The Christian Invention of “Cancel Culture”

A fateful date in world history is February 27, 380 A.D., which will be 1,641 years ago this coming Saturday.

On this day, Christianity achieved monotheistic perfection: domination of the State, which at that time was the late Roman Empire. Thus began the long era of Medieval Christendom, which lasted approximately 14 centuries, down to the French Revolution in 1789, and the enactment of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1791. We can define historical Christendom in Europe and its colonies as the era when Church and State reigned as mutually reinforcing and essentially unquestioned authorities over every aspect of private and public life.

You wouldn’t know about February 27, 380 A.D. from most conventional histories of Europe or even of Christianity. It is passed over in silent embarrassment. In the 1990s, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, I took several courses in Medieval history and in particular a comprehensive history of the Papacy. But I never heard about this particular event, nor about the crucial reign of emperor Theodosius I (379-95).

Today it is known as the Edict of Thessalonica, an imperial edict which established a distinctively “orthodox” form of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. This orthodoxy was centered on the very same doctrine of the Trinity which is professed to this day by Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and many Protestants. It is impossible to overestimate the influence of 4th and 5th and 6th century Roman emperors (particularly Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian) on the formation and codification of the essential features of Christianity itself, particularly when their role has been universally ignored or downplayed by conventional historians.

This Edict, which passed into law, and signaled the first of many such laws that upheld Christendom for centuries, is so important that it is worth quoting in full:

IMPPP. GR(ATI)ANUS, VAL(ENTINI)ANUS ET THE(O)D(OSIUS) AAA. EDICTUM AD POPULUM VRB(IS) CONSTANTINOP(OLITANAE).

Cunctos populos, quos clementiae nostrae regit temperamentum, in tali volumus religione versari, quam divinum Petrum apostolum tradidisse Romanis religio usque ad nunc ab ipso insinuata declarat quamque pontificem Damasum sequi claret et Petrum Aleksandriae episcopum virum apostolicae sanctitatis, hoc est, ut secundum apostolicam disciplinam evangelicamque doctrinam patris et filii et spiritus sancti unam deitatem sub pari maiestate et sub pia trinitate credamus. Hanc legem sequentes Christianorum catholicorum nomen iubemus amplecti, reliquos vero dementes vesanosque iudicantes haeretici dogmatis infamiam sustinere ‘nec conciliabula eorum ecclesiarum nomen accipere’, divina primum vindicta, post etiam motus nostri, quem ex caelesti arbitro sumpserimus, ultione plectendos.

DAT. III Kal. Mar. THESSAL(ONICAE) GR(ATI)ANO A. V ET THEOD(OSIO) A. I CONSS.

It is Our will that all peoples ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine [sic] Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans…this is the religion followed by the Pontiff [Bishop of Rome] Damasus and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity: that is, according to the apostolic discipline of the evangelical doctrine, we shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit under the concept of equal majesty, and of the Holy Trinity. We command that persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We judge demented and insane, shall carry the infamy of heretical dogmas. Their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance, and secondly by the retribution of Our hostility, which We shall assume in accordance with the divine judgment.

Codex Theodosianus, XVI.2, translation by Williams & Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (Yale, 1994), p. 53.

Thus in late Antiquity began the persecution of pagans, heretics, and Jews by the Christian Church and its lethal enforcer, the arm of the secular state.

Or as we might call it today, Classical Christian Cancel Culture.

Despite the dissolution of the empire in the West, monotheistic Roman law imposed the rule of orthodoxy over many centuries, lands, and peoples, high and low. Pagan shrines were demolished. At first heretics were mostly marginalized and harassed, and deprived of legal rights. But then came the Crusades, the Inquisition, and finally the massive persecution and burning of many thousands of so-called witches (women) in the 14th to 17th centuries. The catalogue of Christendom’s horrors is long and vast and hard to comprehend. Although a vague image of it lingers in popular imagination, it was actually far worse than most people think. And it all started with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., which today hardly anyone has even heard of.

So it’s really something to hear Christians whine today about “cancel culture.”

These days they bewail the decline of their popularity and influence (and revenue). Rather than look in the mirror, they typically blame the aggressive and sinister influence of some very awful people: secularists, leftists, liberals. The disgraced former Attorney General, Bill Barr, gave a speech in Fall 2019 at Notre Dame University in which he accused non-Christian Americans of waging ideological warfare against Christianity. I had the misfortune of reading the speech this morning. I have two things to say to Barr and his fellow Christian Nationalists. (1) Even if you are right that a healthy society requires religion of some kind (a matter of dispute), there is still the problem that your particular religion is not very believable for most people. Witness the generation of young people turning to places like Youtube and Reddit for information and perspective about the religion in which they were raised, and their largely negative conclusions about the persuasiveness of the Bible and Christianity. You can’t practice a faith that you don’t believe, or believe something that your intellect judges to be fundamentally not believable. And (2), why are Christians so compulsively addicted to viewing themselves as victims? I think we already know the answer. Their true objective is to dominate.

Christianity has never been the foundation of any culture of toleration or pluralism or universal humanism. One is either for them or against them, and that never changes.

3 thoughts on “The Christian Invention of “Cancel Culture”

  1. All the history here is completely wrong.

    You wrote “On this day, Christianity achieved monotheistic perfection: domination of the State, which at that time was the late Roman Empire. Thus began the long era of Medieval Christendom, which lasted approximately 14 centuries, down to the French Revolution in 1789”.

    This is completely and factually wrong. Despite the fact that it’s not largely known, because everything anyone knows about the Middle Ages is actually completely wrong, the dozens of states that existed throughout medieval Europe were completely free of theocracy with the sole exception of the Byzantine Empire. Edward Grant writes;

    “From the fifth century through the late Middle Ages, the struggle for supremacy between the papacy and the numerous secular rulers with which it had to contend was ongoing. The power of the papacy reached its high point during the early thirteenth century with the pontificate of Innocent III, after which it declined, largely because secular rulers became so wealthy and powerful that they could no longer be controlled from Rome. Significant here, however, is not which of these two contending powers was dominant at any time, but rather that each acknowledged the independence of the other. They regarded themselves as two swords, although, all too often, the swords were pointed at each other. Even when the Church asserted supremacy over the state, however, it never attempted to establish a theocracy by appointing bishops and priests as secular rulers. The tradition of the Roman state within which Christianity developed and the absence of explicit biblical support for a theocratic state were powerful constraints on unbridled and grandiose papal ambitions and, above all, made the imposition of a theocratic state unlikely.” (Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pg. 9)

    I don’t blame you for getting this fact wrong, because the amount of misinformation about the Middle Ages is shocking.

    I have no idea why you claim that it is somehow unknown that Theodosius turned the empire into a theocracy. I’ve seen that countless times in numerous places, blogs and books and whatnot, and I’ve never taken a course in the subject. The only people who have looked into the history of Christianity in the empire and don’t know that Theodosius turned it into a theocracy are the ones who are confused and think it happened earlier, in the reign of Constantine I.

    The claim that Christianity invented cancel culture is so silly that it’s hard to overstate. Before Christians ran some pagans in, pagans were running Christians in. Ever heard of the Neronian persecution? Ever read Pliny’s letter to Trajan? Christians were the subject of a few empire-wide persecutions, and many many more local persecutions. And what about the other religious groups that the Romans persecuted? Jews? Bachannals? Druids? Manichaens? And what about the numerous other acts of religious persecution in history before Christianity?

    You write “But then came the Crusades, the Inquisition, and finally the massive persecution and burning of many thousands of so-called witches (women) in the 14th to 17th centuries.”

    In reality, none of these events were very important in their time, at least compared to other political affairs. The Inquisition over more than half a millennium, executed under 10,000 people. I mean, sure, 10,000 is a lot, but over half a millennium? Stalin slaughtered tens of thousands of Christians for being Christians, but that isn’t mentioned. The Crusades were few and far between, and there were no “witch hunts” in the Middle Ages. As a matter of fact, almost all the witch hunting took place between 1560-1610, in a few bishopric of the Holy Roman Empire.

    Your conclusion is so absurd it’s amazing. “So it’s really something to hear Christians whine today about “cancel culture.”

    LOL, right, so because “hurr durr the CRUSADES”, Christians should not be upset when they get censored? I’m guessing that you also think Muslims should shut their mouthes when they get persecuted too, because ISIS. And if atheists get persecuted, they should shut their mouthes because of Stalin and what China is currently doing to all religious minorities. Next time, try hiding your intolerance for Christians.

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    1. When I first saw this comment, I decided to “cancel” it, i.e. remove it from my blog. But of course it is silly to cancel someone’s reply to my post about cancel culture. I still think this person’s opinions about history are false and absurd, but allowing the comment to stand has the value of showing what lengths people will go to in order to defend the supposedly benign influence of Christianity upon European and world history. I don’t intend to waste time debating apologists. But if they are going to go to the trouble of responding to what I write, I guess it’s ok if they want to embarrass themselves. (Anything truly rancid and intellectually vapid is, of course, still subject to moderation; my space, my rules.)

      “All the history here is completely wrong.” Hmmm. Maybe what this person is alluding to, and badly distorting, is the changing opinion about such eras as late antiquity in the work of Peter Brown. Or perhaps he is under the influence of amateur pop “historians” such as Tom Holland, who get rich by celebrating Christian culture for their millions of evangelical or right wing Catholic readers. Or maybe the vituperous polemics of wrathful Christian apologist and culture warrior David Bentley Hart. Be that as it may, it’s really something when someone tries to refute you by saying “all the history you think you know is wrong.” Ok well, I studied Classics as well as ancient and medieval history at Columbia in the 90s, so nice try. Get lost.

      He blathers about the papacy of Innocent III, as if 14 centuries converged on that one point. All basically irrelevant.

      “None of these events [sc. the burning of thousands of women as witches] were important in their time.” So insightful! So courageous, humane, and ethical.

      “Christians should not be uspet when they get censored?” Such whining. Christians never get censored in Western society today; they get tax breaks, tv shows, Hollywood budgets, fawning media attention (e.g. New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, not to mention all the right wing garbage), etc. etc. The delusion and paranoia that they are persecuted, they are the victims, they are the hunted witches of modernity is here on rich display.

      “Next time try hiding your intolerance for Christians.” A typical sentiment. Criticism of Christian faith and culture and ideology is generally always perceived by their true believers as intolerance. Why? Because the arrogance and mendacity on which their worldview is built cannot withstand criticism. For them, to be critical of Christianity is to be intolerant.

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      1. Sorry that you don’t recognize the basic history I described despite allegedly taking a few classes on the topic 30 years ago, but your lack of understanding doesn’t make something “apologetics”.

        Yes, your history was pretty garbage for the described reasons. While nothing I wrote is based on the work of Peter Brown, Tom Holland, and David Bentley Hart, these are pretty widely and well-respected historians and the fact that you require them to be dead wrong, despite the fact that there’s close to nothing in their work that would be seriously disputed by any colleagues. pretty much demonstrates that your position is just a conflation of tangled conspiracies and myths you found on google. Talk about the Dunning-Kruger effect. But put aside the fact that Peter Brown’s work literally developed the period of Late Antiquity and he’s one of the most cited living historians on the planet, you took some classes in the 90s and half-read a few books, right? (Though you didn’t know some elementary facts on the history of theocracy in Europe that you coulda discovered by briefing Grant’s standard works on the topic …) Clearly you’ve got him edged out.

        “So insightful! So courageous, humane, and ethical.”

        Not sure what sort of coherence this is supposed to be. Of the vast number of violent events that happened in the period, you cherry pick the teeny tiny few that were religious and the rest is just generalization. Hopefully you haven’t still missed the issue. The atheistic state in China has over a million religious minorities in concentration camps as we speak. Has there ever been anything in the history of world religion to rival that? Nope.

        The rest of the comment is a bit of delusional raving where you seem to have genuinely convinced yourself that Christianity benefits from Western culture. In fact, you’re a bit wacko enough to think it benefits from HOLLYWOOD, which is LOL ridiculous. Your silly ending comments about people being unable to withstand your criticisms were the part I had the best laugh about. Which criticism? The part where you claim Tom Holland (who isn’t a Christian) is just a money schemer trying to make Christianity look good? Oh my, I wonder what your reaction will be when you find out that professional specialists reviewing Dominion … thought it was pretty much accurate. Ah, pesky facts.

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