[These Americans] exercised the rights of sovereignty; they named their magistrates, concluded peace or declared war, made police regulations, and enacted laws as if their allegiance was due only to God. Nothing can be more curious and, at the same time more instructive, than the legislation of that period; it is there that the solution of the great social problem which the United States now present to the world is to be found. Amongst these documents we shall notice, as especially characteristic, the code of laws promulgated by the little State of Connecticut in 1650. The legislators of Connecticut begin with the penal laws, and, strange to say, they borrow their provisions from the text of Holy Writ.
Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1835, French political thinker observing the newly established American colonies
Personally I am friendly toward the theonomic view; however, there is much agreement between “Christian America” and our position.
Irate preachers and other moralists often warn that America is becoming another pagan Rome. What many people fail to realize is that many of our Founding Fathers intentionally sought to make the United States resemble certain aspects of pagan Rome. In emulating features of ancient Roman life that seemed praiseworthy, however, the Founding Fathers overlooked the fact that pagan Rome’s early republican virtues offered no protection against civil war, corruption, the rise of the Caesars, and the decadence for which ancient Rome is now known.
Our Founding Fathers took much that was Roman —and pagan —as their pattern for the American republic. Their mistake was not in looking to Rome —from which we can indeed learn much —but in ignoring the lessons the empire itself learned in its transition from paganism to Christianity. Centered on Rome in Italy, the empire lasted in the West for almost seven hundred years — over three times as long as the history of the United States to date. In the fourth century this empire became Christian. Though Italian Rome fell in A.D. 410, the empire in its Christian phase did not die. Christianized and transplanted to Constantinople, it endured for an entire millennium (until 1453).
There was a time when the United States was a naively Christian nation. The vast majority of our people were northern European Protestant Christians. Our governmental institutions were religiously neutral —not hostile, as they have subsequently become. Even as substantial non-Protestant groups entered the country, the United States remained “a Protestant nation” in sentiment for decades. Except for the distinctly religious foundation of New England, America’s Christians never consciously tried to “make America Christian,” nor were they really aware that its Christian values were being rejected and replaced. Now, as we discover that this is so, serious Christians do not think of re-Christianizing America, because we, too, have come to consider ourselves a minority.
At the time of the conversion of Constantine the Great, Roman emperor from 306 to 339, Christians made up no more than 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire. The conversion of Constantine inaugurated Christian Europe. The civilization that subsequently developed is in disrepute now, for a variety of reasons. In my opinion, however, it compares favorably with pre-Christian paganism —and with post-Christian degeneracy.
American secular tradition sneers at Constantine, because he began the process of creating a Christian state. The American evangelical tradition disdains him, because he established Catholicism as the empire’s official faith (a Catholicism not yet Roman, of course). In the United States, our dominant religious heritage is Protestant independency: Reformed, Baptist, Methodist, fundamentalist, and even Unitarian, all of which are suspicious of “state churches.” This has produced general disrespect for the achievements of Constantine and his successors. Americans speak with relief rather than with regret of being post-Constantinian and sometimes even of being post-Christian. Although Americans in large numbers are indeed Christian, America is still pre-Christian —and it is time for a change. It is important for Americans to consider Constantine’s Christian empire seriously, because as Cicero’s pagan republic fails this Christian model could work in the United States.
We neither need nor want an American Constantine, but we do need to accept the principle that Christian political leaders, in a democracy as well as in an empire, can properly be expected to act on Christian principles.
Several aspects of this Christian empire are noteworthy. It covered a large territory and embraced diverse races, languages, and cultures. It was militarily successful for centuries, but it was not a militarized society. It was not based on race, but on an ecumenical idea. As its rulers took Christianity seriously, they tried to remake society in harmony with Christian teaching. There was no Roman Civil Liberties Union to hamper them. Christian emperors such as Theodosius I, Justinian I, and Leo III quite naturally worked to bring Roman law into conformity with the biblically revealed law of God. The Christian empire thus be¬queathed to Europe a rich heritage of Christian law.
The doctrine of church-state separation does not entail the separation of the state from ethics, and it is precisely to such ethical concerns that the law of God speaks. Ironically, it is precisely those who do not acknowledge God as their political norm who readily disregard and overturn the proper separation of church and state.
– Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen (theonomist)
Many modern Christians, including Reformed thinkers such as the late Francis Schaeffer, want to renew American society on the basis of the Bible or of biblical law alone. They tend to ignore the Roman and medieval past except to point to it as a bad example. Those who oppose the idea of a Christian America warn of the dangers of following the Constantinian precedent. A contemporary Christian republic would not, however, be the same as the Roman empire, although it would not be totally different, either. Christians living during the last fifteen centuries were never once able to come close to creating a Christian society.
Because Constantine’s empire was far from perfect, voices inside and outside of Christianity warn, “Don’t try it again!” Perhaps we can learn from Constantine, as from the Swiss, and avoid some of his mistakes.
In America, it was not the rulers, but the people, who gave society its Christian character. We neither need nor want an American Constantine, but we do need to accept the principle that Christian political leaders, in a democracy as well as in an empire, can properly be expected to act on Christian principles. Such action is not a fault; failure to act on Christian precepts is the fault (my emphasis).
The Creator laughs at those rulers who vainly attempt to assert their independence of Christ and His rule, and He places them under His dreadful curse. – Bahnsen
There can be no doubt that American Christianity is still vital despite its somewhat bewildering and eccentric character. There can be no doubt that revival and renewal are underway in the United States, despite the moral failings of, and battles among, some of the celebrities of the electronic [or Disney] church. Consequently, Christianity in America has the potential to affect society —for better or for worse.
The minimal amount of religious culture that we still have is a last bulwark against modern barbarism. One of the unmistakable signs of trouble is the increasing hostility of our governmental bureaucracy and much of the communications media to the vestiges of Christian culture in America. At the same time, a reformed evangelical movement has inspired countless numbers of American Christians to labor to reverse secularizing trends and to repossess the society of which they constitute the strongest and most stable component.
Which trend will win out?