Certainly not all Christians in America celebrated the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, but many did, and not without some good reason. While a Clinton Presidency 2.0 would have likely meant federal efforts to force Christian business owners, medical professionals, and educators to violate their consciences, the Trump administration, despite its many faults, has at least not set the federal hounds on any Christian bakers or photographers.
Some on the right have even gone so far as to draw comparisons between Trump and Constantine, the Roman Emperor who in A.D. 313 first legalized Christianity, bringing an end to centuries of sporadic persecution. The comparisons are actually somewhat appropriate, especially as Constantine himself was not always known for his personal virtue, despite the great benefits he brought to the Christians of the empire.
The comparison is apt in another way too, however, and that’s in regard to the manner in which the Christian populations reacted in both instances. In a word, many Christians in each case grew complacent.
When Constantine first issued the Edict of Milan after his great victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the empire’s Christian population was overjoyed to see the end of the brutal repression that had taken place under Constantine’s predecessor, the notorious Diocletian. One of the Christians released from prison under the new edict was a bishop named Nicholas of Myra, whose feast day we celebrate each year on December 6.
Constantine’s edict made it easier to be a Christian. It made it a lot easier, in fact. No longer did following Christ involve the risking of one’s life or property. After a brief reversal toward paganism under Julian the Apostate, the Empire itself officially embraced Christianity as its state religion during the reign of Theodosius I.
Christianity had, over the space of four centuries, gone from being a persecuted minority faith to being the official state religion of the powerful Roman Empire. Whereas Roman Christians had once been in danger of losing their property and their lives under the reign of Julian the Apostate, it now became materially advantageous to embrace the Christian Faith, especially if one wanted to secure a government job or run for high office.
As the material benefits that came with conversion to Christianity increased, the quality of converts did the opposite. After all, it takes true devotion to lay down one’s life for the Faith, but it takes significantly less to earn a lot of money or prestige by declaring adherence to that same Faith.
It was the increasing ease with which Christianity could be practiced that drove the first Christian hermits to their lives of solitude and mortification. These individuals longed for the days when conversion wasn’t a stepping stone to material prosperity. They longed for the days when following Christ actually cost something.
This isn’t to say that all of the Christians who didn’t become hermits were not devout or sincere. A great many of them were. But if we believe what the early Christian theologian Tertullian of Carthage said about the blood of the martyrs being the seed of the Church, then it would also make sense that easy practice of the Faith might result in a lower caliber of Christians.
For numerous Christians of this time, whether they were hermits or high officials, persecution was right around the corner and returned as the waves of barbarians, many of whom had embraced the Arian heresy, swept across the Empire, bringing terrible persecutions in their wake. It was in response to the sacking of Rome itself by one of these groups, the Visigoths, in A.D. 410 that St. Augustine of Hippo wrote his famous work, The City of God.
The point of all of this is that, even back in the first few centuries of the Church, the position of the state toward Christianity was inconsistent, and even benevolent rulers were not to be totally relied upon.
The question now is, how does all of this relate to the situation of American Christians in 2018?
I would argue that, like too many of our brethren in the later Roman Empire, America’s Christian population has grown complacent with the ease with which we can practice our Faith, especially since the elections of 2017.
Under the Obama administration, persecution seemed to be rearing its ugly head, and there was a growing number of faithful talking about how we must be ready to suffer for our willingness to follow Christ. Then came the surprise election of Donald Trump and with it the welcome news that his administration, rather than pressuring Christians to act in ways contrary to their faith, would open a new division in the Office of Civil Rights geared toward protecting freedom of conscience.
While very few people would argue that the Trump administration is perfect—especially in light of his recently signing the monstrous funding bill that provides $500 million for Planned Parenthood—apparently he’s doing a good enough job to make Christians let down their guard and become more or less content with the status quo. One certainly doesn’t hear the apocalyptic talk on the right that we experienced during the eight years Barack Obama occupied the White House.
But what happens if the Trump administration falls? Trump’s popularity has been hovering at around 50%, and that’s been due largely to the success of the stock market. What happens if the economy begins to falter, as plenty of economists have warned? The media, which have been circling like sharks since before Trump’s first day in office, would tear him to shreds, and his popularity would plummet. The Democrats, who have been shifting increasingly to the radical Left, would strike back with a vengeance against all whom they believe had any hand in placing Trump in the White House. This would surely include conservative Christians.
Whether or when any of this will happen is uncertain. The point, though, is that the relationship between the Church and the state can change very quickly. In light of this, we ought to always place our hope and trust in heaven before we place it in any fallible human government. We must ensure that a temporary lull in persecution does not cause us to become soft in the practice of our Faith.
To this end, regardless of who may currently hold the highest office in our land, we should develop habits of prayer and penance, especially the daily prayer of the Rosary. We must recognize that we are not engaged in simple political battles, but are rather fighting a full-blown spiritual war in which our enemies, as St. Paul tells us, are not flesh and blood but principalities and powers.
Finally, whether our current temporal leaders are for us or against us, we must always keep our eyes on the prize, which is not the comfortable practice of our Faith here below, but rather our eternal salvation.