When Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 (after being granted the status of an approved religion by Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D), believers found themselves responding in one of two ways. Some basked in their new found power and luxury, holding it over the now disenfranchised class of pagans. We’ll call them the Constantinians. Others, the monastics, sought to check out of this new institutionally supported Christianity which they saw as sensual and double-minded. These extremes ignored a third option–to simply participate in society as one group among many and allow evangelization to happen through freely established relationships instead of coercion which mitigates against sincerity on the part of the coerced. This model was at least implicitly affirmed by the New Testament writers who demanded no revolution but only asked for toleration and freedom to worship and evangelize.
This false dilemma was recapitulated at the time of the Protestant Reformation, during which time the Roman Catholics and Magisterial Protestants sought to crush religious dissent via the power of the state while the Anabaptists went into hiding and designated Christian participation within the larger society, and particularly in politics, as sinful.
Fast forward to the summer of 2015 in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that same sex marriage is a civil right. Prior to (and precipitating) this ruling, the majority of confessing evangelicals and Roman Catholics had demanded that their government maintain in the law a Christian value judgment on marriage which they were not willing to replace with a more pluralistic non-religious entitlement such as civil unions. After the ruling, with one new view of marriage backed by the force of the state, Christians are increasingly anxious that this new entitlement will lead to government discrimination against Christians.
For these Constantinian Christians, politics is a zero-sum game. If a non-Christian group gains something, this means Christians have lost something. The debate over gay marriage was set up intentionally to be this kind of arrangement, but the risk of becoming a displaced special class was considered worth it if it meant that their side might prevail.
That the debate over gay marriage was nothing more than a power play can be demonstrated by comparing how conservative Christians compare this ruling with other, more egregious ones. For instance, the Dred Scott Decision which came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, declaring that slaves did not have the same rights as free persons and thus undermining the Christian belief in human equality before God, is not generally considered to be a loss for Christianity because Christians as a group lost no political power. But as power has now been wrested from the hands of Constantinian Christianity, American Christians are saying, as one evangelical writer did, “I am horribly grieved that a lifestyle that is so contrary to Christian morality is being celebrated in a country that once honored Christian values.”
It is, of course, not Christian values which America has honored, but Christian hegemony, even if it comes at the risk of sacrificing Christian values. As such, American Christians generally believe that there are two options open to them in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision–fight for the return of their political power or remove themselves from society.
May I humbly suggest that we still have a third option?