The early Christians found themselves in conflict with the governing Roman state because they would not offer sacrifices to the imperial cult, which was seen as an expression of treason. The reason that the Christians would not offer these sacrifices is because they saw the claims of the imperial cult as arrogating to themselves honour and powers that are due to God alone – i.e.; they believed that regardless of the earthly powers of the state (which, as is evidenced in Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, they accepted as legitimate powers, and government as something instituted by God) that these powers were limited in scope, and that the state must itself be subject to God and His moral law.
The Roman Empire, as all cultures prior to the advent of Christianity had done, united the religious and the political – the state was itself sacral, containing within itself the source of the sacred and acting as its guarantor. Thus the Romans tolerated many different kinds of private religions, but only on the basis that they would recognise the state cult as their basis and as the supreme sacral structure. Christianity, in its central acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord, and its elevation of God’s kingship from the purely national context it had in Judaism to a universalising concept, called this arrangement into question by affirming that the state is not itself sacred but something subject to the sacred, sitting under the judgement of God and depending upon Him for its validity.
Thus, in a way, Christianity created secularism – it identified the secular sphere as something separate from the religious. It did this however in a context of God’s priority over the secular arena – that, unlike the practice of the Romans and others, which identified earthly government as the ultimate source of authority and value, this new separation would come about precisely because this was not the case, but that the state derived its authority from a higher source and all must be judged according to that higher standard, including the state itself. As Christians grew in number and the Faith grew in influence, this idea would also become more prevalent, and become foundational for Western political thought.
It seems now however, that we have returned in many ways to the earlier situation. For one, Christians are again in a minority, but the similarity is also evidenced in the requirement to do things that are contrary to central Christian beliefs. No state cult exists in theory, and no offerings are expected to be made, but it is increasingly the case that a criterion of citizenship in modern Western civilisation is adherence to certain ‘values’ which run directly contrary to the traditional morality understood and believed in by our ancestors (and done so until very recently). The real difference between our relationship with the state and that of the early Christians’ with the Romans though, is that we are asked to subscribe to doctrines that have no objective basis.
The Roman state saw itself as the ultimate authority, but it did also see that authority as somehow validated by its identity with the sacred, and it therefore aligned itself with traditional ideas about morality that had emerged from religious and philosophical reflection over centuries – i.e.; its laws and concept of virtue were far from arbitrary. Rome may have become decadent, but it still recognised the malpractices which existed within its imperial bounds as decadent – it still judged things according to an agreed objective standard, even if it saw its political body as being to some extent identical with that standard. Our age however, in its embrace of relativism, has robbed us of any such standard to appeal to.
Whereas the Romans saw the sacred and the profane as one, we have inherited the Christian idea of separating them, but have also arbitrarily placed the state above God, reducing all religious belief to the level of private hobby but gutting the state of any moral content – the state is no longer itself subject to a higher standard, and is no longer itself guarantor of any standards. Thus modern day Christians are required to ‘sacrifice’ to the altar of laws developed according to the whims of leaders, which themselves emerge from ideologies that have no more foundation than the fact that they happen to be currently in favour. If one does not subscribe to the doctrines of equality and diversity (or ‘homogeneity and license’ as it could more accurately be described) then social exclusion and possible legal consequence will often follow.
Our own experience cannot of course be compared to that of the early Christians in one other important respect, in that we are not liable to be fed to any lions any time soon. However, the fundamental relationship between Christians and the state does seem to have taken a disturbing turn for the worse, in that it places the former in a position wherein deeply held convictions about the nature of reality and of morality must be compromised if one is to be seen as a loyal citizen. Whilst the positive difference is that we do not face death if we refuse to compromise these beliefs, the negative difference is that we are subject to a state which has no objective guarantee or guidance for its position, and is thus itself subject to the changing whims of leaders and of fashionable opinion. If that opinion changes to something yet more disagreeable than exists at present, then there will be no standard, either within the state or above it, to prevent it from dominating public life.