While I do believe that Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was sincere, my argument below does not depend on such sincerity. But it does depend upon him seeing in Christianity something that he knew that he needed. That realization of his need may have included his personal need for Christ and forgiveness, but it almost certainly included his realization that Christianity represented a multi-ethnic and international glue that he did not have, coupled with the fact that he was the ruler of an empire that was in the process of coming unstuck.
A Foundational Surrender
The councils of the church were nothing at all like the Roman Senate. And delegates would come from everywhere, and they displayed a unity that Constantine longed to see transferred to the civic realm. This is one of the reasons why Constantine was so rattled by the Arian controversy. He wanted the whole thing to just “go away” so that this new kind of unity that was developing in the world would not be threatened. Fortunately, Athanasius knew that ultimate unity can only be found in the truth—not in councils. Athanasius knew which was the tree and which was the fruit, which was something Constantine did not initially recognize.
It is easy for us to cast shade on this kind of motive, but emperors are people too. They’ve got troubles also, and it is always right and proper for us to come to God with our troubles. It is never right to receive Christ as some kind of a lesser christ, whistled up to come in and fix this one problem “here,” while leaving everything else just the way it was. No. A man might turn to Christ because his marriage is in trouble, but if he really confesses that Jesus is Lord, he is surrendering far more than just his marriage. In the same way, when Constantine surrendered the empire to Christ, he was likely surrendering far more than he consciously knew. But what matters is that he knew it was a surrender.
He knew that Christians were not going to be thrown to the lions anymore. When the public sacrifices to the pagan gods were ceased—one of the greatest moments in human history—he knew all about that also. He almost certainly did not know that centuries downstream a demand for the eradication of slavery would develop, for example. He didn’t know about a lot good stuff that would happen centuries out, and he also didn’t know about the bad stuff that would happen centuries out, like the Renaissance popes.
Speaking of the bad stuff, a lot of modern Christians sneer at the Constantinian settlement because of the way that it was done. They would have preferred that the transformation of a degenerate pagan world into a Christian world be accomplished as though it were a triple axle in the women’s figure skating competition at the Olympic games, provided that the skater was a cute and vivacious blonde. That’s how you do a reformation! Perfecto.
They believe, in effect, that it would have been better had the pagan sacrifices continued. It would have been better had the Christians continued to be torn by lions. There is some deep theology involved in this, I am sure.
Why It Matters Now
Now here is the relevance for our day. America has northwards of 300 million people, sprawling for thousands of miles across multiple regions, climates, ethnicities, customs, and so on. Your choices are these. First, you can go with fragmentation, leaning into that. Second, you can try to hold the whole thing together by means of a false and idolatrous principle. Or third, you can seek to hold it together by means of a biblical understanding of covenant. For a refresher on some of that, see Part 1. Those are your choices, friend. If you want more menu selections than that, you need to try a different restaurant.
The fragmentation option is being chosen by the woke and semi-woke, the BLM radicals, the kinists, and whatnot. These are the tribalists. The second is being urged by the secular nationalists. The third is the way of Christian nationalism. Now the second group is using the first group to tear down the vestiges of what the third group is trying to hang onto, and they are doing this in order to perpetuate their version of nationalism, which will shortly be revealed as some sort of internationalism. The secular nationalists are not locally-sourced jingoists like the Nazis were. They wear the nationalist label lightly. They are baby blue globalists.
So the three logical options when it comes to our range of options are tribalism, nationalism, and globalism. Now that being the case, we could have secular tribalism, we could have secular nationalism, and we could have secular globalism. I don’t want any of these. And if we change the adjective modifying these three options, I much prefer Christian nationalism to Christian tribalism, but would work with Christian tribalism if we were forced to deal with a zombie apocalypse, or some other dystopic future. But I don’t want Christian internationalism until the last fifty years of the postmill golden era—the signal that such an option will be safe will be when the kids not yet weaned are playing with the cobras, and the lions are eating straw like the oxen. And that is what makes me a Christian nationalist.
Encompassing the Sprawl
Now what are we going to do if the nation is large, like we are? Christian nationalism in a place like New Zealand would certainly present challenges, sure enough, but not nearly as many as we have going on here. We are dealing with a lot more territory, many more ethnic groups, the primal wound of slavery, a lot of wealth at stake, and a really tangled history. We have to do it—if it is to be done at all—by means of a covenant, written down, and ratified by all the elders of the Sanhedrin, preferably at high noon, with photographers and journalists present.
This is how we need to do it the second time, because this is how we did it the first time. I am talking about America by covenant. And I would submit that everything is coming unstuck for us because we have forgotten what a covenant even is.
What a Covenant Is
In my previous post, I defined a covenant as a “solemn bond, sovereignly administered, with attendant blessings and curses.” My interest here is in the words sovereignly administered. When men make covenants with one another, it is necessary for there to be an authority overarching all the parties, requiring faithfulness to that agreement, and promising blessing for compliance, and chastisement for violations.
“For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife.”
Hebrews 6:16 (KJV)
Otherwise it is not a covenant at all, but rather just a provisional cease fire. If two dogs both want a piece of meat, they cannot resolve the problem by means of a covenant. They might have a stand off, but that is not the same thing. But men can resolve conflicting interests by means of a covenant—but they cannot do it with a godless covenant. This is because, when there is no God, there is nothing overarching all the parties to the covenant, and we are back to the dogs and the meat.
So in order for nations to make a covenant, they need covenant oaths, and in order to have covenant oaths, they need to swear by the greater. And for that we must go outside the world. Covenants like this have to be made in the presence of the living God. Otherwise every such enterprise is worthless.
Now such covenants can form organically over time, as we see in the unwritten British constitution. And it is not exactly unwritten—more like written down in all kinds of places in the common law. But in the case of America, we formed our federal government in the broad light of day by means of a written document, ratified by all the states involved. It took effect when nine of them ratified, and the thing was completed when all thirteen did. We wrote it all down, with the flash bulbs a poppin’.
Now the states that ratified this Constitution were civic fragments of the older British order. The colonies of Maryland and Massachusetts and Georgia, for example, had come into existence through various kinds of charters from the crown, and these civic entities had been in existence for over a century. They came together and formed a compact that created a new federal government, doing so in 1789. In the year of our Lord, 1789.
Where does that word federal come from? It is taken from the Latin word foedus, which means—wait for it—covenant. For most of us today, if we were to play the word association game with the word federal, our responses would be swollen, or obese, or gargantuan, or overweening. But the word means covenant. And the fact that all those negative words come to mind tells you that our central government is currently made up of covenant-breakers.
It is not that we used to have a covenant, but that it floated off somewhere. No. We used to have a covenant, and we still do have a covenant. But the covenant we still have is one we are constantly, and flagrantly, and impudently, breaking.
Where the Reformation Starts
Now the reason the Christian church is having trouble doing what is most necessary, which is to say, calling America back to faithful covenant-keeping, is that we have lost the idea of covenants ourselves. Covenantal thinking rarely comes up in the pulpit today. Christian congregations don’t think of themselves as covenant communities. Weddings are not thought of as covenant-making ceremonies. Children are not thought of as covenant children. In short, I don’t think things will start getting better until Christians start making their sandwiches with covenant peanut butter and covenant jelly.
Think about it. The most pious of us read our Bibles a lot. What would most Bible reading Christians say if a non-Christian friend asked us this. “You read the New Testament, right? I heard that testament means covenant. What’s a covenant?”
And then a moment later he follows up, incredulous: “What do you mean you don’t know? Its part of the name of both of your books.”