Essay: Christianity’s influence on state affairs

1. Historical Perspectives

In this chapter, an analysis of different historical events will be made in order to emphasize Christianity’s influence on state affairs ‘ their political decisions, their foreign relations, their treatment of their own citizens. Christianity played an important role throughout history, not only because of its reach towards individuals, but because of its significant say in policy making, and this chapter will bring proof to that extent, analysing first Europe’s history, and then that of the United States of America.
1.1 Europe
Before Christianity, Europe was dominated by different religions and their many deities ‘ from the Greek and Roman Gods, to the Norse ones. The Trojan War, for instance, is said to have had its roots in a disagreement between gods, a disagreement made worse by Paris, the prince of Troy, when he chose one goddess to be the most beautiful, spiting the others .
Soon enough, however, all these other religions had faded and Christianity had not only entered Europe, it had come to be the dominant religion. A look at how this came to be will now be taken, analyzing how Christianity spread throughout Europe, how it flourished beginning with the Emperor Constantine, how kings and Popes fought for dominance and power, how Christianity affected state relations during the Great Schism, the Crusades and the Western Schism, how Moscow became the Third Rome, how the Reformation and then the Enlightenment shaped Europe, and finally, how Communism suppressed Christianity, only to have it play an important role in its demise in Poland.
Christianity, influenced by the Hebrew Bible, diaspora Judaism and Hellenistic Judaism, began as a Jewish movement in the Roman province of Judea. It was protected by Judaism at first, as it was considered an illicit religion in the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the disagreements between the Jews who believed Jesus to be the Messiah, and those who did not, forced the Christian community away from the temple and into Europe.
The spread of Christianity was influenced by several factors. The dispersion of the Jews in Asia Minor and the Roman Empire at that time was one important factor. Christian Apostles began ‘proclaiming the word of God in the synagogues of Jews’ and thus ended up across the Empire. Another factor was the pax romana ‘ a peace which had suppressed robbery and piracy along Roman roads, which enabled trade and communication among the Roman provinces and thus offered Christian missionaries a way to travel safely. The law permitted citizens to move freely inside the Empire, an aspect which further propelled the spread of Christianity, alongside the fact that the common language of trade and diplomacy in the Mediterranean was the Greek language, Koin??. This meant Christians could spread their faith in areas quicker, without having to spend time learning new languages.
More and more people in Europe became Christian. In Greece, for instance, the Gentiles who had found the monotheism of Judaism appealing, but whose conversion to Judaism had been seen to have drawbacks ‘ ‘male circumcision, obedience to ritual and dietary laws’ ‘ turned to Christianity. The marginalized, the poor, and the women, too, had soon seen the potential of becoming Christian, as the religion promised there would be ‘no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).
The Roman Empire targeted Christians at that time, trying to get them to denounce their faith. In 302, during Diocletian’s rule, the ‘Great Persecution’ began. Being in favor of rigidity, uniformity and authoritarianism, Diocletian saw the Christians’ refusal to follow one of his orders as deserving punishment. He had the priests arrested, their sacred books destroyed, and many killed. Some renounced their beliefs in order to avoid being executed. Most, however, stuck to their faith and the church used their ‘horrific deaths’ as ‘a standard of behavior and resistance to imperial authority’because it was an official government-initiated attempt to stamp out the religion.’
This was the first example of how Christianity influenced a state’s decisions (in this case, the decisions of an empire ‘ the Roman one). A ruler actively tried to kill off his citizens in order to eradicate this religion. His actions were not successful and, instead, he provided the church with martyrs it could use to further its cause.
Diocletian abdicated 3 years after starting these attacks and, with Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the persecutions stopped. Under Constantine’s rule Christianity became an accepted and influential religion in the Roman Empire. His 313 Edict of Milan granted Christians ‘freedom of worship’ in the Empire, as well as restoring church property taken during the persecutions, and adding to that property the lands of those who had died without an heir. The clergy had ‘immunity from various civil responsibilities and bishops were provided imperial support for travel and administration’ . Constantine renamed the city of Byzantium after himself and, in 330, made Constantinople the ‘New Rome’.
Thus, one ruler’s preference for Christianity had led to the religion’s expansion ‘ its influence truly began to grow. It no longer held only the support of common people, but that of important political figures. It gained land and its priests had certain advantages, as well as a say in decision-making. This particular aspect, the power to impact state affairs, began to be contested, however, as rulers and Popes fought over who had more control. Three conflicts will be mentioned in the following paragraphs, in order to understand the fact that these were cases where Christianity displayed its impact ‘ it asked, and in some cases, fought for power, even though the kings wanted the Church to have less control in their states.
The ‘Great Charter of the Medieval Papacy’, for instance, distinguished between the power of the state and the power of the Church, using the distinction in the Roman law between executive and legislative power, with the latter being above the former. To Gelasius, Pope between 492 and 496, who created this ‘Charter’, the Church had legislative power, while the secular had the executive one. From his point of view, the Church’s power was above that of the state and the two entities were separate ‘ this being stated so that the emperor could be kept out of its affairs. Emperors did not agree and tensions arose.
This meant that Christianity’s rules were above those of states and emperors had no basis to object to this. They could not, according to the Charter, interfere in church affairs, and this stipulation did not meet their own expectations. The next example shows how this situation got over-turned, with the emperors and kings gaining more power in the ever-present struggle for control between church and state.
Otto the Great used the church so he could expand the German monarchy. He had been refused the imperial crown in 951, but was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in 962 once the Pope asked Otto for protection. The Pope wanted Otto to be the military protector of the church, but instead, Otto had the people he conquered swear allegiance to him. Enraged, the Pope started a revolt in Rome. Otto ended the revolt, deposed the Pope, appointed a successor and ‘inserted into the papal oath of election an oath of obedience to the emperor’ ‘ the Ottonianum. For nearly a hundred years, emperors intervened in papal affairs because of this. As a result, between 955 and 1057 there were ’25 Popes, 12 by imperial appointment and the rest by Roman aristocracy, five of whom were deposed by emperors’. Moreover, in an attempt to stop the Roman influence of the Christian Church, the German King Henry III appointed three Popes during his reign, all German. His choices led to an age of papal reform which gave emperors and kings less room for intervention, thus keeping their input more or less away from the affairs of the church.
The emperors therefore had tried to make the church more pliant to their designs, using its impact to further their own agenda, inserting their influence into that of Christianity. They succeeded for a while, but the church took back some of the control.
In England the quarrel between kings and church spanned centuries. In 1066, William refused to accept the Pope as ‘his feudal lord’, creating instead his own bishops. The Archbishop he appointed refused to bless the new bishops created by Henry I, once William had died and in the end, the king agreed that only the church could create bishops. Henry, however, delayed the appointment of a new archbishop for five years so he could benefit from the wealth of the church . It was not only the political influence of the church Henry sought, but its economic advantages. Christianity was not only a means to gain control over people for the king, but a way to finance his campaigns. In 1162, Thomas Becket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and the king at that time, Henry II, hoped he would help him bring the church under his control. Thomas escaped England and four knights killed him on the altar steps of a cathedral, the king being forced to ask for the Pope’s forgiveness for this crime. He was whipped by monks in return. The Pope used this event to take back some of the Church’s privileges. This shows that even the king, the highest authority in a state, had to obey the command of the Pope. The next struggle will exemplify what happened when the king did not heed the Pope’s wishes. In 1209, King John, highly unpopular among his nobles because of his greed, fought with the Pope over who should be archbishop. The Pope in retaliation closed every church in the country and called on the French king to invade England. Five years later, John gave in and accepted the Pope’s choice, proving that the church had an important say in political affairs, and that, should its wishes be disregarded, it could go as far as calling for a military invasion of a country.
Religion played a role not only in the internal political affairs in Europe, but in external relations between states as well. The Great Schism caused the East and the West to split, this separation being done on religious grounds. This distinction between Eastern and Western Europe lived on throughout the centuries (the spheres of influence during the Cold War, for instance), and still lives on today (the Eastern countries of the EU, and the Western ones).
The Great Schism began when an attempt to appease a disagreement between the papacy and the patriarch of Constantinople (the patriarch had closed the Latin churches in Constantinople and took over some Latin monasteries in the eleventh century ) ended with the two heads of church excommunicating each other. From there on, the two were separate Churches, with separate influences in their respective regions.
The Crusades will now be analyzed in order to understand the fact that religion ‘ Christianity, to be more exact ‘ had a direct impact on state affairs. It managed to start wars in order to protect itself and stop the spread of another religion, getting thousands killed in the process. Its influence was not only theoretical, it proved through the Crusades that it could bring people together, get funding and soldiers from kings, give them a common enemy, and get them to fight for its cause. The consequences of these wars were not limited to loss of lives: knowledge was gained as contact between the two parts of Europe increased ; the role of the papacy was strengthened; military orders were created that played important roles in Europe even after the end of the fighting; nobles came into the service of the church; trade was stimulated. There is even the idea that Crusades managed to reduce fighting in Europe itself and because of this, monarchs were able to consolidate their control in their respective countries.
In 1095, under the threat of Muslim invasion, the Byzantine emperor sent a diplomatic mission to the Pope to request military assistance. Pope Urban II’s then called for a crusade to ‘liberate the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’. The ‘enemies of God’ threatened ‘even that small part of Europe which is ours’ and they ‘hope to conquer the rest of Europe too’. ‘Let those who go there set a cross upon their garments as an outward sign of inner faith’They shall receive absolution for their crimes.’ This shows that Europe was defined as Christendom and protecting it was foremost important, the church being able to promise absolution for the murders the soldiers committed so that it could get more men to fight for its cause.
The First Crusade was successful, with Christians taking back Jerusalem in 1099; the Second, a failure; the Third ended with the signing of a treaty which allowed Christians to visit the Jerusalem freely, as it had been re-captured by the Muslims. With each Crusade, the relations between the East and the West grew more strained ‘ again, this development caused by something which religion had started ‘, until Constantinople was sacked by the Westerners in 1204. There were more Crusades, more deaths until finally, the city of Acre fell in 1291.
Nearly nine decades after the end of the Crusades, Christianity caused another divide in Europe: the Western Schism, also known as the Triple Schism, which took place between 1378 and 1417. Because Rome had been torn by rival clans which had caused riots and uprisings, the Pope moved to Avignon, France, in 1309. This decision was not without consequences. In Britain, for instance, the king had reduced the amount of tax money the Pope could raise and he took for his own treasury a large part of that money, as he believed the Pope was supporting the French. The Popes which lived in Avignon were not liked as ‘the papacy, that under Innocent III had subdued kings and emperors, was now widely perceived to be captive to the French monarchy’. In 1377, the Pope at that time returned to Rome and died shortly after. A few days after his death, a new Pope was chosen, one whose lack of tact alienated his court. His election was declared to have been fraudulent, in an attempt by the cardinals to elect someone else, and thus the Schism was born. Countries in Europe were split on whom to call Pope: France, Scotland, Castille, Navarre and Aragon were in favor of Clement, while Scandinavia, Germany, England, Poland and Germany followed Urban as Pope. It ended with the Council of Constance in 1414-1418 once the ‘willingness to place the common good of the Church and Christendom ‘ which in this case was the reunion of the Church’ took precedence ‘above the individual legal claims of any papal contenders’ . Each country had one vote, instead of each individual at the Council, this helping the sense of nationalism which had been developing to counter the old idea ‘of a universal Christian commonwealth under the headship of the papacy’ .
In other words, the Pope’s move to France had political repercussions, especially in Britain, its old enemy. Religion became a political weapon, as the king of France could persuade the Pope’s decisions, decisions which impacted Europe. Moreover, when a new Pope was elected and then denounced, and another person was named as Pope, Europe was the scene of a divide caused by Christianity. Politics were influenced by this, with sides being chosen, and the way in which the conflict was resolved at the Council of Constance lessened the Pope’s influence and helped the already-developing sense of nationalism that countries had. In other words, this religious strife was concluded with a decrease of the church’s influence, and with the rise of nationalism.
Moscow becoming the Third Rome will now be analyzed in order to understand how through Christianity, Russia gained more power and influence in Europe, and how its rulers began to think they had a divine right to rule.
In 1453 Constantinople fell. Only Russia remained, with the Byzantine Empire having come to an end and the greater part of Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania being under Turkish occupation. Ivan the Great, the Grand Duke of Moscow at that time, married the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor and began assuming the Byzantine titles of autocrat and Tsar ‘ from the Roman Caesar. From then on, Moscow began to be known as ‘the third Rome’. The first Rome, it was argued, had fallen to barbarians and to heresy. The second Rome, Constantinople, had too fallen into heresy and had been taken by the Turks. Moscow therefore had become the Third Rome, following in Constantinople’s steps and becoming the center of Orthodox Christendom. In the words of monk Philotheus of Pskov (1510):
She alone shines in the whole world brighter than the sun’All Christian Empires are fallen and in their stead stands alone the Empire of our rules in accordance with the Prophetical books. Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands and a fourth there will not be.
Moscow thus gained more influence in Europe and through becoming the Third Rome, found a way to further its own imperialism. Its rulers became tsars, a title which they kept until the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The Reformation will next be looked at, to see how Christianity split itself into different factions, this split influencing not only Europe, but America, as the persecuted fled one continent for the safety of another. Following this, the Enlightenment will be briefly mentioned to understand how religion did or did not influence (or was influenced by) the development of the scientific, political and philosophical thoughts of the time.
Between 1500 and 1700, the period also known as the Reformation, Christianity saw the rise of four major Churches: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist (also known as Reformed Churches), and Anglican. Martin Luther had wanted the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church to be corrected ‘ such as indulgences ‘ and he had brought forward the idea that individuals did not need the Pope or the Church to enable them to speak to God. His translation of the Bible into German represented the beginning of the development of the German language, as there was no ‘unifying German tongue’. John Calvin had also claimed that each individual was directly and personally responsible to God. Their ideas had spread quickly throughout Europe. In England, King Henry VIII had been enraged at the Pope’s refusal to allow him to divorce, and had convinced the bishops to make him the head of the Church in England. This strife was merely political, however, as Henry still believed in the Catholic faith and executed the Protestants who refused to follow it.
It can be observed that Christianity still exerted great influence over politics and society, especially in light of its splitting into different denominations. The German language began to be developed due to Luther’s translation of the Bible, and indulgences were corrected, on the one hand, and thousands were killed and forced to flee, on the other. There was a fight for dominance between the Protestants and the Catholics, and this fighting and the persecution against those who were not Catholic led to the voyage of some Protestants to America, in the hopes finding safety.
The Thirty Years War was the culminating point of this religious struggle. This war began as a ‘Christian religious conflict fueled by economic and political desires,’ and ended with the Peace of Westphalia. This, of course, led to the development of the principles of state sovereignty, of equality of states, and of ‘non-intervention of one state in the international affairs of another’ The war, however, ‘damaged the character of Christianity as viewed by the people of Europe’ , as villagers saw the events of a war as having made their life unbearable, neither side being able to win.
Without the Reformation, however, the Enlightenment might not have happened: ‘the intellectual, no less the industrial revolution of modern Europe has its origins in the religious Reformation of the sixteenth century.’ One theory suggests that the Protestants ‘either directly, by their theology, or indirectly, by the new social forms which they created, opened the way to new science and the new philosophy of the seventeenth century.’ According to one author, Geoffrey Edwards, ‘to be enlightened was to refuse to be content with the submissive acceptance of religious orthodoxy and church-dictated morality.’ Rousseau, for instance, saw the future of humankind to rest on the ‘powers and feelings of the natural man’Persons are born good but society, culture, the state, and religion pervert humankind’s naturally good faculties.’ Another point of view was that the ideas of the Enlightenment appeared in the periods of ideological peace and the religious conflicts only interrupted the development of these ideas.
The church in the nineteenth century was ‘on the defensive.’ The French Revolution instilled ideas such as liberty, fraternity and equality into people, and, furthermore, the influence of the church into state affairs was once again questioned. According to Lindberg, because of the French Revolution, ‘the centuries old connection of church and state was dissolved’. Napoleon came to power in France and made Catholicism the official religion in France again, but kept the church under state control. During his coronation ceremony, Napoleon took the crown from the Pope and crowned himself, sending a powerful message: ‘Popes no longer ‘made’ emperors.’
Secularism thus began to develop and, starting with the twentieth century, took root in Communist ideas. Karl Marx believed religion to be ‘the opium of people’ ‘ a means to maintain the inequality and exploitation of the workers by the oppressors. Communists saw religion as arising ‘at a definite stage in human history, and at another definite stage begins to disappear as a childish notion which finds no confirmation in practical life and in the struggle between man and nature’Communism is incompatible with religious faith.’ Starting from this idea, the Soviet Union separated church from state power and took all the lands from the church, giving it to the workers.
Christianity further played an important part when in 1978 Pope John Paul II was elected. He was Polish and his visit in 1979 to his home country led to millions of citizens greeting him in the streets. He spoke about human rights and ‘the right to freedom of expression and conscience’ and he did so without a visible government presence. Through this, people slowly began to overcome their ‘collective barrier of fear’ and had the courage to form coalitions, this leading to the formation in 1980 of Solidarity, an organization which eventually helped the ‘national compromise and peaceful transfer of power in 1989,’ when Communism finally fell.
1.2 The United States of America
A part of America’s history will now be analysed in order to understand in what way Christianity shaped the political life of this territory. A look at the Native Americans will be taken, as the attempt to Christianize them led to their exploitation and death; then at the lives of the Pilgrims in the Massachusetts colony; the Great Awakening which had as one of its effects a growing national consciousness which helped spark the War of Independence; the consequences of the Revolutionary War; the Civil War; the Prohibition; the Second World War; the Civil Rights movement; and Supreme Court decisions regarding public schools.
Before the colonists settled in America, Native Americans occupied the land. They were organized in tribes, had various languages and did not practice writing down their stories and it is because of this that it is difficult to know details about their religious habits before the Europeans began documenting them. What is known, however, is that their beliefs were very different from those of the Europeans and that is why, after Columbus and then subsequent colonialists came to America, one of their main focus was converting the native population to Christianity. Columbus observed that the natives, whom he called Indians as he thought he had landed in India, were ‘very ripe to be converted to our Holy Catholic Faith.’ The Europeans’ thirst for gold led to the conquest of the native populations and the Pope gave their lands to Spain, making them in charge with converting the conquered to Christianity. They tried to do so through the system of encomienda, a practice which only led to the exploitation of Amerindians in the name of Christianity. Through this system, a Spanish settler had the right to ‘compel the labour of and receive tribute from the Native Americans in a particular geographic area’ in return for a wage and their ‘spiritual instruction.’ The Amerindians had to obey, and to recognize the Pope and the Spanish monarch, otherwise the settlers had the right to wage a just war against them, the Requiremento giving the Spanish the right to seize anyone who failed to comply and turn them into slaves. The natives ended up being decimated by a combination of ‘inhuman abuse, on the one hand, and the diseases brought to the Indian populations by the Europeans, on the other hand’. Not all Christians agreed with these practices and in 1573, Pope Paul III issued the papal bull Sublimis Deus, which stated that Indians were ‘fully human and were to be evangelized in this light.’ Native Americans, however, continued to be persecuted by the Pilgrims: in Massachusetts in 1703, the head of an Indian man was worth 60 dollars, while in Pennsylvania it was 134 dollars. President Andrew Jackson’s ‘Removal Act’ of 1830 meant the deportation of Amerindians to the west of the river Mississippi. All this shows that Christianity had a significant impact in America as it tried to convert the native population there, unable to accept different faiths alongside it, and in this attempt, led to the deaths of thousands of people.
Nowadays, every tribe of Amerindians in America has been shaped by Christianity: many communities are actually primarily Christian, or have some of its elements in their traditions.
The life of the Puritans living in the Massachusetts colony will now be considered. The Pilgrims, after being persecuted in their own countries, decided to travel to North America to seek out their freedom. They began arriving in America in the 1630s and the ones that chose to settle in Massachusetts Bay were led by John Winthrop. His vision of the colony was a ‘godly community in which church and state laboured together to see that the affairs of the colony brought glory to God,’ a ‘city on a hill’ with ‘the eyes of all people upon us.’ Although the Puritans saw state and Church as being separate, Christianity influenced political decisions as the people believed the affairs of the community should be done in such a way as to please God. Furthermore, only male church members had the right to vote and the code of laws they adopted in 1648 contained provisions from the Old Testament. This is a clear indication that Christianity had a say in more than the day-to-day life of people, it impacted the political life of the colony.
The Puritans discouraged religious diversity and tried to keep only the people who shared the same faith in their colony. They gave the English settlers who had different religions and tried to live in the area a choice to convert, or leave the community. Dissenters were seen by the Puritans as a threat to peace and their government could and did act in order to prevent them from disrupting the colony. In other words, religion was the main criterion for living the Massachusetts Bay area, and the government could go so far as to kill those who did not meet it.
The second and third generations of Puritans were not as fervent about their faith as the first settlers, with even the number of churches declining. Many inhabitants saw this as a result of evil living among them and consequently, people began to be prosecuted for witchcraft. In 1692 in Salem, for instance, a special court was created by the colonial governor to oversee these witchcraft trials, and this court accepted, among others, ‘spectral evidence’ in order to judge the accused. Twenty people were convicted and executed in that year as the law stated that ‘if any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.’ Soon enough, the spectral evidence was forbidden and by May 1693, the governor pardoned and released all the accused, thus ending the frenzy. What this episode proves is that the government listened to the claims of its religious members when they accused people of collaborating with supernatural entities, the court going as far as accepting supernatural evidence.
The next historical event which will be examined is the Great Awakening. As America experienced an increase in religious pluralism, a spiritual awakening took place during the 1730s all throughout its territory. Voluntarism became the primary focus of religion ‘ meaning that it wasn’t enough to have your parents be of a certain denomination, you had to choose it for yourself once you were old enough. One important consequence of this phenomenon was that more and more African Americans adopted Christianity. They could not attend church, however, unless they sat in ‘inferior stations’ , or, even when they created their own communities, had to have a white person present. Another consequence of the Great Awakening was the sense that ‘God had ordained an exemplary role for America’ , this sense leading to a growing national consciousness without which the War of Independence could not have taken place. As the author Timothy Hall states ‘the sense of national identity aroused by the Great Awakening must be counted as one of the Revolution’s midwives.’
In other words, religious awakening not only helped provide Americans in the colonies with a national consciousness, which united them in the War of Independence, it also led to some of the African Americans turning to Christianity, which later influenced the people in the North and in the South as tensions between the two groups grew on the issue of slavery.
The War of Independence, also known as the Revolutionary War, saw the United States of America being born as the colonies fought for their freedom from Britain. After the war, each state was urged by the Continental Congress to draft a state constitution as a way to organize their political lives. Most of them granted religious liberty to ‘all men’, but, as in the case of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the freedom to exercise their religion was granted to ‘every denomination of Christian’ and ‘all men’ meant men, not women; white men, not black. Thus, until these laws were replaced with ones which weren’t so discriminatory, Christianity influenced political life, as each state constitution provided it with an advantage over other faiths.
This being said, the state of Virginia did not provide government tax support to churches after joining the US. Some people, such as Patrick Henry, felt this support was needed and in 1784, proposed legislation to tax people in the state to help Christian teachers. He was opposed by Baptists, Presbyterians, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and their protests led to the adoption in 1786 in Virginia of Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Liberty, a law which denied the government’s role in taxing state citizens to support religion. In this case, religion influenced political decision making in that the government decided it would not provide tax support to churches, this decision being taken spurred by the protests of some religious groups and future political figures.
In 1789, the US Constitution went into effect. One of its most notable features, according to Hall, was its godlessness. There was no reference to God or religion in it, except to say that it was prohibited to use any religious test as a qualification for public office. Because the constitution did not mention the rights and freedoms of citizens, a Bill of Rights was added. The first amendment gave Americans the freedom of religion ‘ Congress could not give laws regarding the establishment of religion, or prohibiting people from freely exercising it. Although there was no reference to God in the constitution, religion did play an important, though informal , part in the politics of that time. George Washington, for example, started the practice of taking the presidential oath of office with his hand on the Bible, even though it was not in any way required by law. This practice continues to this day, as does Washington’s day of national thanksgiving. He had been asked by the Senate to ‘recommend to the people of the United States a day of thanksgiving and prayer.’
The next historical event to be analysed is the American Civil War. Christianity influenced this war in several ways. In the beginning, the slave-owners did not try to Christianize the slaves as they believed it would make it ‘awkward or even illegal to subject them to continued slavery’ and if they came into contact with Christian thoughts, they might begin to have ‘egalitarian aspirations’ . Then, by the middle of the 19th century, the slave-owners agreed to have the African American Christianized as this would make them ‘less prone to lying, stealing and insubordination’ and the slaves would thus, through the aid of religion, be made more comfortable with their situation in life. Thus religion was used as a tool by the Southerners to further their own goals. Out of the 7.2 million people in the US in 1810, 1.2 million were slaves and the Southerners relied heavily on them.
Before the war began there were tensions between the North and the South regarding the practice of owning slaves. Some of these tensions arose due to religious reasons ‘ in the South, slavery was thought of as a ‘divinely sanctioned institution,’ while the Northerners fervently disagreed, viewing it as ‘an individual sin.’ Both these groups believed, after the war broke out, that they were in the right and God was on their side, and according to Hall:
The rhetoric of conflict, whether uttered by the North or the South, frequently clothed itself in the vocabulary of faith, as ministers rushed to lend support to battle, sometimes with words and sometimes even with weapons, secure in the confidence that a righteous God would vindicate their cause.
Once the war was over, President Abraham Lincoln spoke to the people of America and in his second inaugural address, refused to see the victory as a sign from God:
Both read the same Bible and pray to same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.
After the war, slavery was abolished. In practice, however, the Southern states passed laws which kept black men in inferior positions, the so-called ‘Black Codes’. Because of these, black people were not allowed to vote, to own or rent land, could not give evidence in courts against white men. In 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution was passed, which gave black people full citizenship rights, but, as the states refused to accept it, Congress placed them all under military rule through the Reconstruction Act. Terrorist groups sprung up as a result, including the Ku Klux Klan which claimed to be a Christian organization. Through violence and fear, they helped the white people win back their supremacy and from that point on, black people were treated as ‘second class citizens’ who needed to be segregated from the rest of the citizens.
Christianity therefore influenced political life further as, through the actions of the KKK, black people were denied their rights and became segregated, this situation continuing well until the 1960s.
The Prohibition era will be briefly looked at next, to understand the fact that it was rooted in the Christian rhetoric of the nineteenth century. In 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibited ‘the making or selling of alcoholic drinks in the United States.’ This stemmed from the Anti-Saloon League’s efforts, an organization established in 1895 as a result of the Social Gospel movement and of the American Temperance Union. The latter was an organization founded in 1826 to try to combat society’s ills , while the former was a movement that emphasized Christian obligation to ‘secure social justice within American society.’ Their views can be summarized by social reformer Jacob Riis’ account:
Where God build a church the devil builds next door a saloon, is an old saying that has lost point in New York. Either the devil was on the ground first, or he has been doing a good deal more in the way of building. I tried to find out how the account stood, and counted to 111 Protestant churches, chapels and places of worship of every kind below Fourteenth Street, 4,065 saloons.
In other words, because of Christian ideas such as these, for nearly twenty-five years the making and selling of alcohol was illegal, something which only led to a rise in crime rates and in the importance of mobs. Chicago had 10,000 speakeasies, while New York had 32,000. The prohibition was unable to keep citizens away from alcohol and moreover, it allowed corruption and dishonesty to grow among the politicians and policemen of the country.
In as far as the Second World War is concerned, this paper will only analyse one aspect and that is President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s radio broadcast on the day of the Normandy invasion. His words to the nation were:
My fellow Americans: Last night when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our Allies were crossing the Channel in another great operation. It has come to pass to success thus far. And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer: Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavour, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization and to set free a suffering humanity.
The President thus used God and Christianity to justify the cause to the people, to assure them that they were not just on the right side, but that God was on their side, and he included religion as one of the values they fought to protect in the war, alongside their democracy and their civilization. Therefore Christianity did influence politics, being used as a tool to put the masses at ease and to assure them that, having God on their side, they would end in victory.
The Civil Rights movement will be looked at next, as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s form of protesting was anchored in his religious views. He was an important figure in this movement, inspiring millions who would follow him. He began by boycotting the buses in the city of Montgomery and ended up in front of more than 200,000 people in Washington, urging the nation to listen to his dream. King believed that ‘God was just and required justice’ and he based his nonviolent protests on this belief. While imprisoned in Birmingham for one of his protests, he wrote a letter to his ‘fellow clergymen’ where he explained the reasons behind his actions:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here’so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid’So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community. We were not unmindful of the difficulties involved. So we decided to go through a process of self-purification. We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating’? and ‘Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail”? One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying other’? The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’
Other than the Biblical references, and the quoting of St. Augustine, King uses values and principles which Christianity encourages in order to prepare his followers for protest. He uses religion not only as a justification, but as a guide on how to achieve his goal, that of equal rights for everyone.
The final aspect analysed in this part of the paper will be Supreme Court decisions regarding public schools. These are important as they illustrate the attempt of religion to impose itself in schools, to shape the minds of children in a way which aligns with the Christian teachings, these children growing up and shaping the political life of the US either by becoming politicians themselves, or by electing those who have similar values to them. It managed to do this up until the 1960s. In 1925, for instance, it was unlawful in the state of Tennessee for teachers in ‘all public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.’ A teacher names Scopes had tried to teach evolution in his classes, was brought to trial and ended up being convicted for this so-called crime.
Starting with the 1960s, however, religion lost its influence on the affairs of public schools. During this time, the Supreme Court prohibited government-sponsored prayer and Bible readings in schools, and this led to schools being more hospitable towards different faiths, but, at the same time, it led to the involvement of Christians in politics as they wanted to preserve the US as a ‘Christian nation.’ As Hall states,
Conservative Christians at the end of the century reentered American politics. They joined liberal believers ‘ already active in a variety of social and political causes ‘ but frequently on the opposite side of contested issued such as abortion, nuclear disarmament, and gay rights.
The Supreme Court has since become more tolerant of government support of religious symbols and willing to allow government aid which benefits religious institutions.
These events all show that Christianity does have a say in the political life of the United States, and it has always had a say, whether it was trying to preserve the Puritan faith in Massachusetts by exiling or killing those who threatened it, or using religious principles to organize the Civil Rights movement to demand equal rights for all citizens.
1.3 Comparison
As can be clearly seen, Christianity had an important role both in Europe’s and in America’s political life. They both tried to defend their faith against outsiders ‘ the Crusades, Massachusetts’ attempt to block outsiders from coming into their colony ‘, both saw religion used as a political tool; both had persecutions against those who held different faiths; both had religion justify a war, etc. The histories of the two entities are filled with events which show just how much religion influenced states, or tried to influence them, and in this regard, their histories are very similar.
They are, of course, different as well ‘ in Europe, for instance, the Catholics followed the Pope’s guidance, while the Americans split into different denominations and answered only to themselves. The underling point is that even in these dissimilarities, they are similar as ordinary people followed the commands of the church ‘ whether these came from a higher level or not.
Is this still the case today? Are both Europeans and Americans still so religious, or has this changed along the years? Does Christianity still exert great influence in politics? The answers to these questions will be found in the following chapter.

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