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The Battle of the Milvian Bridge depicted by Giulio Romano circa 1520–1524, Vatican City, Apostolic Palace

Baptism by Fire:
How Christian Violence Abetted the Advent of Nationalism

In the year 390, the Roman Emperor Theodosius strode up the steps of a Cathedral in Milan, Italy. His entry into the church was interrupted by the Bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. Theodosius carried with him the power of a Roman Emperor, but also the guilt of a Christian. In response to a violent uprising in the Grecian city of Thessalonica, the causes of which involved a sexual scandal and chariot racing, Theodosius had commanded his army to put down the rebellion. The emperor later rescinded his order, but it was too late to save the crowd from being slaughtered, and the emperor’s behavior, decided St. Ambrose, had been un-Christian. The bishop required that the emperor ask forgiveness and implement a policy that would prevent any similar actions in the future.

The confrontation between Ambrose and Theodosius set a precedent for the later Roman church and state: a Christian emperor’s behavior should be guided by Christian principles. If the Church authorities determined this not to be the case, then the Church could excommunicate the ruler from the Christian mass. In the early 4th century, Constantine tried to synthesize the Roman military state with Christianity, but, as is evidenced by the showdown between Ambrose and Theodosius just a few decades later, amalgam could not hold. The Church would not justify violence until the year 800, with the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, and would then have to do so only through torturous theological justifications. Eventually, the union between Christianity and state-sponsored violence would decompose and, from that, a nationalism that not only embraced but indeed encouraged the use of state-owned violence was formed. Nationalism originated with Constantine’s error.

When Constantine (r. 306–337) won the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, and with it control of Rome, he immediately began to institute Christianity as (more or less) the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine seems not to have been a believer in the tenets of Christianity per se, but the religion attracted him with the concept of “one god, one emperor.” He likely hoped that Christianity would unite the now diverse Roman imperium in a way that the traditional pantheon of Roman gods no longer could.1

When he elevated Christianity to Rome’s faith, Constantine seems to have been concerned with the religion’s lack of organization. Although the first three centuries of the faith are nebulous, by the 4th century, Christianity possessed a core message of sorts and Christians held a loose-leaf anthology of texts that included about two dozen gospels.

Did Constantine ever read the gospels? We have no way of knowing, but it is hard to imagine that a man who entered Rome with the head of his rival and brother-inlaw on a pike would have been comforted by phrases such as “Blessed are the peacemakers” or “The meek shall inherit the Earth.” There are many interpretations of the Christian gospels, but it is hard to justify invoking them as a justification for how to gain and exercise political power. Before Constantine, the Chinese had adopted Confucianism, and the Aryan conquerors in India instituted a Hindu caste system; both ideologies consistent with the exercise of hierarchical state power. After Constantine, the Arabs and Aztecs would develop religious systems that embraced the use of violence as a way of expanding and upholding the state. Only in Rome, however, did the state authorities choose to justify power with a state religion based upon a religious literature whose protagonist eschews violence and is martyred by the state, rather than installed as its ruler.

When Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius, he set a precedent for the church that would last for over four centuries. From 390 until about 800, the ecclesiastical authorities generally tried to prevent the petty feudal lords, formed from the collapse of centralized Roman authority, from warring against one another. The Church’s actions for peace seemed compatible with core Christian teachings, but as Europe grew more violent, Rome itself came under threat. Pope Leo III (r.795–816), faced heretical Lombards in the north and, in 799, was nearly defaced by internal rebels who wanted to carve out his tongue and eyes. The pontiff escaped, but the Church needed something more than spiritual power; it needed a secular protector.2

The antithesis to Ambrose confronting Theodosius in 390 is Leo III crowning Charlemagne (748–814) as the Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800. In 772, Charlemagne conquered the heretical Saxons at Verdun and gave them a choice: either convert to the true faith or be executed. Most chose death, and when Charlemagne fulfilled his promise, he initiated the idea that faith could be enforced by the sword. When Leo III crowned Charlemagne, the Church stopped enforcing the peace and began to embrace violence as a necessary means of protecting the interests of the Church and of spreading the faith.

Clearly, because it was a core notion of Christendom for seven centuries, the contradictory notion of Christian violence, by itself, could not create nationalism.

Ecclesiastical authorities, now forced to torture Christian doctrine into justifying the use of political violence, devised two core doctrines, both of which would eventually collapse under the weight of their contradictions, and both of which would lead to the creation of nationalism:

A. Indulgences: Although the selling of indulgences, or forgiveness, now features as an example of the Catholic Church’s greed, the concept began in the medieval era as the Church’s attempt to enforce peace. The idea was to create a spiritual penalty on soldiers who killed others in battle; a penance of prayers had to be said. The soldiers, overwhelmed by the scale of what was required, began to pay monks to say the prayers instead and this evolved into the selling of forgiveness in general.

B. Malicide: The most obvious manifestation of Christian violence came in the form of the Crusades. Although Pope Urban II gave a papal guarantee of a place in Heaven for anyone who died during a military quest to Jerusalem, the phantasmagoria of violence that the Crusaders propagated and received sent many of the soldiers in search of further assurance. One spiritually uneasy commander of the Knights Templar issued three letters to the great theologian Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), who responded by expressing the theological conceit of De laude novae militia—while the Bible taught that homicide was a sin, malicide (the killing of evil) was now a duty. The Church, of course, claimed the power to define “evil” and, therefore, claimed the spiritual authority to wage a just war on that evil.3

These two responses to Christian use of violence are the hammer and anvil that helped forge nationalism. The Crusades, properly defined, took place sporadically between 1095, the start of The First Crusade to Jerusalem, and 1492 which marks the completion of the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. The desire to continue warring for the faith was a primary reason why Ferdinand and Isabella funded Columbus; those were Crusader crosses adorning the sails of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. The indigenous Arawaks in the Caribbean in 1492 could expect no more mercy than the residents of Jerusalem received in 1099.

Clearly, because it was a core notion of Christendom for seven centuries, the contradictory notion of Christian violence, by itself, could not create nationalism. However, in the 15th and 16th centuries, a confluence of historical forces suddenly converged. In some ways, the faithful seem to have begun losing faith in the 14th century, in part as a result of the Church’s inability to stop the Black Plague, sparking wildcat religious strikes amongst theologians such as Wycliff and Hus in the early 15th century.

By the mid-15th century, the development and widespread use of the printing press created a boon for literacy, and by the early 16th century, the printing press became a staple technology for the average German. The Church, having originally invented indulgences for the purpose of forgiving Christian use of violence, had expanded the practice into a massive revenue producer by promising forgiveness at a price for all sorts of assorted and sordid sins.

When Luther initiated a Reformation in 1517, he began by stoking the anger of the masses regarding overpriced forgiveness. However, he quickly turned the Church’s own theology against it. If the Church claimed that it was Christ’s representative on Earth, then the excommunicated were damned. Luther upended the claim by saying that the Roman Catholic Church was Satan’s representative (making the pope the anti-Christ) and therefore the excommunicated, through faith alone, were saved. Of course, if the Church was evil, then Protestants, as they eventually came to be called, could invoke malicide and wage war against it.

The Reformation spawned different variations of Christianity, but it did not beget nationalism. From 1517 to 1635, when Protestants and Catholics fought against each (and fight they did), a statement of faith provided at least a thin justification for that fighting. In practice, of course, most soldiers fought for riches in this world rather than rewards in the next. The most notorious and ironic proof for this notion came in 1527. The brutal sacking of Rome, and the humiliation of Pope Clement VII, came not from the dreaded Muslim Sultan Süleyman (called “The Magnificent” in the West; “the Law Giver” in his own Islamic domain), nor from the Protestants, but rather from the Pope’s own co-religionist defenders. Upset at not being paid, the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V) mutinied and extracted a few pounds of flesh out of Catholicism’s holiest city.

Still, even a mercenary could have answered the question of “who are you fighting for?” by declaring allegiance to some variation of Christianity. That changed a little over halfway into the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), when the territorial ambitions of the French crown mattered more to them than religious allegiance to the Catholic Church.

The Thirty Years War started as a traditional Catholic versus Protestant row. Germany, at the time, was a region consisting of dozens of small principalities. In his day, Luther wasted no time arguing to the nobles of those principalities that if they stopped being Catholic, they could stop seeing their tax money fly over the Alps and into Rome. From the 16th century onward, the ruler of each province could determine the religious affiliation of his subjects, but in 1618 that uneasy peace ended. The ensuing three decades of violence potentially reduced the population of Germany by about half, and overwhelmed any religious designation as some mercenaries killed for the Protestants one week and the Catholics the next.4

In 1635, when Catholic France entered the war against the Catholic Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, the Church could not plausibly choose a side based on theology, nor could either side invoke malicide as a justification for violence; the mass of bodies were all soldiers for the Catholic faith. If religion could no longer be used as a justification for violence, then what exactly were the soldiers warring on behalf the French or the Habsburgs supposed to be fighting for?

The problem was not unique to Catholicism. The English Civil Wars (1642–1651) pitted Protestant against Protestant. The Anglican Charles I warred against members of a Puritanical Parliament, in various alliances. The Parliamentarian Army (the Roundheads), whipped into shape by Oliver Cromwell, fought with frightening efficiency, but one wonders how much religion featured in their motivations.

Charles I, after all, was the son of the man after whom the King James Bible was named (an English language Bible then being heretical to the Catholics), and was lucky not to have been killed as an infant by Catholic terrorists in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Charles was married to a French Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria, but that hardly seemed a good reason for a civil war. Increasingly, the Parliamentarians justified their takeover of power and a 1649 regicide, by invoking Magna Carta (1215) and by asserting a secular legal authority. Charles I was tried and convicted on a charge of treason, not of religious heresy.5

Gradually, non-religious justifications for the use of violence evolved in tandem with the needs of the state, and this philosophical movement allowed the ruling classes to justify the use of state violence without theological support. Conflicts that began for religious reasons were post facto justified by social-contract theory. The synthesis of Christianity and the state decomposed and the state, now unencumbered by any inconvenient verses from the Book of Matthew, could freely justify the use of violence using new and secular theories.

Machiavelli’s The Prince, published posthumously in 1532, should be read in the context of this backdrop to Christian violence. Machiavelli’s book is, fundamentally, about advising rulers how to avoid being accused of hypocrisy. If a ruler espouses Christian principles of forgiveness, but then calls out the troops to slaughter innocents, he makes himself a hypocrite. The way to avoid hypocrisy, according to Machiavelli, is for the ruler to make no mention of Christian love. Instead, princes should embrace the use of state violence and make their creeds compatible with their actions.

No longer needing to justify their actions with biblical passages, a nationalist leader could promote military violence without risk of being entangled, by the logic of nationalism, in hypocrisy.

Machiavelli wrote the gospel of power politics; the Christian gospels told the reader how to become a martyr, but if you want to be the Prince, read Machiavelli. His most fundamental quote comes in this form of advice:

A PRINCE, therefore, should have no care or thought but for war, and for the regulations and training it requires, and should apply himself exclusively to this as his peculiar province; for war is the sole art looked for in one who rules, and is of such efficacy that it not merely maintains those who are born Princes, but often enables men to rise to that eminence from a private station (p. 47).6

Machiavelli left unexplored the possibility that the soldiers who make the war might eventually ask the prince some equivalent of “what’s in it for me?” Princes give orders, but what makes the soldiers obey? In the absence of religious devotion and the promise of post-mortem paradise, what would cause a soldier to risk his life for the power structure? Eventually, soldiers who once died for the faith would become content to die for the nation. Machiavelli’s gospel of power circulated in European intellectual circles about the same time that the unintended effects of Protestantism began to spread. The kind of people who did not believe the pope got his power from God, did not believe the king did either (as the example of Charles I shows) and this led to more secularized justifications for mere earthly government. Likewise, the Protestants placed few prohibitions on usury, considered literacy to be a religious duty, and liked to choose their religious leaders from the congregation.

Eventually, in 1688, a Protestant parliament instituted what is termed the “Glorious Revolution” against the Catholic king, James II (a son of Charles I). That revolution may have been driven by anti-Catholic sentiment but was justified by John Locke’s concept of a social contract. The ensuing 1689 English Bill of Rights made England’s people more citizens than subjects, and they began to coalesce around a sense of shared rights and a sense of (albeit limited) democratic participation. Parliamentary leaders no longer needed to justify their actions with biblical passages, and a nationalist leader could promote military violence without risk of being entangled, by the logic of nationalism, in hypocrisy.

The American Revolution occurred, not just because of dissatisfaction with an English monarchy, but because the colonists became frustrated at their inability to join a nationalist system that most of them rather admired. This is what the phrase “no taxation without representation” meant. The colonists wanted to be a part of a representative system but were denied that right. When Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal” he meant it as a passive-aggressive swipe against King George III (the recipient, after all, of the Declaration) who would have read that sentence as indicating that he, the king, was not divinely inspired to rule. A limited king he was, but what powers George III wielded supposedly came from heaven.

With the creation of the United States, there suddenly existed an example of a pure nation where the people interacted with their government based upon a secular legal doctrine, and where constitutional law defined the relationship between a person and his or her relationship to the state. The United States government could freely use military violence because nationalism contains no logical doctrine that would forbid it. Aggressive wars of expansion against Mexico were directly aligned with nationalism’s creed, and nationalist violence could be invoked to either preserve or dissect the Union. In time, military service to the government became a way that immigrants could engage in a secular baptism into the state.

Nationalists, as revolutionaries or as politicians, could promote and glorify violence in a way that Christian government no longer could. In due course, the French Revolution gave way to the Napoleonic era. Napoleon’s troops fought with more elan’ (fighting spirit) as citizens of the Republic than did the subjects of the Austro-Hungarian or Russian Empires.7 Only the British could mount any kind of defense against Napoleon’s force. The Russian land, more than any army, defeated Napoleon in 1812 and when he made his comeback in 1815, the Allies found they could only defeat his motivated troops by amassing enormous armies of conscripts.

Napoleon may have been defeated, but dissatisfaction with the old-world empires created internal unrest that, by 1848, led to revolutions across Europe. Only Great Britain and Russia avoided nationalist revolts. The British government had already made liberal concessions to the people and embraced nationalism. The Russians, despite an 1825 attempted coup by army officers who had seen a better life in Western Europe, remained too isolated to see constitutional nationalism as anything other than a threat to Orthodoxy and Tsarism.

Rattled by 1848, Prussia, the most militaristic region of Europe, consented to allow men over 24 years old the right to vote in 1849. Prussia had also demonstrated how a state-sponsored system of education could create a sense of citizenship while developing intellectual skills that could be employed by the military. Prussia led the creation of Germany, which was born as a militarist/nationalist state after crushing the French in 1871.8 Just a few years after that, Friedrich Nietzsche would write that Christian values should be rejected in favor of the “will to power” and that an “Anti-Christ” would reject meekness and martyrdom in favor of political dominance. In the religion of power, Machiavelli’s The Prince became the Old Testament, and Nietzsche’s writings–the New. Germany was militancy made manifest in a state which would usher in world war in 1914 and again in 1939.

Only 74 years passed from the time Germany became a state and the first atomic bomb was dropped, and only then did nationalist leaders realize that it might be blessed to make peace. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) took the place of excommunication as a threat, and the free world, like Ambrose, hopes that no one will walk through that door. END

About the Author

Chris Edwards, EdD, teaches AP world history and an English course on critical thinking at a public high school in the Midwest and is the author of To Explain it All: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Popularity of World History Today; Connecting the Dots in World History; Femocracy: How Educators Can Teach Democratic Ideals and Feminism; and Beyond Obsolete: How to Upgrade Classroom Practice and School Structure. He is a frequent contributor to Skeptic magazine.

  1. Kirsch, J. (2004). God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism. Viking.
  2. Wilson, P. H. (2016). Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  3. Edoardo, A. (2020). All About History, Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Secretive Military Order. “Bernard’s Rules: As a new type of knight, the Templars needed someone to reimagine their role, and they found the man to do that in Bernard of Clairvaux” (pp. 36–41).
  4. Horton, J. (2020). Holy Roman Empire: Chart the Rise, Rule and Demise of an Empire That Shaped Modern Europe. “1618–1648, The Thirty Years War: The death throes of the Holy Roman Emperor’s authority initiated the ultimate battle for religious freedom, ensnaring Europe and costing millions of lives” (pp. 92–99)
  5. Lipscomb, N. (2020). The English Civil Wars: An Atlas and Concise History of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1639–1651. Osprey Publishing.
  6. Machiavelli, N (1961). The Prince. Penguin Classics.
  7. Wilson, P. H. (2016).
  8. Clark. C. (2006). Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

This article was published on March 20, 2023.

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