Saturday, April 9, 2011

To Hell with Eternity: Using Christianity in Politics

"Manipulate the masses using something I might have said, but make sure it's totally out of context."
-Jesus, Mark 5:17

Just kidding. Mark 5:17 is actually a crowd of people asking Jesus to leave them alone. But I thought it was pretty fitting. Political figures dating all the way back to Constantine have used Christianity for their benefit. Today, we are all too familiar with both parties (though nowadays, it's mostly the Republicans) using the religion's standards as part of his platform in order to gain votes or approval. The reasons for this are both simple and complex. Basically, Christianity is the most popular religion, aside from Islam. And Islam took it a step further by setting up Islamic states, countries run by and defined by a religion. I want to focus on Christianity, though. The question is why is it so popular and how did it become such a dominate force in the political realm, especially in viking age Scandinavia.

I feel like there is this romantic view of how pagans converted. It's sort of the noble savage of conversions, where the pagan sees how "powerful" the Christian God is and decides he wants that sort of backing. Of course this is referring to the superior weapons, medicines, and battle tactics that the Christian nations possessed in those early middle ages, down through the British empire of the 19th century. I think this is mostly baloney. Oh, I believe that the others saw the might of their adversaries who invoked the name of God. But I think they also saw those superior weapons pointing at their collective gonads.

Aside from the forced conversions, I think the more important deciding factor was the power, influence, and stability it promised. Viking kings and jarls in Scandinavia had riches and power, no doubt. But they knew from the monasteries they pillaged that the Church had endless riches. And even from across the sea, they could see the mainland's cohesion and obedience underneath the iron fist of the Church. The prizes didn't stop there! In converting his country to Christianity, the former sea king would thereafter join the wider European community, which meant more trade and commerce coming into his lands.

The problem with the Scandinavian countries is that it took so long to unify that many powerful kings missed out on the manipulative powers that being a Christian Monarch held. A great example is Olaf Tryggvason. Son of Svein Forkbeard, he was exiled from his home in Norway, got religion, and returned to claim the throne and the country for Christ. The people weren't ready, though. Not only were his foes numerous, but the Norwegians in the extreme reaches of the country hadn't stopped worshiping the old pagan gods long enough to even consider Christianity. They actually got tired of hearing Olaf go on and on and eventually asked him to go. Sounds familiar!

Olaf's belief in Christianity most likely puts him in line with his predecessors and contemporaries: spiritual on the outside, a raging politician on the inside, using whatever means were necessary. One could probably claim Constantine as the trend-setter who put using Christianity to maintain a kingdom on the map. I also think that he was the anti-Christ. But that's neither here nor there. The important thing is that Constantine also had no delusions about the religion. Byzantium was being torn apart, and it was out with the old, in with the new. The old pagan religions were nowhere near as organized as the Christian Church. And when he endorses this hip, new religion, an organized and systematic institution moves in and obliterates the pagan opposition. Not only do they bring organization but also fancy book learnin' and tithes that may or may not trickle into the the emperor's coffers.

Constantine, Olaf, and most likely Mike Huckabee all had something in common: using Christianity. Whereas the first two convert as a show in order to attain what they want, the latter certainly believes in and lives according to the Bible's teachings. The principle, however, is the same. Use the common thread of Christianity in order to weave a blanket of security. The romantic notion of spiritual or even strategic conversions in politics, to me, is absurd. It's economical. It's diplomacy. And it's a risk. Just as Norway wasn't ready for Olaf to convert their country to a Christian monarchy, the United States wasn't ready to be led by an overtly spiritual president. Well, that and he was Republican, and after George Bush, no one stood a chance on that ticket.

As I usually say, history fans, I'm sure that you're aware of this influence in our learning. I just think it's better to boil it down to the brass facts. Christianity is and was organized and powerful, attractive to any aspiring jarl in Scandinavia during the viking age, or to any wealthy politician looking for public office. The spiritual influence, I think, is very sparse at the top of the ladder.

Sorry, Olaf. Better luck to your namesake, St. Olaf. I gotta good feeling about him!

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