When Did Christianity Become Imperial?

Pierre Manent begs more than he explains:

What to do about our diminished collective capacity is the great political question of Europe. Whether in relation to European unification or to Islam, it is clear that we have nothing pertinent to say if we refrain from making claims about European identity. One way to outline essential characteristics of European political and spiritual life is to contrast them with certain fundamental features of Muslim life.

Running the risk of a somewhat rough stylization, we might say something like the following: Islam throughout its history has largely preserved the form, the impulse, and the consciousness of empire (traits that are found with renewed vigor today), while Western Christianity, though born in an imperial form, and very much subject to great missionary and conquering movements, found its relative stability in a very different arrangement. Islam was never able to abandon the imperial form that ­Christianity could never assume in a lasting way. Christianity instead found its form in the nation, or in the plurality of nations once called “Christendom,” then “Europe.”

Anyone who reads the first pope Peter, finds little sense of Christian empire:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:9-11 ESV)

The early church thought of itself more in exile than as part of the establishment. Then came Constantine. Then came empire. Then came establishment. Only with the novos ordo seclorum did Europeans begin to question the fit between Christianity and empire.

5 thoughts on “When Did Christianity Become Imperial?

  1. Oliver O Donovan—“Our limited purpose is to articulate the grounds for a common and largely implicit distrust of the Christendom idea…The liberal view springs from a radical suspicion of society as such and of the agreements that constitute it—to be traced back, perhaps, to the contractarian myth which bound individuals directly together into political societies without any acknowledgment of the mediating social reality…..it is not Christendom but Christianity that is being attacked…”

    Oliver O Donovan—”If there is no religious test on the right to vote, or to have access to education or medical care, why should there be one on attending Mass and receiving communion, which is, after all, a source of satisfaction to religious temperaments and an important means of social participation? This conclusion, that the church should not be defined by belief, seems to me to follow rather obviously from the general refusal of ideology, though I do not know of anyone who has yet drawn it, except for the incomparable Simone Weil, who proposed, in her wartime tract The Need for Roots, that it should be prohibited to publish any opinion on any subject in the name of a collective body. Any society defined by its belief was to be banned.”

    John Yoder—“Pre-Constantinian Christians had been pacifists, rejecting the violence of army and empire not only because they had no share of power, but because they considered it morally wrong. The post-Constantinian Christians considered imperial violence to be not only morally tolerable but a positive good and a Christian duty.”
    The Priestly Kingdom (1984), p. 135



  2. I dunno, Darryl. I see no reason not to read Manent, who is after all an intelligent guy, a little more charitably: I presume he means not that Peter or any NT figure was an imperialist, but that the first Christian political thinkers *as such* tended to lean that way. The authors of the first couple of centuries were not doing political theory per se, but rather moral and spiritual teaching that bore on politics in certain ways (e.g. Peter’s image of the faithful as sojourners). As Christians’ social status began to normalize, it is true (as Oakley documents well) that most political thinkers tended to baptize the old pagan sacral monarchy. Manent’s point is that Christianity could never assume that social form “in a lasting way,” and that this is a key part of its greatness. No?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dwight, I hear Manent and I see a predicament for Europeans that North Americans don’t share. But I am still surprised that Manent is so Euro-centric in his understanding of Christianity. He doesn’t seem to have any room for Christianity without empire or political rule. For all of my problems with Dreher, why isn’t monasticism or some sort of exile an option for Christians in Europe?


  4. Greg Forster the joyful Calvinist think it’s mean when you put church and world in opposition like that. As in, it’s a mean thing to do, according to Forster, not to keep attempting to transform the world for its own good. Transforming the world is how we show the world we (on behalf of God) love the world.



    “God’s response to the darkness of the world’s evil was the cross. In the present age, God withholds ultimate judgment upon the unholy world…. The holiness of the church has crowded out its divine mission. The Benedict Option projects the spirit of resentment and hostility toward the world outside of Christian identity. The only change is to identify “the culture” as being in the possession of those outside….”


  5. I think you’re right that he doesn’t see the Dreher Option as a real option for Christianity. He doesn’t make this clear in the article you linked to, but elsewhere Manent suggests that circling the wagons is not a solution but an invitation to domination and/or destruction.


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