When world leaders pray (part I): the record of Constantine and a couple of other “Christian Roman Emperors”

My students and I have been talking a lot lately about the role of secular leaders vis-a-vis the church–especially the early church. A while back some words of British Prime Minister Tony Blair launched me into some research and reflections on this same topic–and a brief survey of the records of emperors Constantine, Theodosius I, and Justinian I. The results follow:

(Then, not content with putting together one article on this, I went on to look at some later leaders–so this post will be followed by a “part II“):

When World Leaders Pray
Some observers are upset with Tony Blair’s recent public avowal of faith. But what impact has Christianity really had on our leaders?
Chris Armstrong

“Humility, conscience, and responsibility.” These are the traits London Times writer Michael Gove believes political leaders learn when they submit themselves to God.

Gove made this statement last week after Tony Blair publicly stated that he would be judged on the Iraq war by “my Maker.” Blair’s closest advisors flinched—believing such an admission of faith by a Prime Minister “plays badly.” These are the same advisors who insisted the PM not end his Iraq war broadcast with “God bless you,” because “people don’t want chaplains pushing stuff down their throats.”

Sadly, the British spin-doctors are probably right to worry. After all, ever since the European public found out about the Bible study classes being held at the White House, many have been convinced Bush is “a fundamentalist crazy.” “To listen to the European reaction,” says Gove, “one might have thought they were bringing back witch trials in Massachusetts.”

But Gove suggests we look at the record. He argues that if we do so, we will find that Christian faith helps leaders gain a frame of reference for their decisions beyond that of mere political expediency. Far from becoming arrogant, inflexible, and intolerant, Christian leaders are forced to face the fact that they are answerable to a higher authority. And this is all to the good. It “enriches” such leaders and “extends their sympathies,” leading to such compassionate actions as Bush’s policies on AIDS in Africa and his attention to the poor and undereducated at home, and British Tory leader Duncan Smith’s forays out from Westminster to address the conditions of drug abusers and the problems of failing schools.

Though non-Christians, too, have shown such enlightened compassion in their leadership, Gove’s challenge reminds us that Christian leadership has been the norm—not the exception—for most of Western history. And despite the decidedly mixed record of such leadership, examples abound—from Constantine, Theodosius I, and Justinian I through Charlemagne, Louis IX, and Elizabeth I—of rulers who have taken seriously the faith they professed, and allowed it to influence their policies to the benefit of their people.

Though some historians now debate whether Constantine, “the first Christian emperor,” was truly Christian at all, he clearly believed he was. And he looked back to a battle at the Milvian Bridge, just outside the walls of Rome, as the decisive hour in his newly found faith. There, after seeing a vision of a bright cross in the afternoon sky with the words BY THIS SIGN CONQUER, Constantine ordered his soldiers to mark their shields with a stylized cross and proceeded to rout the army of his challenger.

Two years later, in 314, Constantine sent a message to the assembled bishops at the Council of Arles. He wrote about how God does not allow people “to wander in the shadows” but reveals to them salvation: “I have experienced this in others and in myself, for I walked not in the way of righteousness. … But the Almighty God, who sits in the court of heaven, granted what I did not deserve.”

Though Constantine wavered for a decade, allowing pagan sacrifices to be portrayed on the monument celebrating his Milvian Bridge victory, and though he ordered the execution of several relatives for obscure reasons, he acted on his faith more consistently during the last 14 years of his reign. Creating the conditions we call “state-church,” he laid the foundations for Western Christendom. And in 325 he convened the crucial Council of Nicea to address the Arian controversy that threatened to split the church (and, not incidentally, his empire). It was this council that first formulated the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity, over against the Arian teaching that Jesus Christ was less than fully God.

Theodosius I (347-395) continued the work Constantine had begun, making Christianity “the” Roman religion. Again, his early record was spotted—most notably by a horrific episode that occurred in 387. When the city of Thessalonica rioted because a favored charioteer was imprisoned, Theodosius ordered revenge: a chariot race was announced, citizens gathered in the arena, the gates were locked, and soldiers were set upon the crowd, killing some 7,000.

But this proved the turning point of Theodosius’s reign. After the debacle, Ambrose, the bishop of Milan instrumental in the conversion of the great Augustine of Hippo, refused to give the emperor Communion until he performed public penance. Theodosius consented. He put aside his royal garments, donned a shroud, and publicly pleaded for God’s mercy. This marked a new chapter in the history of church and state. For the first time, less than a century after emperors had tried to wipe out the church, a secular ruler submitted to the church. By 391, Theodosius was supporting the newly elevated church by closing pagan temples and forbidding pagan worship.

Justinian I (483-565) ruled from the empire’s new center in Constantinople. Most famous for his “Justinian Code” of law, he embedded in that code much that was unapologetically Christian. Among other innovations, he made it easier to free Christian slaves, gave more legal rights to women and children, made divorce harder, and reduced the number of capital crimes. He had 25 churches erected in Constantinople alone, proclaiming: “There are two great gifts which God, in his love for man, has granted from on high: the priesthood and the imperial dignity. The first serves divine things, while the latter directs and administers human affairs; both, however, proceed from the same origin and adorn the life of mankind.”

Next week we will examine the lives of later leaders, continuing to ask the question: “What happens when leaders pray?”

On May 29, 2003, we will examine the lives of later leaders , continuing to ask the question: “What happens when leaders pray?”

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine. Steven Gertz is editorial coordinator of Christian History magazine.

5 responses to “When world leaders pray (part I): the record of Constantine and a couple of other “Christian Roman Emperors”

  1. Pingback: Pious Politicians: A contradictio in terminis? « Apologia Christi

  2. I believe our Western Civilization has made a crucial mistake in discarding the Christian Worldview for one that does no longer allow for a transcendental reference point. Indeed spin-doctors freak out at any mention of God in public speeches by their politicians (even more so in Europe) while lobby groups espousing worldviews with a humanistic and/or naturalistic foundation are exerting pressure on governments to make life hard for institutions that have a confessional basis. Humanism, which has yet to come up with a bottom-line from which we can build up a new ethics for public and private conduct, demands arrogantly that the state should run its affairs in an ‘objective way’ (read: ‘stripped of religious influences’). At the same time it fosters a new libertarian morality that enforces its own subjective belief system on every aspect of society even into the private sphere. It is intolerant at best and totalitarian at its worst. We better brace ourselves.

    This bias against religion is totally unwarranted. Your posts give ample ammunition to that fact! Thanks.

  3. Pingback: When world leaders pray, pt II: Charlemagne through Elizabeth I « Grateful to the dead

  4. Unfortunately, history is rife with leaders that have proclaimed divine leadings or blessings to forward their agenda in disastrous ways.
    Fortunately history also includes leaders that have bowed their head in humble need for divine strength during times of great crisis. Their love for God was evidence through justice and courageous leadership. Justinian I and others like him should be remembered when current leaders such as Tony Blair humbly acknowledge their faith.

    • Mark, amen on both counts. Too many people (Bush Jr. included) have been too free with their interpretations of where the finger of God is pointing in history. BUT that is no reason to claim that we have to keep religion out of government. That was never the intention of the founding fathers, with their language of separation of church & state. They would have been appalled by today’s “naked public square” in America (too often, that is, naked of Christian influence).

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