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In his book Defending Constantine (reviewed here) Pete Leithart reminds us of the lateness of the first ‘Christian’ emperor’s baptism. According to Eusebius’ account, on which Leithart relies, in the spring of 337 Constantine began to feel “some light bodily disposition” and soon after, when he became convinced he was dying, he decided to travel to Palestine to get baptised in the Jordon. He never made it, but he was baptised in the imperial city of Nicomedia.
Curiously, after his baptism – a rite signifying his incorporation into the Church – Constantine never again wore the imperial purple. Leithart surmises that, highly ironically, Constantine – whose very name has become a by-word for the fall of the pure early church into power mongering from which it has yet to recover – himself sensed a “basic incompatibility between being an emperor and being a Christian, between court and church, warfare and prayer… Constantine, the first anti-Constantinian”. If right, then everything that Constantine did, including those things intended to improve the position of the Church, he did not as a Christian emperor, but just as an emperor.
What does it mean then for a British Prime Minister to say that this is a Christian nation? Is he just speaking honestly about his own position and experience? Is it a cynical attempt to fill a hole in the communications grid? Is it a dog whistle for UKIP inclined middle England Anglicans, or part of a “disturbing trend” of more and more politicians speaking about the UK as a Christian country?
Whatever, it’s not new. Indeed, so familiar is this rhetoric that it’s hard to see why such a learned group suddenly felt the need to publicly censure Cameron in a letter to the Daily Telegraph. One of the many ways in which a parallel between Constantine and Cameron doesn’t work is that Cameron has hardly done much which indicates he is somehow in hock to the churches – whether on welfare reform, immigration, or same-sex marriage there’s not been much love lost. Same old, same old – the rhetoric goes one way, the policy goes another. Under the austere Methodist Margaret Thatcher Sunday trading was introduced, under the soon-to-be Catholic Blair Catholic adoption agencies were forced to close or comply with new laws on same sex adoption.
To these fifty or so learned and important opinion formers who have objected to the Prime Minister’s comments, there are three things to be said. First, don’t worry – every government has its own peculiar brand of theo-politics playing out under the surface, but we are not hurtling towards a theocracy. After all, Cameron’s only one man, and they’d be plenty of Cameronistas who would wish he would keep schtum on such potentially embarrassing matters. Second, you’re saying something very important – it is right to guard against the identification of the state with the church. In particular, the idea of particular nations being chosen as vessels for God’s purposes is dangerous and wrong (though, to be fair, this is not what Mr Cameron is saying). That doesn’t mean that the state has to be secular in the contemporary sense of the word, just that, as Constantine himself judged, the state is not the church.
Third, it’s a bit mealy mouthed to dress your letter in the guise of concern for community cohesion. Looking at the list, what motivates many of you is a personal distaste for religion. Is this the Harry Kroto who campaigned for (and got) Michael Reiss’ resignation from the post of director of education at the Royal Society? Is this the same Polly Toynbee who finds the idea that Christ would take on the sins of humanity “repugnant”? You respect the right of the Prime Minister to his religious beliefs – well, I respect your right to yours. And since there’s so much respect around, why not be honest? Most of you dislike Cameron as a politician and as an individual. You believe Christianity to be irrational, and indeed evil, and any commitment to it just proves what an intellectual failure Prime Minister is. You concede people’s right to pursue whatever stupidity they want to in their ‘private’ lives, but you zealously guard the public square against religion’s encroachment.
And if you were more honest, I would say fair play. But I would also want to offer a caution. For all the risks of imperial baptisms, we can't therefore assume that religion should be kept 'private'. And in the end, since you know that religion can’t be purely private, be careful that you don't end up guarding the public square not only against talk of Christianity, but against Christians themselves.
Posted 22 April 2014
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.