Bonus Blog: Trump and Constantine: Can Religion be a Political Tool?

Well, I wanted to start off this blog with a disclaimer noting that I am a historian, not a political scientist. I have noticed many different opinions on the social, cultural, and media phenomenon that is Donald Trump’s rise to the forefront of the Republican Primary discussions. Trump has taken numerous victories around the country, including a thorough domination in the states in the Deep South. Since today has numerous high-profile primaries and one caucus, I wanted to blog about Donald Trump, Emperor Constantine, and the ability of religion to be used as a political tool.

There has been no shortage of blog posts, articles, and probably even forthcoming books detailing Donald Trump’s ascendancy in polls and in voter turnouts. There have been those who have shared memes joking about his unorthodox campaign, those who have questioned his true loyalties, and even a trending hashtag of #NeverTrump. Others have called into question whether or not he is a real Christian, as he claims to be. There was even a mini-controversy over him saying “Two Corinthians” in quoting a Bible verse (many people did not realize it, but many Christians refer to 2nd Corinthians this way). I wanted to delve into the theory that Trump has used Christianity as a tool to gain the support of much of the Religious Right. Such a theory reminds me of some interpretations of Emperor Constantine.

Constantine (272-337 CE) was the first true Christian emperor. He converted to Christianity after seeing a vision of the cross before riding into battle. He parlayed its image onto his shields and eventually was victorious at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. The Edict of Toleration was issued in 311, which ended the persecution of Christianity, and the Edict of Milan in 313 legalized Christianity as a religion in the Roman Empire. Constantine was only baptized on his deathbed, leading to many scholars over the years to question the authenticity of his conversion. Some have argued that Christianity was a political tool to unify the empire under Constantine’s rule, firming up his status as the sole ruler of the Roman world.

Eusebius of Caesarea wrote his Ecclesiastical History and a Life of Constantine, the latter of which was a glowing, hagiographical work which praised Constantine’s virtues and cast him in the role of a saint. For Eusebius, Constantine was completely sincere in his faith, and even ushered in the millennial kingdom on earth. For some modern scholars, Constantine was a shrewd politician who used Christianity. Which is it?

The current consensus is that Constantine definitely made a political move in making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, most scholars now either believe he might have been sincere, or at least that he could have been sincere but there is just no way to truly know. Unfortunately, we simply have to study Constantine’s actions from the perspective that he might have been a genuine Christian or that he might have just used Christianity’s popularity to his advantage. Either way, the effect was that Rome was Christianized and Constantine was a main cause of it.

This brings us back to Trump. Is he a true Christian? Is he using Christianity to manipulate voters into thinking he’s their Religious Right champion? Maybe Donald Trump is actually a Christian who is using Christianity to his political advantage. He would hardly be the first politician, or potential president, to do so. Unlike Constantine, however, Trump is alive and we can scrutinize his actions and decisions and speeches to determine to what extent he is using Christianity as a political tool.

Where does this leave us? Should we give Constantine the benefit of the doubt? How about Trump? I think that both can teach us that religion can be a political tool. It has been in the past and most likely will continue to be into the future. Voters need to realize this and make informed, intelligent decisions on whom to vote for. What do you think? Do you agree? Should we allow for the possibility that religion is just a tool for politicians sometimes? Does that make them less of a Christian (or other religious follower)?

First Blog Post; Reading Christopher Beeley

Over the last week and a half, I have read Christopher A. Beeley’s new book The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition.

Beeley is an author I first encountered when I arrived at Fuller, as I began a research topic on Gregory of Nazianzus. My professor mentioned Beeley’s book Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light. This book introduced me to many aspects of Nazianzus’s work with which I was not yet familiar. Beeley takes a very harsh tone to past scholars, decrying them for a lack of thoroughness, which he promises to deliver in his work on Gregory.

In his Unity of Christ, Beeley again brings a touch of his usual confrontational rhetoric, but tones it down a bit. This book seeks to view many Church Fathers and their Christologies in light of Origen’s influence. Beeley begins the book with an examination of Origen’s thought regarding the unity of Christ, and traces an Origenist thread through various figures such as Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, and post-Chalcedonian thinkers such as Maximus Confessor.

In so doing, Beeley’s work succeeds in demonstrating an Origenist influence throughout these various Christian thinkers. He also succeeds in depicting Eusebius as a theologian in addition to his well-known position as an historian. However, Beeley’s work seeks to diminish Athanasius’s role in Nicene Christology. It is at this point in the work that his thesis becomes muddled due to his agenda of downplaying Athanasius. His remaining chapters are strong, especially the conclusion which provides an excellent summation of his arguments.

Overall, this book has successes and failures, the latter of which appear to be relatively minor. I feel that students of the Christological controversies in the Patristic period should engage with Beeley’s work. This book is slated for a book panel discussion at the AAR/ SBL national conference next weekend, and I am looking forward to hearing scholars engage its effectiveness as well as Beeley’s response to their critiques.