Right before he died Emperor Constantine decided to finally be baptized. Some scholars believe that this was because he knew that he could not be a faithful Christian while acting as emperor of the Roman Empire.
During this time in church history baptism was preceded by catechesis which placed a great emphasis on how one lived. It wasn’t until a catechumen fully displayed a Christ-like habitus that they were baptized into the faith. We know that Constantine had a deep respect for Christianity, but we also know that as emperor he preferred to take Christianity on his own terms. It could be said that he was the first cafeteria catholic. It seems that it was the prospect of death that finally prompted him to take the call of Christ seriously by literally shedding his purple robes (the early church rejected purple clothing as it believed that it was a sign of excess, privilege and wealth).
It’s strange to think but it would seem that Constantine has a one-up on many Christian leaders today. He may have at least saw the contradiction between worldly power and faithfully following Jesus. This hit me when I read the blog of a former church body president who expressed his disapproval of those athletes who refused to stand during the singing of our national anthem. We’ve so wedded our civic religiosity with our Christian religiosity that we often can’t even tell the difference between the two.
One of the pernicious affects of unbridled nationalism and patriotism is that it serves as a conduit for all of the anxiety and anger of a people. It gives us a sense of control in an uncontrollable world. It provides a mask and a distraction from all the darker elements within ourselves. It’s far better to be united around a common cause and against an enemy out there. It’s a large scale example of Jesus’ teaching on projection – seeing the speck in your brother’s eye while not noticing the log in your own.
It’s a deep tragedy when the church signs on to this and gives it its blessing.