, or to have empathy for their worldview.  Theirs was a system where the sun, the moon and the wind in the trees were easily recognized as gods, or divinely driven, signs to be carefully listened to and obeyed under pain of a death and without the option of an afterlife. Theirs was a fearful mental world dominated by magic and spirits, a fanciful world fully of devils and demons in which they fully believed.  Into this superstitious setting comes Constantine’s miraculous vision.

As history turned legend goes, on the day before the battle with Maxentius Constantine looked up in the sky and saw a potent vision.  The exact when-and-where were not accurately recorded and consequently those details are a little fuzzy.  But it was generally held at the time that Constantine looked up at the noon day sun on the day before the battle and saw the first two letters of the Greek spelling of Christ.  The Emperor also saw the words “Conquer by this”. 

Constantine’s first reports were of these letters. He did not report that he had seen a vision of the gibbet upon which Christ was hung, as was later claimed.  It was only later, after some time had passed, that a revised version of seeing the cross was presented.  However, it was never clear whether Constantine authorized the change from the letters to the gibbet, or that was the work of revisionists.

Of the actual reality of what Constantine saw (or fabricated) no one can be certain.  He might have had some sort of vision, as he described, or he might have seen a fairly common meteorological event for that time of year called a solar halo; perhaps the brilliance of the sun, underwritten by some deep psychological connection with his Christian mother and step sister, may have caused him to see things that were not there.  Or more cynically, we might consider that for practical needs based on his understanding of his legionaries he might have simply made the whole thing up.  It was not the first time Constantine had claimed visions, only before it was Apollo who foretold of his victory.[19]   For the purposes of the coming battle with Maxentius it did not really matter what the Emperor saw.  What was important for Constantine’s troops was the perception of what happened and the belief in divine intervention.  With their shields now painted over with the labarum Constantine claimed to have seen[20], his troops marched to victory. 

Of course it helped a great deal that Maxentius had blundered in the arrangement of his troops so that he could not take advantage of their superior number, and that he had placed their back to the river Tiber in such a way that he had left his forces only a single narrow bridge to fall back on. Finally, Maxentius himself was killed early in the battle sending his troops into panic. 

Superstitiously, this was expected by the legions of Constantine and by the people of Rome, for it was all foretold to Constantine by the new Roman God, Jesus Christ.  At this point it mattered little what Constantine might have believed.  The pieces on the chessboard were in play and he could not back out of this changing game if he had wanted to.  History now had him reading from a Christian script.  By dint of circumstance he was now beholden for his victory to the new faith, the Christian faith.  His conversion might have been authentic, but from the stand point of history it was not so much belief as it was circumstance.

Constantine was an immensely successful ruler during one of the most sinister and unstable of times – the approaching end of Roman hegemony.  It would be difficult to imagine a successful ruler of Rome that was not utterly calculated in his handling of power.  If he was to stay in power he had to carefully weight every move, every thought in the most worldly and down to early manner possible.  Constantine survived battlefields and ruthless politics to die in a bed – an almost unheard accomplishment for Roman emperors in late antiquity.  Again, while there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the political  implication and ramifications of this conversion would not have escaped so intelligent and capable a political strategist.

Christianity’s rise to dominate European thought for a thousand years was nearly exclusively the result of the political effects of Constantine’s conversion.  So, whether Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was sincere or a ruse is beside the point of a political impact.  When considering the rise of the Christian ideology as a unifying force it is the blend of the ideology and its impact on the state that we must study and not the emperor’s personal beliefs. The emperor’s political activities help tell the story behind his regard for the new Christian ideology.  For that, we must look again at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E.

At the top of the 4th century a powerful schism was threatening to tear the young religion apart.  This was the Arian controversy. This schism was over the nature of Jesus Christ.  Was Jesus a man, or was he simply a prophet of God?  Was Jesus like John the Baptist, or the later Mohammad, or was he divine?  Was he a god in his own right, a part of the godhead, or an earthbound, a wise and compassionate Rabbi.  Constantine’s actions regarding this threatened schism are telling of his interest in, (and interpretation of) its political implications.

The Arian controversy appeared, at least on the surface of it, simple enough.  The controversy focused on the theological work of the Alexandrian priest Arius.  Arius considered that if Jesus was the son of God, then God must have preceded the Son and therefore there was a time when the Son did not exist. This would mean that Jesus was not of a divine nature. One of the many implications here were that belief in Jesus could not insure forgiveness of sin and eternal life. This conclusion threatened to hollow out two major definitions of Christianity:  the first is the pivotal importance of eternal life to the Christian idea-system.  The second issue is one that would dog Christianity down through the centuries: the necessity of orthodox thinking substituting for freedom of thought. 

For the emperor Constantine there was also a political dimension. Roman emperors had always enhanced their ruling positions by assuming the mantel of the vicar of the gods.  For Constantine to be in control of this religious support of the Roman imperial infrastructure it was important that Jesus be indisputably declared divine.  Roman emperors also took on the position of pontifex maximus, that is, the highest priest among high priests.  When Constantine arrived at Nicaea, determined to keep himself squarely in the legitimizing glow of the new religion, he did so as the highest priest.

Constantine convened the Synod at Nicaea in 325, with himself presiding as the pontifex maximus and the Vicar of God.  Constantine arrived in all his imperial splendor, taking the seat at the head of the council. He intended to make an impact on the assembled bishops, most of who were from the east where Arius had the greatest influence.  Constantine needed to override that influence.  He would tolerate no split in the ideology, no controversy.  The emperor needed unambiguous assurance from the Synod that divinity played a direct role in the affairs of the empire.  This would lead to a second and perhaps more pressing need of Constantine’s: he needed unequivocal assurance from the high priests of the Church that a universal idea-system supported his direct role in ensuring the blessings of that divinity; he needed authoritative benediction from the Synod that his was a rule reflective of divinity and he, the Emperor, was still the Vicar of God.  Obviously, this need directly affected his political position and therefore it is easy to understand that correct orthodoxy became a prime mission of the Christian emperor at Nicaea.  Constantine bent every effort to insure that the followers of Arius would come to support Christ as Divine, and he pressed for a unanimous vote on the issue.  In the end, all but two bishops signed on and Catholic Christianity became the official religion of the Roman state.

What Constantine and the empire gained from the resolution of this controversy was a coherent ideology.  Though it is by no means conclusive, Constantine himself was probably disposed to see Jesus as Divine.  He certainly pressed for this conclusion.  However, it might also be argued that his interest in divinity was secondary to his political interest in the unity of thought provided by Christ as a part of the Godhead. This interpretation certainly suited his political agenda as well as brought a coherent orthodoxy to his new state religion.

                                    ***    ***    ***    ***

Earlier, questions were raised as to the nature of the existing environment that allowed Christianity to take such firm root.  We may summarize answers to those questions with the following ten points:

1. There was no interfaith hostility to kill off a young Christian movement.  Pagan religions were pantheons and could easily assimilate new gods. Christianity, on the other hand, was hostile to the pagan religions, believing that their gods were demons and agents of the devil. This hostility gave Christianity a hard competitive edge vis-à-vis paganism’s more accommodating attitude.

2.  Christianity was missionary in intent.  In the Roman world only Judaism was alike in this regard.  But unlike Judaism, Christianity made no demands of circumcision for converts, or dietary restrictions; both of these demands being obvious discouragements to potential converts. 

3.  There was a promise of a glorious afterlife.  This gave Christianity great appeal to the masses of slaves and oppressed whose labor built the physical infrastructure of the empire.  An afterlife also especially appealed to those makers-of-emperors, the military where death was an assumed job risk. 

4.  Christianity appealed to the urban poor.  Christianity filled that need for communication with the “other world” that for the average Roman, the needy and even the destitute, which the pagan religions put out of reach.  Pagan religions demanded sacrifices to curry favor with the gods.  This was an expense that shut out the poor. Judaism demanded tithes from the members of the synagogue, also hindering participation by the lower classes.  On the other hand, Christianity made charity and support for the poor a universal duty.  It was a religion not so much of sacrifice as of enfolding.

5.  Christianity had universal appeal and was not bound by local myths, needs and customs.

6.  Christianity had a built in precondition for an educated hierarchy, that precondition being the demands of the Scriptures for a literary readership in an illiterate world. This impetus for an educated hierarchy led to organizational structures unavailable to pagan religions. These educated leaders were missionaries and possessed the necessary organizational skill required to bring order and take advantage of the universality of the church.

7.  Unity and universalism was the great organizational en-framing of Christianity.  Internal confusion, conflict and contradiction brought on by the multiple authors of the Scriptures, and their various interpretations, were largely confined to the literate elite of the church and did not interrupt the devotion of a following, illiterate mass.

8.  Because of this fundamental universality of Christianity, it was almost inevitable that the political state (i.e., Rome) would seize and support this religion as an idea-system to underwrite the legitimacy of a far flung and autocratic empire.

9.  The Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire.  In so doing, made the bishops of the Church men of power, in political life as well as religious.  The bishops soon replaced magistrates in civil matters, thus gaining local authority that was bound to leadership in Rome.  This fusion wed the fate of Christianity to that of the Roman political structure. 

10.  The physical, bureaucratic structure of the Church began to take on the appearance of a shadow government.  From the monasteries on up the structure aped the Roman state, with bishops modeled on Roman Prefects, the Archbishops the provincial rulers, the Pope as the emperor of this spiritual community. The ideology became entwined with concrete political structures.


C. Transition to Christendom

The nearly seamless transition from Imperial Rome to Feudal Europe was largely facilitated through Christian ideology and the shadowy, quasi-political apparatus of the Catholic Church. It is in this transition that we can begin to clearly see the reification of political institutions through the ideological function of legitimization.  For one thing, the rise of an Emperor or King was no longer a simple matter of his installation at the head of an army.  Though naked power was still present, as it is in all political situations, it became obscured by the Christian ideology that acted to legitimize the ruling order.  This is a pronounced change from imperial politics where emperors came to power without the assistance of the state religion and merely assumed the mantel of pagan spiritual leadership.  At around 500 C.E. the process seemed to complete itself.  From this point forward political leaders came to their positions by the grace and offices of religious institutions.   Raw power was certainly still necessary, and was certainly still present in every day medieval, political struggle, but from 500 C.E. it could be concealed beneath a cloak of Christian ideology.

Following the 476 disposition of the young Emperor Romulus Augustulus by Odovacar, a barbarian chieftain of Hunnish background, the final chapter in the history book of the Roman Imperial period officially came to a close.  Of course, the reality behind the shifting of social and their concomitant political arrangements is not so tidy as the closing of a book, or a final exam in a history class.  The living dynamic is a complex and time consuming process to analyze.  For a summing up, our purposes here are to quit Rome in order to briefly introduce the power relations of Feudal Europe.    

During the 5th century, the centers of European power began their shift north into the Germanic and Frankish territories.  The city of Rome fell into ruins, being sacked by Germanic armies.  The population of the city was reduced to about a tenth of the size it had been under the Imperial banner.  This decaying situation remained the case until the new, northern centers of power re-invented Rome and infused it with both the new ideology and the politicalization of that ideology. 

Through a series of quid pro quos between the Church and the first of the Carolingian monarchs, Pepin the Short, the Papal States, with Rome at the heart, were invented and established.  Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, codified the States and installed Popes as rulers over these newly devised territories.  There was nothing hidden here.  Christianity was not just the political ideology in the new reality of the Papal States.  Christianity represented a flowering of ideological thinking throughout Europe. It became the dominant world view.  It did not simply develop along with the shift in social and material relations emerging from the new centers of power.   For a millennium, Catholic Christianity was the ideological engine which was to provide the primary support for the political arrangements of feudalism.  Even if it is said that Christianity was not the ‘official state religion’ as it had been in late Rome, it was an eager ombudsman, the apologizer and ideological justifier of the new European ruling order.  Just as Christianity cannot be understood without understanding the politics of late Antiquity, the politics of Feudalism cannot be understood without an understanding of Christian ideology.

Clovis I, the first of the great Frankish kings, and founder of the Merovingian line of monarchs, was among the first to make fast and ready use of Christian ideology.  He converted to Catholic Christianity, the religion of most of his subjects, and thus strengthened the hand of the Church.  As with Constantine the Great, his conversion might or might not have been sincere, but that is beside the point of what it accomplished for him politically.

As Charlemagne was able to do several hundred years later, and further to the east[21], Clovis was able to use the mantel of righteous Christianity to unite his people and undermine the any support for his immediate enemies, the Visigoths[22].  Clovis recognized the contribution that Christianity did make, and would be able to make in the future through the Synod of Orleans in 511, which greatly strengthened the role of the Catholic Church in political affairs.  Thus the political process started by Constantine the Great made its way into medieval monarchies through Clovis, and finally with Charlemagne, four hundred years later. By this point the ideology had matured to the position of offering final political justification through officially anointing the kings of Europe.[23]

Constantine’s conversion and the legitimizing of the Christian ideology by the Roman Empire developed into a nearly unruffled transition to the new world order of the middle ages.  This was a new order that led to a thousand years of nearly unchallenged Christian ideological dominance over the western world. 

This is not to say that there were no bumps in the road, for there was resistance and enmity, some friction almost immediately arose between the Frankish kingdoms and German tribes.  Other conflicts and contraventions could be considered more intellectual, as exampled by the Arian controversy, Gnosticism and Manichaeism, or by the scholarly struggles within the ideology as represented by such intellectual figures as Luther and Erasmus.  Politically, the Christian ideology was almost at once pressed into service for numerous purposes and adventures that would have certainly garnered mixed feelings from Christianity’s founders.  From Charlemagne famously converting the German tribes at the point of a sword, to the Crusades, to the Inquisitions, it seems unlikely that Christianity’s spiritual founders would have claimed bragging rights to the effects of Christianity’s political ideology.


V.  Summary

By the 10th century Christianity, as an ideological player, was deeply enmeshed in the political landscape of medieval Europe.  Christianity’s ideological function was that of legitimizier and justifier for the socio-economic structure of feudal Europe.  In accomplishing this ideological task Christianity did an unusually effective job.  For a system as steeped as was feudalism in widespread exploitation to have existed for over one thousand years was the genuine Christian miracle of the age.  It certainly demonstrates the extensive contribution made to the health of an oppressive political system by the effective integration of a supportive ideology.  This is not to say that Christianity acted solely as ombudsman for feudalism, or did not have a separate agenda, but rather that as ideology, Christianity was a provider of legitimization for a social system that almost exclusively served the interests of the few.

To sum up, Christianity began as an obscure offshoot of Judaism.  Whether or not these Jewish-Christians were an actual political force in opposition to Roman occupation of Judea is not just questionable, but is beside the point.  What becomes less questionable is the development of the Christian religion following Rome’s ‘Jewish Wars’ (63-76 C.E.). Without the intervention of Roman politics the fate of Christianity, as a religion, is uncertain.  Since Christianity, as a religion, lacked the aggressive tendencies of a religion such as Islam, we can surmise that Christianity, in the Gentile world at least, might well have fragmented by schism and melded with the pagan religions.  The further away from the source of the Christianity, in both time and distance, the less it would have resembled the original understanding by the original writers of the Gospels.  Rome gave Christianity its unity and structural integrity. Christianity gave Rome religious peace, and for a time, the ideological prerequisite for political peace.  Later, Christianity gave an unstable medieval world the ideological foundation for a social stability through justification of an inherently unequal political system. 

Christian ideology did not fully succeeded in making the transition from feudal and semi-feudal social structures to modern democratic social arrangements.  Even without extensive analysis we can still briefly cite three likely reasons for this failure: First, the equalitarian demands of democratic ideology conflict with the hierarchal nature of Christian ideology.   Second, democratic ideology seems to be most at home in a dynamic environment which is at odds with the static picture of the universe presented by Christian ideology.  Third, modern democratic ideology has a foundation of truth based on empirically grounded reasoning.  This is in sharp conflict with truth by revelation. 

As a result of the transitional failure, Christian ideology in the Modern Era (1500 to c. 1920) has been uprooted from it political soil and entered a period of long decline. At some point toward the end of the Modern Era, Christian ideology lost all connection with concrete social reality, and rootless, has drifted into a decadent phase.  Christianity, having made its historical contribution, like many other decadent idea-systems, such as animism or astrology, can linger on indefinitely as a purely metaphysical entity, its power to mediate and justify now always in conflict with reality rather than in concert.







[1] I have written on ideology as much greater length elsewhere.  For example, see The Phenomenology of Ideology, this web site.

[2] I deliberately avoid the use of the term unconscious to avoid confusing ideology with a psychological process.

[3] For clarification see my paper On The Nature Of False Consciousness.

[4] I am currently preparing a paper on the origins of ideology that should appear on this web site

[5] In brief, the Arian controversy concerned itself with the nature of Jesus Christ.  Was Christ a mortal, a profit of God, or was he Divine, that is, of the substance of God.  The Synod of Nicaea in 325 decided in favor of Christ’s divinity.

[6] The Creed determined that Jesus was one with God, thus ending a schism that threatened to tear the church apart.  The Church is described in the Creed as ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church’.  It is intended that it should be one universal (catholic) church that represents Gods will on earth. The Cree is meant to unite all Christians by providing a statement of belief that was acceptable to all.

[7] For a more broadly developed overview of the period such works as the classic by Norman Cantor is highly recommended.  Norman F. Cantor, Medieval History, The Life and Death of a Civilization, Macmillan  Co (Toronto, 1969)

[8] For example, see Romans 13: 1-7

[9] See Corinthians 1 Cor. 7:17-24

[10] It need to be remembered that much of the Chilean catholic clergy strongly resisted Pinochet’s human rights violations and suffered the same fate as many on the Chilean Left.

[11] 1 Cor 7:22

[12] Who Jesus was, historically, and whether or not he actually considered himself a leader of a movement, are, quite frankly, impossible to determine with the available scholarship, and no stand will be taken on these questions here.

[13] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years'_War

[14] For a sensitive and carefully considered treatment of this struggle within the early church see Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief, The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Random House, (New York, 2005)

[15] The ‘empires’ of many of the Greek city-states might stand as an exception.

[16] Constantine played no role in these persecutions and later attempted to disassociate himself from them.

[17] For details see James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, the Church and the Jews, Houghton Mifflin Company, (Boston, 2001), especially pages 85-90

[18] At around 300 A.D. sociological historians have estimated that the population of Christians throughout the empire to be approximately 10% of the total.  See: Hopkins, Keith, “Christian Number and Its Implications.”  Journal of Early Christian Studies 6:2 (1998) 185-226


[19] On July 25, 310, it was told that Apollo appeared to Constantine and proclaimed him sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

[20] This sign was most likely crossed spears with a vertical P.  A symbol that would match the first two letters of the Greek Christ: Chi (X) and Rio (P).

[21] See Sidney Painter, A History of the Middle Ages, 284-1500, Alfred Knopf, (New York, 1953)  pp. 76/78

[22] See Isaac Asimov, The Dark Ages,  Houghton Press (Boston, 1968)  pp. 57/58

[23] It is not at all clear who initiated the process pf Christian Popes anointing kings, but in all likelihood it was Charlemagne, who paradoxically established this nemeses of all European monarchies down to the advent of democratic institutions.

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