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.