Charlemagne and the Crisis for the Evangelical Right
A devil’s bargain on December 25, 800 A.D, still haunts us today.
In the late 1700s, every nation on earth had a state-sanctioned religion. In England, the monarch was head of the Church. In Istanbul, the sultan was both ruler of the Ottoman Empire and pope of the Islamic world. But those who hammered out our U.S. Constitution knew the sordid history of unholy unions between Big Religion and Civil Government. So, they crafted a separation of Church and State.
Washington, Jefferson, and Adams would have been scandalized by the idea that today’s Christians would align themselves with any political party to advance their moral agendas. Yet, that’s exactly what we have done. And our children and grandchildren are leaving churches in droves because of our idolatry.
Yes, I said idolatry. I think that Jesus would agree with me. He was crystal clear: some things belong to Caesar and others to God alone. In Rome, Caesar was called Pontifex Maximus [Latin for High Priest]. But, in Israel, kings were forbidden to be priests. When King Uzziah took it upon himself to burn incense in the temple, he was struck with leprosy. (2 Chronicles 26:16-18) Mosaic Law established a great divide between king and priest; throne and temple; state and religion. When that gulf is crossed, religion is degraded by politics and politicians are corrupted by religion.
What happened on Christmas day in the year 800 should serve as a warning to today’s Evangelical Right. History celebrates the German king as Charles the Great or Charlemagne. This conqueror of Europe went south to aid a pope who had been thrown into prison on charges of gross corruption. Charlemagne agreed to restore Leo III to power if he would crown him emperor of a new Roman Empire. It was a devil’s bargain: in exchange for a crown from the pope, Charlemagne would pledge his sword to the Church. His resurrected Rome would be called The Holy Roman Empire or Christendom—a union of Church and State. It’s a supreme irony that, on a day celebrating Christ’s birth, Pope Leo III, after crowning the new emperor, gave him the title Rex Regum—The King of kings.
It was a Christmas exchange born of hell. Increasingly, the Vatican used the machinery of civil government to advance aims of the Church. Troublemakers were declared heretics or witches and handed over to the State for execution. Instead of sending missionaries to evangelize Muslims, popes sent kings on crusades to seize the Holy Land. The Bishop of Rome became the ultimate powerbroker in European politics. Popes, cardinals, and bishops perfected the art of Machiavellian tactics, while ignoring the way of Jesus. By the 1500s, the Church had become so venially-corrupt that nothing less than a radical Reformation could save it.
This illegitimate marriage also corrupted the State. Kings marched off on crusades to rape, pillage, and commit the most grotesque atrocities in the name of God. Civil princes violated basic gospel principles with the blessings of bishops. Every evil under the sun was cloaked in religious jargon. When reformers challenged corruption, they were condemned by church councils and executed by civil authorities.
America’s Founding Fathers remembered this wretched history. They determined there would be no 800 A.D. Christmas Day in the United States. And, yet, in the 1930s, Roman Catholics united with the Democratic Party to advance the cause of immigrant workers. Mainline Protestants did the same for the sake of their social gospel. African American churches became part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s grand coalition in the hopes that his political party would bring about an end to institutional racism. The Jewish synagogue also aligned with Democrats, hoping Anti-Semitism would be stamped out. Almost all religious groups were now married to the Democratic machine.
Not to be outdone, in the 1970s, Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority turned to the Republican Party to advance the conservative evangelical agenda. Just as African-American Evangelicals are mostly wedded to the Democratic Party, White Evangelicals vote almost exclusively for Republicans. The toxic political divide has sown division in the Body of Christ. It has also divided families, and caused Evangelical churches to lose many of their next-generation kids. It has caused us to spend more time fighting the culture wars than advancing the Kingdom of God. It has turned Christians into idolaters and politicians who curry their favor into hypocrites.
I am not saying that Christians shouldn’t vote for the candidates that best represent their views and hopes for the future. I am saying that we shouldn’t put our final hope in them or their political parties. Our hope comes neither from the right or left, but from above. When our children and grandchildren see us pin our hopes on any political leader or party, or regurgitate the talking points of pundits on our favorite cable news channel, or argue politics instead of focusing on biblical truths, or say that our future is lost if certain people win upcoming elections—then we have made a mockery of our claim that our trust is in Christ alone.
Furthermore, when they see their evangelical fathers and mothers excuse the bad behavior, coarse language, and incompetent acts of politicians who advance their agendas, our kids become disillusioned. Our cynical children may be guilty of their own flawed politics, idolatries, and inconsistencies, but they don’t want to see them in those who have espoused the teachings of Jesus Christ to them since they were kids.
A few years ago, sewer workers in Aachen, Germany burst into the burial vault of Charlemagne. They found a skeleton in moth-eaten royal robes tied to a throne. A tarnished crown was tilted comically atop its skull. In front of the throne was the medieval emperor’s boney finger laid on Jesus’ words in an open Bible: “What should it profit a man, should he gain the whole world and lose his soul?” Indeed, what should it profit us to use idolatrous methods to keep the world as we wish it were, only to lose our souls and steal those of our most precious loved ones?
Dr. Bob Petterson