The problem I have with Yoder at this point is that as Yoder's influence grows and spreads among left-wing Evangelicals and liberal Protestants alike, the theology that emerges from those who are influenced by him is, all too often, individualistic and privatized. For example, many (most) of those influenced by Yoder are acquiescing in the redefinition of marriage by the State.
Now, the Evangelical Left, which is influenced by Yoder, will jump all over me at this point and angrily deny my charge on the basis that they have embraced a socialist ideology which they see as communal. In their account, it is the conservative Evangelicals who are buying into modernity by accepting the marginalized place the church is afforded in late modernity. They are different because they proclaim peace and justice and concern for the poor expressed in welfare statism or democratic socialism.
But what if socialism and the liberal democratic state are simply parodies of true community? What if, as Alasdair MacIntrye recognized, they mask a deep individualism at their roots which is more modern than Christian? Suppose we apply an Augustinian analysis to the modern welfare state. Should we not conclude that the modern state is - precisely to the extent that it privatizes Christianity - deeply idolatrous and pagan?
In the light of these musings, listen to Stanley Hauerwas' comments on Defending Constantine.
It seems to me that what Leithart sometimes calls the "desacrificing" of the Empire, and other times the "baptism" of the Empire, could also be called the "conversion of the Empire." But misunderstanding lurks at every turn here. This "conversion" is the renouncing of idolatry by the Empire, not the turning of the Roman State into the Church. When the State becomes a Church we have a deformation of Christendom. Rather, what happens when the Roman State ceases sacrificing to the gods is that it becomes secular (i.e. belonging to this age between the two comings of Christ, destined to pass away at the end of the age).
Leithart does not think his disavowal of pacifism means he has to reject Yoder's contention that Jesus has a politics. In order to defend his own understanding of the politics of Jesus, he introduces a theme I can only hope he will develop in the future: his defense of Constantine turns on his claim that as a Christian, Constantine ended the Roman sacrificial system. Accordingly Constantine "desacrificed" the Roman political order because he understood that Jesus was the end of sacrifice. The church, for Augustine, is the embodiment of Christ's sacrifice, and this creates a new political reality necessary to keep the state appropriately modest.
Implicit in the ceasing of sacrifice is the recognition of the Church as an alternative polity, a community which proclaims the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ as the call to worship the True God alone through the sacrifice of Christ and therefore to cease from sacrificing to the gods. Yet, in recognizing the Lordship of Christ, the State does not become a Christian State in the sense of the Church taking over the State; instead the State recognizes the existence and legitimacy of an alien polity within its territory - the Church. The Church is the embodiment of true religion so the State no longer has to be religion in and of itself. It is Christian precisely by being secular.
The Church is the node at which Christendom connects to Divine Revelation and therefore its preaching of God's will has authority for all within Christendom including rulers. But rulers still rule according to prudence and are justified in making space within Christendom for dissenters (Jews, pagans, Muslims, atheists). This is where tolerance came from historically. The Church proclaims moral truth; rulers practice statecraft. We have two sources of authority in society, not just one. Neither the Church leaders or the political leaders are all-powerful.
The problem with Yoder is that his view of conversion is all or nothing. For him, either Constantine becomes a pacifist or he remains pagan. The conversion of the state, for Yoder, can only mean a theocracy and he, quite understandably, cannot imagine a violent theocracy being a proper witness to Jesus Christ in this world. (It is significant that separated Anabaptist communities have quite often become Constantinian mini-Christendoms.).
Yoder failed to recognize that for a state to be converted might look different from what it would mean for an individual to be converted. We as individuals are not converted to secularism, but to Christian discipleship. For you or me, to become a Christian means to worship God through Christ. But for the state to be converted means for it to cease sacrifice and not presume to worship at all. Why? Because it recognizes that worship happens in the Church and that the State is not the Church.
Yoder has to dismiss all Christendom as Constantinian and evil because he does not recognize that there are three, rather than two, ways for the State to be the State. The State can either be a pagan idolatrous State or a Theocratic, Church-dominated State, but it can also be a modest, limited government that recognizes that it is not ultimate or Divinely sanctioned in and of itself. It can recognize its limits precisely by doing what Constantine did: that is, by ending sacrifice and recognizing the truth of the Gospel and the role of the Church as a polity distinct from the State with its own proper role to play in Christendom.
Such a State will not presume to re-define marriage by fiat, nor will it authorize the killing of the pre-born, the young, the sick, the elderly or the handicapped. It will not require its citizens to be practicing Christians, but it will encourage them to be such. It will give many advantages to the Church, make holidays conform to the Christian calendar and seek to promote marriage and the family as the foundations of a healthy society. It will be open to civil society and avoid totalitarian tendencies to meddle in the lives of individuals to the extent compatible with law and order. It is appropriate to call such a State "Christian" so long as you know what that means. You know what it means if you can give an account of why a "Christian" State must be secular and give individuals the freedom to believe or not.
It is my conviction that Yoder's theology plays into the hands of late modern, Statism by not calling the State to the conversion that is proper to the state. Because of this error, Yoder can only imagine a minority Church ever existing and thus he equates Christendom with unfaithfulness. Meanwhile, the State is left free to proceed on the path to its own divinization. Just as the Roman Emperors gradually began to accept worship, so the late modern State gradually assumes Divine prerogatives.
To hold, as Yoder does, that the State cannot be converted without becoming pacifist and thus committing suicide, is to determine ahead of time what God's Spirit is allowed and not allowed to do in history. If Kenya, for example, goes from being 9% Christian in 1900 to being 91% Christian in 2000, (which it did), then we have Christendom like it or not. A true Christian political theology must allow for such a possibility and have something constructive to say to Christian politicians in Kenya. What is has to say is the true politics of Jesus, but ironically we need to look to the Augustinian tradition rather than the Anabaptist tradition for help in spelling out that politics.