In the video Robert’s Politics, Robert theorizes that one cannot fully be a Christian without being political. The idea that Christianity and politics are intertwined is consistent in both his work and in his faith. Robert’s icons showcase a dichotomy of religious and secular figures; holy people whose political impact on their world promoted Gospel values, whether or not they were Christians.
Christianity, though widely accepted and practiced today, has not always been so widely practiced or even tolerated. At first Christians were actively persecuted for almost three hundred years, under various Roman emperors. In 313, Constantine the Great finally put an end to the persecutions by signing the Edict of Milan. This edict decriminalized Christianity and granted tolerance to different religions in the Roman Empire. Over the next few decades of his rule, Constantine continued to take steps toward making Christianity the dominant religion of his empire. Upon his death, his son did not rule with the same fervor for Christianity, but Constantine had successfully used his political platform to end the persecution.
As the Christian Church grew more powerful, Eastern patriarchs and bishops did not hesitate to lobby the imperial court to promote their agendas. They sought government assistance to stamp out other interpretations of the Christian faith as well as to persecute Jews. Christian clergy enjoyed exemptions from taxation, military service, and prosecution in civil courts. Later, Orthodox bishops served as ethnarchs, or civil governors, of Christian people in Muslim lands.
The situation was even more pronounced in the West. Because there was no longer a strong secular government in Western Europe after the fall of Rome, the papacy began to enmesh itself in secular politics from the Dark Ages onward. For centuries popes wore a triple crown, the tiara. Even today the bishop of Rome remains head of the Vatican City, a sovereign state. The Vatican has ambassadors, or papal legates, in most other countries throughout the world, and those countries reciprocate by sending ambassadors to the Vatican.
Throughout history, Christian clergy and laity have been involved in politics. There have always been Christian political “agendas.” These agendas have influenced prayer, liturgical vestments, the canonization of saints, and even sacred art. At their best these various agendas have sought to make the world a more Christian place. Too often they have sought to do so by force. At times they have confused Gospel values with cultural norms or even economic stability.
Throughout history there have been conflicting political agendas within Christian societies. Although history has shown how wrong Church policies have sometimes been, even today the politics of bishops are automatically assumed to be the only agenda good Christians can embrace. Many look on any “loyal opposition” as an unacceptable response, even though there has been a loyal opposition in the Church since the days of St. Paul himself.!
Defending the status quo is perhaps the most insidious of all political agendas, since it may not seem to be an agenda at all. In an age when electronic communication and worldwide immigration are bringing various cultures and religions together in new ways—in an age when the physical and human sciences are making traditional ways of seeing our world and ourselves obsolete—agendas that support what was once the status quo may even be false or unjust. Today more than ever the Church needs a loyal opposition.
We recommend a recently published book by an Orthodox author named Aristotle
Papanikolaou, The Mystical as Political.