In 312 AD, by the banks of the Tiber River, a seasoned Roman campaigner stood weighing his options. The struggle in which he was engaged was, to his mind, not merely personal but civilizational. Roman order and all that it stood for was under threat from the rise of expansionist barbarian tribes, which were mobilizing a vast population against the West. At the same time, Rome was rotting from within as the viral spread of exotic mystery religions ate into the moral fiber of the next generation. For decades, Rome had endeavored to fend off these threats with military, economic, diplomatic and technological efforts to defeat, bribe, persuade, appease or surveil. And yet, with every round of conflict, it found itself losing ground.
The Emperor Diocletian had tried to reverse the decline with a revival of Roman patriotism and Roman values based on a revival of the polytheistic state cults. But polytheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life? The spiritual void in Roman life had merely been filled by a jumble of irrational quasi-religious dogma, and the result was a world where cults preyed on the dislocated masses, offering them spurious reasons for being and action. Rome could not withstand the Goths, Slavs, or Persians if it could not explain to their populations why it mattered that they fought.
Polytheism was bankrupt; that much seemed clear to Constantine. If he was to take control of the Empire and actually renew it, he must ground his project in something deeper and more enduring. Christianity alone seemed to have the staying power—the philosophical depth and moral fiber—to save a dying civilization. Accordingly, having seen a strange omen in the morning sky, he opted to interpret it as a message from the Christian God: “In this sign, conquer.” From then on, he called himself a Christian, a lapsed polytheist, steering the Empire he gained away from its decadent paganism toward a social and legal order based upon Christian teachings.
There are of course other interpretations for what happened that fateful morning at Milvian Bridge. One is more cynical: a self-aggrandizing warlord, looking for some kind of leverage over his foes, some justification for his rule beyond mere military might, invented a cock-and-bull story about seeing the sign of the cross in the heavens, thus attracting gullible Christians to his banner. Over the next quarter century, he continued to play on their credulity and ambition, pretending to advance the cause of Christianity while really using the church as a prop to support his own rule. The legacy of this was “Constantinianism,” the millenium-and-a-half devil’s bargain between Christianity and state power, in which the church sold its soul to gain the world. Another is more charitable: Constantine really and truly did have a “conversion experience,” and humbled himself in gratitude before Jesus Christ who had granted him victory and, he thought, a mandate from heaven to remake Rome in obedience to Christ. In the quarter century that followed, he endeavored, albeit with stumbling steps, to secure the church against its foes within and without, to wean his people away from their paganism, and to govern as befitted a servant of Christ.
In between these two interpretations lies perhaps the most probable one, the one with which we started, and which Peter Leithart defends at length in Defending Constantine. Constantine was not seeking merely his own glory or the glory of Christ; he was seeking the glory of Rome, and he saw Christianity as the civilizational glue that could rekindle the dying embers of Roman order. He genuinely recognized and esteemed much that was good in Christianity, but saw it chiefly as a means to an end, not an end in itself—at least at the outset. But he did, crucially, submit himself (as much as any proud Caesar could, at any rate!) to the teaching of the church, and in time came to fully embrace Christianity and seek to advance the kingdom of Christ. And not only did he seek—he succeeded: paganism was sent packing, churches were filled, gladiatorial games ceased, and the Christian Church was positioned for a millennium and a half of civilizational dominance that, while far from perfect, was good for the church and for the world. At what point in his personal development was Constantine “saved”? At what point did he have what we would call a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”? Such are the questions we modern evangelicals are itching to ask, and yet why should we need to know the answer to these questions? The secret things belong to the Lord our God.
It is a timely moment to reflect on the conversion of Constantine, because our civilization stands at a similar crossroads to that which confronted this Roman leader at Milvian Bridge. And many of our own seasoned leaders are making a similar gamble: Christianity alone can provide the glue to hold us together, the spiritual resources to revive our peoples. Indeed, the highly attentive reader might have noticed that most of the phrases in the first two paragraphs of this essay were direct quotations from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “Why I Am Now a Christian,” an essay that sent shockwaves throughout the ranks of Western intelligentsia a few weeks ago. Ali, after all, has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the “New Atheism” for the past two decades, campaigning alongside Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others for a world without religion. Unlike most other New Atheists, however, the God that Ali did not believe in was not the Christian God, but Allah. Brought up in a Muslim Brotherhood community in Kenya, Ali had fled to the West to avoid a forced marriage, and found it to be everything that Islam was not: open, tolerant, respectful of human rights and especially the rights of women, committed to debate and rational inquiry. Since publicly renouncing her faith in 2002, however, Ali has gradually found that all those good things that she was fighting for could not stand up all by themselves; they required a foundation. That foundation, it turned out, could only be religious. Islam, it turned out, was not wrong because it was a religion, but because it was the wrong one. Western civilization, it turned out, was not good because it was Western, but because it was Christian.
Ali, accordingly, had her own Milvian Bridge moment: Christianity alone, she concluded, had the resources to repair and renew our crumbling civilization, fortifying it against the spiritual vacuum within and the angry hordes without:
“The lesson I learned from my years with the Muslim Brotherhood was the power of a unifying story, embedded in the foundational texts of Islam, to attract, engage and mobilise the Muslim masses. Unless we offer something as meaningful, I fear the erosion of our civilisation will continue. And fortunately, there is no need to look for some new-age concoction of medication and mindfulness. Christianity has it all. That is, I no longer consider myself a Muslim apostate, but a lapsed atheist.”
In recognizing Christianity as the best bulwark against barbarian hordes within and without, Ali joins the ranks of several other leading public intellectuals of recent years, such as Jordan Peterson and Tom Holland, who have lately declared some kind of personal allegiance to Christianity after formerly identifying merely as sympathetic outsiders. Both men had indeed already made names for themselves as defenders of Christian values, which they saw as integral to Western social orders and to the kinds of humane virtues that had once made Western nations such desirable places to live.
Christians may certainly find it encouraging to find such sane, brilliant, and articulate men and women signing up for Team Jesus after many decades in which most public intellectuals indulged a fashionable contempt for Christianity. And yet, just as Constantine has come in for plenty of criticism not only from the pagans he left from but from the Christians he joined, so Ali’s testimonial has raised more than a few eyebrows among Christian readers and writers. Is she embracing Christianity because it is true or merely because it is useful? Against such worries, others have rightly pointed out that it is not ours to judge hearts and motives, and there could be any number of reasons why Ali and similar converts have kept the more personal and spiritual dimensions of their stories more private. That said, the concern is one well worth our attention. After all, to treat Christianity as a means to an end is not, in fact, to be a Christian; it is only to be, at best, a shrewd statesman or demagogue. C.S. Lewis memorably warns against this temptation in The Screwtape Letters: “On the other hand we do want,” writes the devil Screwtape,
“to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice…. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that ‘only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations.’ You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game” (pp. 126-27).
Like almost everything in the The Screwtape Letters, this passage displays shrewd insight and offers a surprisingly timely warning for modern Christians. There is no doubt that much of what drives so-called “Christian nationalism” for instance is desperation over civilizational decay that hopes to use Christian faith as a cultural life-raft, or worse, as a useful hammer with which to bludgeon one’s political enemies. It certainly doesn’t help that at least here in America, one of our two main political parties is only too willing to cynically exploit Christian tropes as a means to partisan victory. The fact that several Republican Party platforms do in fact reflect Christian moral priorities makes us still more prone to confuse spiritual and worldly ends.
That said, the answer is certainly not to spiritualize Christianity and detach it from any this-worldly goods—as Lewis himself would be the first to point out. After all, it really is the case that Christianity is the surest foundation for art, science, and law, the clearest revelation of the goodness and beauty toward which fallen man still feebly strives. Lewis’s own conversion narrative was one in which he first found Christianity beautiful before he was forced to acknowledge it as true. And throughout his writings, Lewis insists that the moral vision of Christianity does not constitute some new revelation, or some world-denying spiritual code, but the reaffirmation of the Tao–the Good, the natural law–and the best foundation for sustaining it. In other words, it really is the case that if you want to hold together a fragmenting nature, the grace of Christianity is your best bet—at least in the long run. For Constantine, the gamble both did and didn’t pay off. It did in the sense that the Roman Empire enjoyed a brief renaissance of peace and stability under his reign. But it did not inasmuch as, less than a century after Milvian Bridge, the barbarians were at the gates of Rome itself, prompting Augustine to write his famous magnum opus, The City of God, warning against the conflation of the earthly and heavenly cities. And yet, again, it did in the sense that Constantine’s embrace of Christianity helped lay the groundwork for a Christian civilization that would “outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilizations,” that would sustain the growth of Western, art, culture, law, and politics.
As the days darken and we find ourselves increasingly besieged by barbarism both within and without, we are likely to find the lifeboat of the church inundated with more refugees like Ayaan Hirsi Ali—cultural converts who realize that the worldly goods they valued cannot sustain themselves without the aid of Christianity. This may prove either a blessing or a curse; it all depends on how prepared our churches are to offer these converts the necessary catechesis. At the heart of that catechesis must be the story of Abraham and Isaac: the warning that God’s ways are not our ways and the path he calls us to tread may make jarring demands on us. God does offer us life in abundance, but only to the extent we are prepared to lose our lives, and to lose everything we hold most dear. The convert who embraces Christianity as a means to save America may be in for a rude awakening, since God holds out no promises in the gospel about the lifespan of the American republic. Any Christian who stops short on the journey to the heavenly city and clings to a proximate good over an ultimate good is in the throes of idolatry, and liable to lose both earthly and heavenly goods. And yet the convert who sees that all that is best in America is the fruit of Christ and his church should be welcomed, not despised, and invited to raise his gaze a little higher.
Such converts have been lured to the church by gratitude—gratitude for the immense blessings that God has given the world through the witness of his church. May they, and we, be drawn onward from gratitude to adoration:
“Gratitude exclaims, very properly, ‘How good of God to give me this.’ Adoration says, ‘What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!’ One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun” (C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 90).
Brad Littlejohn is the founder and president of the Davenant Institute, and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, SC, with his wife, Rachel, and four children.