The Postliberal Project: Converting the Empire
Rome was not built in a day; neither will a Christian America.
In the Republic, Plato likens the health of a city to that of an individual soul. This claim only makes sense; nations are ruled and populated by souls, after all.
In the chronicles of history, we talk about nations as if they are characters: nations are born, live, and die; they can be at peace or at war, either with themselves or with others; they let their passions get the best of them; they compose great art; they mourn their losses; they go on adventures; they have good times and bad. However, they are most like us in their capacity to do good or evil; nations fall into sin just like we do.
It follows, therefore, that the health of a national soul, like that of an individual soul, is fully and wholly determined by the nation’s proximity to God. Nations die by their own hand, just like man does. Their sins come to consume them, worsening in gravity and in scale over time. Nations do not have the power to conquer their own demise, saving themselves from death. However, Christ does. As is the case with individuals, God can wholly redeem wicked nations and build them totally anew in His image.
In the words of Saint Pope John XXIII, “Peace on Earth ... can never be established ... except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order … we must think of human society as being primarily a spiritual reality” (John XXIII, Pacem In Terris). Today, we consider a grand strategy for baptizing America.
Proposing the need for such a strategy begs an obvious question: Does America even need to be built anew? That depends on whether or not America is a Christian country.
Thanks for reading The American Postliberal! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our mission.
I) Is America a Christian Country?
America is not a Christian country.
One may, naturally, try to refute such a bold claim by pointing to America’s clear Christian majority: 61% of Americans identify as Christian. Mississippi, what everybody would consider a “red state,” voted Republican in the most recent presidential election with a 57.5% majority. If America is more Christian than Mississippi is red, then why is America not a Christian country?
A good hint of a country’s collective position is over which issues its political battle lines are drawn. That is, what divides America? Needless to say, from a Christian perspective, America’s “hot button topics” are a testament to how bad things really are. Take life issues, for example. The fact that Americans are split over abortion and transgenderism — with one side taking these bloody acts as “human rights” — is a travesty. America is deaf to the screams of dying innocents. Not Christian whatsoever.
However, these issues still raise eyebrows when spoken of too casually. Thankfully, America’s sensibilities have remained intact enough to make way for some discomfort in the face of such evil, even if we are not nearly as uncomfortable as we ought to be. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of other, more basic anti-Christian positions, which, if expressed, evoke basically no reactions whatsoever. If somebody were to behold these errors with any urgency or seriousness, he would be taken seriously, with his head lost in technicalities.
Take two early heresies: Arianism and Nestorianism, and ask yourself whether the positions of each would be considered controversial in America. Arians believe that the Father created Jesus, thereby not making the Son coeternal. Nestorians believe that Christ had separate human and divine natures, instead of both natures being totally held and united in one person. The tenants of these heresies are either held by the vast majority of Americans or too specific to be cared about by them.
When Rome was a Christian empire, its Christian emperors took these heresies so seriously that they convoked entire Ecumenical Councils to settle them, and were in intimate collaboration with the Church and its Pope over them. That is what a Christian nation looks like.
America is not a Christian country. So, how does a country become Christian? How do Christians baptize a nation from a starting point of zero institutional power?
II) Do as the Romans Did
In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ instructs his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:18-20). That is how the Gospel of Matthew ends. The final note it leaves its readers is one of commission: bring all peoples and nations to Christ and His Church.
Christ’s original disciples were in a much tougher spot than America finds itself. There are millions of faithful Christians in America today; at the time of the Great Commission, there were eleven. What is more, the civilization they were up against was not very Christian, either. Greco-Roman society was polytheistic, pagan, and extremely hostile to Christianity and its values. That society, like ours, had no gripes with killing children. It is estimated that in the year 200, Rome had 140 males per 100 females (Stark, 97). This chilling discrepancy was due to the legal, morally accepted, and widely practiced custom of leaving “undesirable” babies out in the elements to die.
As is also the case in America today, Rome’s political class worked against Christians: infamous executions under many different emperors make that clear. So, as a sociological matter, how did Roman Christians baptize their nation? Such a miraculous victory can surely guide us today.
In the popular imagination, the story of Rome’s conversion to Christianity goes something as follows: after existing as an irrelevant, underground cult for 300 years, Emperor Constantine saw a cross in the sky. Then, he made Rome Christian.
That is not how it happened. While macro events like Constantine’s miraculous conversion are as impactful as they are spectacular, a Christian nation cannot be made without Christians, of whom Rome had no shortage by 312 AD.
Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates that between 40 AD and 350 AD, Rome’s Christian population grew by 40 percent per decade (Stark, 6). This would mean that, given the small starting population described by the Saints (taken to be around 1,000), Rome’s Christian population would have ballooned from 6,300,000 in 300 AD to 33,880,000 in 350 AD, over half of Rome’s population of 60,000,000 (Stark, 7). This means that Constantine’s conversion coincided with a Christian revolution. This sociological reality does nothing to invalidate Constantine’s miracle: it simply shows that God timed it very well!
III) Converting America: The Micro
So, how do we do as the Romans did? As was said, a Christian nation cannot be made without Christians, of which America has a devastating shortage. In contrast to Rome’s rate of 40 percent per decade, America’s population of genuine Christians is plummeting. This is a catastrophe. Rome’s Christian revolution only came about after centuries of consistent, massive growth. Thus, America will not be converted in a day. However, this should not dissuade us, neither was Rome. Christ said it Himself at the very end of Matthew: he will be “with [us] always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Christ being with us, naturally, gives us the responsibility of being with Him, no matter the circumstance.
Christ’s Commission applies to every single one of us, no matter our walk of life, ordinary or otherwise. That means you: Christ had you personally in mind when he spoke those words in the Gospel of Matthew. Follow them, and you will help convert America, as was converted Rome. You will also be made a Saint in the process.
Given that in America, relatively few people believe Christianity’s fundamentals, every Christian, by virtue of existing, has been drafted into the spiritual war. However, there are some common misconceptions as to where and how most successful evangelization takes place.
Across all religions, essentially all conversions take place within a structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments. That means friends and immediate family, on the small scale, do most of the converting. Mass apologetics and activism can only penetrate an open heart.
Be it at work, school, or at home, we spend the vast majority of our time in the presence of family and friends. That time should rarely, if ever, be spent trying to convince using argument. Being unpleasant is a turn off, and the impatience and lack of charity that one brings when picking fights and finger-wagging only serves to drive people away. “They are wrong to reject Christian teaching, so if they do not listen to me, it is their fault,” you may say; however, it is not in your place to judge. It is only in your place to help.
How does one help? The surest way is to be a shining city on a hill. In the words of Pope Francis, “live consistent with [your] faith. And it will be [your] testimony to awaken the curiosity of the other who says: ‘But why do you do this?’”
Many Christians hear this advice without fully internalizing it. This does not just mean that you should have the courage to “take a stand” on the big, obvious things when necessary. It means that every element of your own spiritual battle has ramifications upon others. Each sin that you commit and leave unrepented weighs heavy on your soul and subtly rots your character, a process that your willpower cannot stop. If you are not in a state of Grace, it will show. Even if the sin you have left unconfessed is relatively ungrave, you will still smile less; cross your eyebrows more; say “thank you” with less joy, and bring your demons into every room you enter.
On the other hand, a state of Grace goes farther than one would expect. “Charisma” would be the best word to describe the quality holiness gives. The word charisma, in its original Greek, literally translates to “gift of Grace.” This gift gives one the quality that opens hearts, making short work of obstinance and bad moods. We have people like this in our lives, whose kind eyes and patient smiles cannot help but bring the best out of us. In the same way, charismatic leaders in public life bring the best out of their people and lead their nation ever closer to God. Charisma is the power that Christ displays when calling his first apostles in Matthew 4, who upon being called, dropped everything that they were doing without hesitation to follow Him. The surest way to bring people to Christ is to be like Him.
Spiritual warfare is the challenge of our lives, and your wins are America’s wins. You spend all day with your family and friends, and you would be surprised at how powerful a state of Grace is. It is on these personal, micro-battlefields that the war for America’s soul is ultimately won. Let no one despise you. Be a Saint!
IV) Converting America: The Macro
“How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints,” wrote C.S. Lewis.
It may seem paradoxical that those who follow Christ’s straight and narrow path all come out on the other end so wonderfully unique. But, it is not. God has a perfect plan tailored for you; he formed that plan with all His devotion and care, as if you were the only thing on His mind.
It is not as if you need to be an Emperor, or a great theologian, or a beheaded martyr to live a seismic and holy life. Christ’s first apostles — St. Peter and St. Andrew — were fishermen. The most recently canonized saint, St. Artémides Zatti, was a pharmacist. In the words of Saint Francis de Sales, we should all “bloom where we are planted,” working towards holiness within our own circumstances, no matter how ordinary.
If America seeks first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, all other things shall be added unto her. America, in God’s hands, would have everything that it needs.
For example, God would never spur all of America’s farmers to abandon their vocations and become priests. There is no world in which that scenario makes sense, for the calls of the hungry should never go unanswered by the faithful. The world needs food, and God knows that; so, He would give us farmers. In the same way, God knows that America needs virtuous leadership; and so, He would give us virtuous leaders!
Therefore, translating the spiritual victories of individuals into the halls of power may seem like a whole different battle. But, it is not, and never has been. God places his faithful servants in all levels of society, from the local level to the national and beyond.
Take families, for example. 1 Corinthians 7:14 says that “the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.” Spouses serve to reinforce each other's faith, and many non-christians are brought to Christ with the help of their Christian spouses. Christians also have more children than their secular counterparts, as was the case between Roman Christians and pagans. With opponents that refuse to have children, Christians are at an inherent advantage in shaping the nation’s future.
Holiness at the individual and local level, however, can either be reinforced or crushed by the powers that be. Our call to individual holiness must not be taken as an endorsement of the so-called “Benedict Option,” which tells us to bunker down in our “little platoons” rather than set our sights on thrones.
Marx and Nietzsche believed that Christianity is naturally relegated to the catacombs. They claimed that it is an opiate and a slave religion, which only appeals to the unenlightened masses, desperate to make peace with being persecuted. This view, of course, is a lie. Even putting their slander of Christianity’s genuine merits aside, their claim falls apart even as a historical matter. In Rome, Christianity quickly found its way into power centers, with secret conversions and murmurings traveling as far as the Emperor’s court.
In the same way, a small, highly resolved group of Christians must infiltrate our own imperial capital: Washington, D.C. This process of infiltration has been termed “integration from within.” With Christians at the helm, we can build a thoroughly Christian political order. We will have the power to properly enforce what is true, good, and beautiful, without the insipid “don’t tread on me” mindset, which currently defines our polity, standing in the way. The macro reinforces the micro because it is easier to be a good Christian with the support of a Christian society.
Some may call this program “revolutionary,” and therefore anti-conservative; this couldn’t be farther from the truth. A traditional society can be thought of as a firm, towering tree; picture a California Redwood. Just because its roots remain planted, and its trunk stands true, does not mean that it is not alive; its branches grow and twirl with the needs of the times, as laws do in response to new challenges. Some may accuse us of cutting down a tree. However, society was separated from its roots when Europe separated from its Church. The tree has long been a stump; we are simply trying to replant it.
V) A Virtuous Politics
Better still, in the realm of practical politics, Christians have a distinct advantage: our virtuous programs, in many ways, sell themselves and the religion that drives them.
During the Antonine Plague (165-180 AD), smallpox swept across the Roman Empire, devastating the population. Pagan lawmakers and citizens tended to shun the sick and throw the dead in mass graves, fearing transmission. Do these dehumanizing practices remind you of any contemporary pandemics?
In complete contrast, Christians demonstrated extraordinary courage and love of neighbor. Christians, in the words of Saint Cyprian at the time, knew that their “brethren who [had] been freed from the world by the summons of the Lord should not be mourned, since [they knew] that they are not lost but sent before [Him].” As a result, Christians rushed into mortal danger to help their fellow man, “gladly [seeking] martyrdom” (Stark, 81). Christians established large networks of hospitals to nurture the sick face-to-face and give them proper burials, resulting in a “miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services” (Stark, 84).
Christians prioritized the wellbeing of others over themselves. Christian charity led countless pagans to convert: the Pagan Emperor Julian testified as much. He wrote that Christians showed overwhelming “benevolence towards strangers and care for the graves of the dead” compared to pagans, and that Christians were “support[ing] not only [the Christian] poor, but [Pagans] as well” (Stark, 84). This made pagans look bad in comparison. So bad, in fact, that Julian launched a campaign to establish pagan charities with the intent of rivalling Christian ones, but to no avail. Sometimes government narratives are no match for the plain and simple truth of things. Rome would be Christian within the century.
VI) What Now?
Such insurmountable odds in the face of such heavy opposition was a pure miracle. The result was astounding: a Christian civilization.
That is not to say that Saint Peter’s successors did not face countless and constant difficulties; there were plenty of schisms, and Holy Roman emperors weren’t always holy, to say the least. However, leaders spoke about God, and meant it; they recognized that angels, demons, and saints are not fairy-tales; and they drafted laws keeping in mind that man lives not by bread alone. “Live and let live” was nowhere to be found, as leaders both defended the faithful against non-Christian invaders and influences, and spread their religion across the globe. Politics was animated by eternal intentions. It was a great polity, all things considered. And we are going to bring it back, one Christian at a time.
That may sound all well and good, but it is easier said than done. However, Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden is light. Fighting the good fight, whatever your situation, will bring you immeasurably joy and fulfillment, be you the leader of a family or the father of a nation.
This teaches us to pick our political battles with abundant charity, fortitude, and prudence. It was an active presence on the correct political battlefield that allowed Christians to shift the narrative in Rome. If they had ignored the pandemic, sitting on the sidelines and focusing on something easier and less relevant, the faith would not have gained a solitary soul. Americans must do the same; canvassing for a restoration of the Habsburg throne is not what we should be doing (just yet)! That being said, we should not shy away from ruffling feathers, either; the Romans certainly did not. Instead, our political program should be realistically Catholic; hence, Catholic Political Realism. Rome was not built in a day; neither will a Catholic America.
Augustine. The City of God Against the Pagans, edited by R.W. Dyson. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity. HarperOne, 1996.