1902 Encyclopedia > Christianity > Political Influence of Early Christianity

(Part 18)

The Political Influence of Early Christianity

The political influence of Christianity is as marked as its moral power, and had as great an effect upon the paganism into which it was thrown. It was Christianity which gave to the world those two 'great factors in civil liberty, -- a consolidated public opinion and an efficient system of representative government. Gibbon has gone out of his way to sneer at the passive resistance of the early Christians, and has lent the weight of his authority to the idea that a struggle for civil liberty is opposed to the whole tenets of primitive Christianity; but whatever the views of the Christians were on these points, it is plain that Christianity put a new public life into the Roman empire which greatly retarded its final fall. It has been frequently remarked that Christianity did as much for Constantine as he did for it, and the history of the time amply justifies the observation. Whatever be the truth about the sincerity of his conversion, it is undoubted that he, from first to last, looked at the church from a political point of view, and made use of it accordingly for his own political aggrandizement. It should be remembered that the Roman empire hung badly together, and that apart from the sentiment which may be called belief in the genius of Rome there was no common life and no common nationality. There was no popular life, such as we are accustomed to in modern Europe. From the beginning the empire had been a military tyranny. The emperor was imperator, and ruled because he commanded the state as an army, and the rule in the provinces was really military. It was imposed on the people from without and did not spring from themselves. There was not even that solidarity in it which an hereditary absolutism begets. Of course such an empire had very little cohesion, and was only kept together by the feeling of the genius of Rome and by the grand system of Roman law. But there was within the empire a new corporate life, a new kingdom, which subsisted in virtue of the life which was in it, held together by the inward power of growth. When Constantius and Constantine looked at the Christian church with the eyes of statesmen, they saw before them a great self-regulating organization which had a common life, a cohesion, and a corporate character quite unlike anything else in the empire. It was impossible to touch the church anywhere without the whole body being thrilled throughout from end to end, so thoroughly was it one. If the emperor could bring any influence to bear on the Christian organization, he might hope to move these hidden spiritual springs of action which are so much more powerful than anything lying at the command of a mere military government. The organization of Christianity was such that all over the empire and beyond it there was, without undue cartelization, a confederation of local churches whose government was thoroughly democratic and based on the principle of representation by means of office-bearers elected by the people, which produced a unity of sympathy and action. Besides all this the common life was kept up by active sympathy between the various churches. If there was a famine in Africa, the churches in Spain and Gaul sent grain. If Christian Gauls had been carried off into captivity by the pagan Germans, the wealthy African and Roman churches sent money for their redemption. The military roads, the system of posts, the relays of ships which Rome kept up to bring intelligence and produce from the provinces, were all used by the church for the purpose of keeping up a lively communication between all the various parts of the Christian world. In this way Christianity within the empire was the one organization for creating, stimulating, and guiding public opinion. It was that one part of the Roman Empire which, scattered over all its extent, had common feelings and all those various common instincts which go to make up a commonwealth. This was the force that Constantine sought to put himself at the head of, and because he succeeded he was the first Roman emperor who ruled with something like what we should call "public opinion" at his back. The victory of Constantine was the first instance of the triumph of that mysterious popular force which has given organized freedom to the civilized nations of Europe, and which is equally removed from the civic freedom of the ancient democracy and from the military tyranny of the great empires of antiquity. It is to Christianity that modern Europe owes organized public opinion and representative government.

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