Political Masterclass: Constantine and Christianity, IV
While Constantine’s support, including the bestowing of honours and privileges upon Christian churches and leaders while depriving the Pagan cults of the same, did lead to the Christian church stepping into the role of the state religion of the entire Empire, and his own conversion encouraged a flood of other converts, the church’s official adoption by the Empire led to the loss of legitimate autonomy for the religion and its leaders, who became closely bound bound to the whims of the state. The synthesis of church and state also led for many important and influential figures in the Church hierarchy to enter into state politics and political intrigues; some certainly in the hopes of securing greater concessions or glory for the Church, others with entirely selfish motives. The end result in both cases was to further entwine state and church together, though the balance of power that would result is likely not the one Constantine would have wished.
The new political opportunities also changed the character of the men attracted to a life in the clergy; like the Imperial bureaucracy, the positions within the Church were now opportunities for personal advancement, access to the corridors of power and the accumulation of personal wealth, and recruits often were more inspired by that aspect than by genuine religious fervour. More importantly, however, Constantine’s decrees following the Nicean Council, along with the Nicean Creed, while offering support for a newly structured version of the Christian faith did little to actually quiet religious unrest and theological schisms, particularly in the eastern half of the empire. Most troublingly, the strong minority of Arians, labelled as heretics by the orthodox clergy, fled beyond the imperial borders and began living among the Germanic tribes. While this did lead to a number of conversions, the new devotees of Christ were following a heretical doctrine and so were opposed by the established church. Constantine’s goal of a tolerant and diverse umbrella unifying Christian faith was left unfulfilled.
Constantine’s conversion to the Christian faith is, ultimately, questionable in its sincerity. Every aspect that we have examined can be found to have an underlying political motive rather than a genuine expression of faith. The alleged miraculous sign of victory, normally seen as a message from the pagan gods, was conveniently re-interpreted as a message of favour from the Christian god two years later, shortly before a crucial battle when the support of a united and motivated minority would be at its most useful (a stratagem he would employ again in his war to unite the empire under his sole rule). A young and growing cult which was forming its own centralized hierarchy – and thus would be easier to influence and control – was extended first tolerance, and then official recognition, giving it a superior position over the disparate and decentralized pagan faiths it sought to replace. And of course, the issue of heretics and religious divide was dealt with in a manner which showed that Constantine was interested, above all, in a unified and peaceful state religion, rather than which faction of that religion happened to be superior; calling the issues which deeply divided the early faith “Truly insignificant” and “A trifling and foolish verbal difference”. The first Christian emperor was far more interested in the potential of Christianity as a tool for the consolidation and control of his empire than he was in the theological issues of the faith he claimed to belong to.
In the end, Constantine’s grand plan to mold a tolerant and diverse Christian church unified by overarching common interests, one that would provide religious and thus political unity to the Roman Empire, did not come to full fruition. Extremists and religious schisms would continue to plague the Church, limiting its influence as a tool of unity, and the spreading Arianism beyond imperial borders presented a new problem entirely. Despite this, he is the leading light for the Political Masterclass series, because he maneuvered so deftly and so subtly that none suspected him of ulterior motives, not during his time, when the letters of religious leaders – at least, those who he supported – were full of nothing but praise, nor for millennia afterwards. Only in more recent times, as we look back upon what happened, can we appreciate the subtle mastery of his performance, making a fledgling religion dance entirely to his tune, while convincing them that they were the ones creating the music.