The Godfather of Christianity

The Roman emperor Constantine is one of the great heroes of Christian history. As legend would have it, he singlehandedly put an end to religious persecution and became the first Christian emperor. His impact was nothing short of miraculous, and this is why his name is often adorned with superlatives: he is Constantine “the Great,” or as some branches of Christianity regard him “Saint” Constantine. More than any other figure, he is the true Godfather of Christianity, who helped it turn from a small troubled sect into the dominant religion of the empire.

But the word godfather applies to Constantine in more ways than one. Think Don Vito Corleone kind of Godfather (actually, I like Don Vito Corleone, so more like Michael Corleone). The historical reality is that Constantine was a brutal dictator who used Christianity for his own self-aggrandizing means and probably never even converted (some say he converted on his death bed, while others say he never did).

At the beginning of the 300s, the Roman Empire was a mess: there were too many people following too many religions speaking too many languages. Culturally, politically, religiously and in every other way, hardly anything brought unity to the empire. The confusion was so intense that it was not unusual for multiple people to claim the title of emperor at the same time. Civil wars to settle the squabbles between these contenders were the norm.

Constantine had quickly understood that ruling over such a diverse population, with such divided loyalties, would always be an uphill battle unless he figured out a way to bring them together. Religion seemed to fit the bill: a shared religion would give his citizens a common sense of loyalty and identity.

The old Roman polytheism didn’t seem to serve his purposes since few people still believed in it. Christians instead were very enthusiastic about their faith. Perhaps even more attractive, monotheism preached the need for all to worship a single source of authority—a concept that was music to Constantine’s ears. By tying religion and imperial power together, Constantine would be able to claim that any rebellion against him was a rebellion against God’s right hand man. Saint Paul’s writings about political leaders receiving their authority from God gave Constantine plenty of ammunition for his totalitarian project.

Constantine probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about religion (or if he did, he had a curious way of showing it since—as we will see—his newly found interest for Christianity didn’t dampen his passion for murder). He professed devotion to the Church, but he also regularly offered sacrifices to Apollo, Diana and Hercules, and remained head of the official pagan priesthood throughout his life. What he was looking for was a tool that would allow him to tighten his grip on power.

Accordingly, Constantine tested the waters by putting an end to the persecutions against Christians in 313 CE. The infighting among different Christian sects, however, bothered him. Religious disagreements could lead to conflicts and rebellion, and this would mean more people to kill, more heads to be bashed, and nothing but work, work, work. If Christianity were to serve his purpose, only one official version should be allowed. So, in 325, Constantine invited bishops from all over the empire at the Council of Nicaea, where they could get their act straight and vote once and for all regarding which one would the true Christian doctrine, and which should be eliminated as heresies. Once the bishops were done bickering, Constantine immediately moved to repress any alternate versions of Christianity.

Shortly after thus becoming the champion of the new religion, Constantine demonstrated how much religious piety had touched his soul by having his son executed, and his own wife boiled alive, for he feared they may have been plotting against him. Jesus’s message to “love your enemies” must have not gotten to destination, since Constantine had some of his rivals beheaded, and others hanged after he had promised them clemency if they surrendered.

Constantine played an incredibly important role in legitimizing Christianity, but considering him a saint may be a tad overoptimistic. The man, in fact, was a gangster with a tiny heart and a Godzilla-sized ego.

[Site editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the recent Disinformation title 50 Things You’re Not Supposed To Know: Religion, authored by Daniele Bolelli.]

11 Comments on "The Godfather of Christianity"

  1. Fascinating piece. It would be helpful if references could be provided. Thanks!

  2.  Just one chapter in a history far more sordid than most could imagine. If only more people would actually take the time to study their own faith.

  3. Fleming1972 | Apr 8, 2012 at 6:22 pm |

    Christ, what an asshole!

  4. Antediluvian | Apr 8, 2012 at 9:22 pm |

    The idea that Constantine used Christianity as a political tool has been discarded by a number of scholars, among which the French historian Paul Veyne, who in his book “When our world became Christian” gives a strong argumentation for the emperor’s actual belief in the Christian god, and that he was not some opportunist.  The conclusion goes even further, basically Veyne says : without Constantine no Christian prevalence in the Roman Empire.  It would have remained an avant-garde sect if it didn’t have a convert that up high who made it his mission to support the young Church.

    • Lifobryan | Apr 9, 2012 at 12:01 am |

      History is usually much more complex than than the hero-villain dynamic that we’ve learned from pop mythology. I tend to appreciate the Joseph Campbell ‘Hero’s Journey’ cycle where good, evil & everything in-between are part of a cycle or process. Historically, as best we can tell, Constantine was a vicious imperial opportunist – but there may be more to the story. He very well might have had a personal ‘faith’ of sorts, despite the recorded actions that we define him by. In the same way, (though it REEEEEALLLY pains me to say), that demonic spawn f**kwad Dick Cheney might have had “noble” motives. Or believed that he did. Pardon me while I spit the sulphuric aftertaste out of my mouth ….. Suffice it to say, whatever the motives of powerful figures might be, we can only look at the historical results … good, evil & everything in-between. Constantine’s Christianity is probably not unlike Cheney’s. The political motive was universal empire, with religion as a handy tool. The Romans brought aqueducts, economic stability, trade, sanitation, slavery, misery, wine, conformity, protection, oppression, and x-y-z to Judea.  A mixed bag of good, evil & everything in-between. Not unlike the present-day US of A. One author points to the political motives, the other to sincere “Christianity.” Religion is traditionally favorite tool of empire, whatever the personal “faith” of the emperor might be ….

      • Lifobryan | Apr 9, 2012 at 12:13 am |

        oops – I forgot to add ….. the Council of Nicea not only included rival Christian bishops, but also representatives of many other religions, including Judaism & the non-urban (Pagan) religions. The goal was a universal (or “Catholic”) church – one religion to unify the empire, politically & ritually. The Council functioned like a Parliament, with lots of horse-trading & bargaining. Many popular deities were absorbed & given “Apostle” status, with Jesus (regardless of who he might have been as a human) elevated to traditional Solar Deity. 

  5. I’m the last person to try to improve Christianity’s reputation, but this suffers from several misconceptions and popular assumptions that could be easily solved by picking up any half-decent library book on Roman history.

    Firstly, while there was a shifting religious landscape, polytheism was hardly in decline. Mystic cults called “mystery religions” sprang up all over the empire, dedicated to various deities such as Mithras, Isis, Dionysos, Cybele, Hekate, etc. What was new about them was their secrecy and promise of personal salvation… sound familiar? These gods, however, were much more popular than Christianity, which was widely regarded with contempt and suspicion. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Constantine deliberately “chose” Christianity, since it would have been much easier to integrate with Roman society,

    Secondly, we cannot know for sure how pious Constantine was, but it seems unlikely that he would champion a widely-hated cult just for a chance at political gain. It is true Constantine postponed his baptism, but this was common Roman practice at the time– done in the belief that one should be absolved of sin before death (as the Catholic sacrament of Last Rites did not exist at the time). It was not until much later that baptism became practiced for infants.

    Thirdly, Constantine wasn’t the first Emperor to tie together religion and imperialism together. All Roman emperors, in fact, were regarded as divine beings and it was mandatory for all citizens and subjects to worship his “daimon” (representative spirit). To question his inspired judgement was tantamount to sacrilege. In fact, the whole reason why Christians and Jews were persecuted in the first place was because they were monotheists and refused to worship the Emperor’s genius.

    All-in-all, the concept of Constantine as the “Godfather” of Christianity is an interesting notion that can be argued to due the man’s characteristically Roman brutality and tyranny, but nonetheless this article is flawed in attempting to support this idea with historical errors and over-generalizations.

  6. KeepItToYourself | Apr 10, 2012 at 3:21 pm |

    Whether Constantine was genuine in his belief or not, doesn’t really matter…. it’s obvious that by the 300’s CE Christianity had already lost most if not all of its connection to what would later become the “Red Words” of the Bible.  I guess they found it far easier to go Old Testament on folks that wronged them and/or didn’t agree with them than it is to love them and/or forgive them.

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