We shouldn’t equate the decline of Christian piety with the end of Christendom.
We live in confusing times. Perhaps that has always been the case, for in every era the powers and principalities of the world mutate into different forms, inventing new temptations that lead followers of Jesus away from the gospel. Part of what it means to live faithfully involves discerning the signs of the times, paying attention to our ever-changing environment as we repent of the church’s failures and renew our witness to the gospel here and now.
Recently, some have labeled our confusing situation the “post-Christendom era.” According to this trend, we are living in an epoch after Christendom. Traditionally, Christendom described the time when the church hierarchy exercised dominion over European society, with the Pope vying for power with the emperor. Stuart Murray, a Baptist in England, explains that during Christendom “Christians had organized themselves into a powerful institution that could impose its beliefs and practices on society.”
But, it is claimed, since the travails of the 16th century, the church has been losing its hold on society. Murray, among others, argues that Christianity is no longer a dominant influence in the West. Christendom is dead or dying as “the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence.” This is the framework Murray offers for redefining contemporary Anabaptism in his recent book, The Naked Anabaptist (Herald Press, 2010). We are witnessing the historical moment, writes Murray, when the “Christendom era draws to a close and the churches find themselves back on the margins, no longer feted or favored by society.”
“Imperial Christianity is finished,” Murray goes on to say, which means Christians should turn to “the resources [that] are to be found in the radical tradition associated with Anabaptism,” because Anabaptists, historically, have developed ways of life that operate without the support of Christendom’s structures.
Yet Murray leads us astray when he announces the imminent demise of Christendom and discusses the Christian’s marginality to mainstream society. We are now “a powerless minority of resident aliens,” he writes, “in a culture that no longer accords Christianity special treatment.”
We Mennonites listen to Murray because he gives us a way to identify ourselves as a minority religious community in the midst of worldly persecution; he taps into our Anabaptist penchant for associating marginality with faithfulness. But the trouble with Murray’s claim is that Christianity still dominates Western politics and culture. As Christians, we are not marginalized from the powers that be. To proclaim Christendom’s death prematurely only serves to mask all the ways we benefit from the institutional prominence of cultural Christianity as it shapes our society. To declare Christendom’s demise hastily misleads us into thinking that Christians are now marginalized victims.
While recent surveys show a decrease in church attendance in the United States, we shouldn’t equate the decline of Christian piety with the end of Christendom. There is more to the dominance of Christendom than regular church attendance. Christendom names a social arrangement in which Christianity penetrates the structures of power. As Murray explains in his book Church Planting (Herald Press, 2001), Christendom is a system where “Christians had organized themselves into a powerful institution that could impose its beliefs and practices on society.” Our argument is that such an era has not ended, that the era of politically powerful Christian institutions is not dying, that we do not live in a “post” Christendom age. Instead, Christendom is reinventing itself as it mutates into a new form: call it neo-Christendom. This mutation differs from the political system of the Medieval Ages yet retains the same preference for Christian sociopolitical ascendency.
“In Christendom,” writes the historian Alan Kreider, “Christians came to occupy central positions in society. … Christians were no longer deviant.” This is still the case in the United States, especially as we consider who citizens vote into the executive office. The rhetoric of last year’s presidential race revealed the widespread assumption that only Christians should rule the country. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spoke boldly of their faith on the campaign trail, each trying to identify himself as sufficiently Christian to be elected President. In The Presidents and Their Faith (Russell Media, 2012), Darrin Grinder and Steve Shaw document how, in order to win elections, every president has had to be “not just religious but acceptably religious, for it does appear to be the case that we do have a religious litmus test concerning the American presidency.”
Christianity is not a deviant faith in the United States. Christianity is the status quo for people with power, a prerequisite for presidential electability, the credential required to convince voters of a candidate’s political virtue. The office of President has been Christianized. For example, the job description of the person who sits in the oval office involves offering pastoral care to the nation, like a shepherd to the flock.
Last year, President Obama offered words of comfort, preaching from Psalm 46, at the memorial service in Tucson, Ariz., as mourners remembered Jared Loughner’s victims. After the mass murders in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush used Psalm 23 to reassure a devastated populace with the promise of God’s blessing and presence even as evil overwhelms. In 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Bill Clinton encouraged the crowd with words from Romans 12: “Let us not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” In these crucial moments for this nation, the turn to the Bible is natural to our culture, both socially acceptable and expected. The Christian Scriptures have become an instrument of civil power.
If we lived in a post-Christendom society, a president who quoted from the Bible in a public address would be considered a social deviant, a foreigner to the culture, a politician out of touch with the people. But we do not live in post-Christendom, for the media and the masses approve of presidents when they Christianize their speeches and leadership. While pundits may doubt the sincerity of a leader, no one questions the political use of the Christian Scriptures.
While European societies differ from our situation in the United States, our nations are infused with the same powers of Christendom because we share a cultural and political genealogy. Given the constant mutations and varying forms, perhaps we should talk about “neo-Christendoms” in the plural, not singular. For despite the significant differences between the United States and Europe, including the disparity in church attendance, the legacy of Christendom still permeates its politics and cultures. In a December 2011 speech, British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “We are a Christian country, and we should not be afraid to say so.” The language and culture of Christianity is “the glue that can help to bind us together,” Cameron declared. For him, Christendom infuses British identity and promises to bring unity among disparate peoples.
In Switzerland, a so-called secular country, citizens amended their constitution to forbid the construction of minarets on mosques. According to the advocates of the law, the skyline of Swiss towns and cities should display the unambiguous Christian legacy of European civilization, enshrined in church architecture. By popular vote, the Swiss defended the cultural roots of their society in Christendom, warding off the challenge of a growing Muslim population.
The point is unambiguous: Islam must not be allowed to challenge the favored position of Christianity. Robert Louis Wilken, a church historian, explained the significance of the Swiss stance against minarets: “The peoples of Europe apparently still believe in the potency of Christian symbols.” Without the privileged position of these Christian symbols in Europe, Wilken continued, society will lose “all memory of its Christian traditions” and may forfeit “those things that make western civilization unique.”
The claim that Western civilization belongs to Christianity was defended by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2006 papal address at the University of Regensburg in Germany. “Christianity,” he argued, “took on its historically decisive character in Europe.” The theology of the early church, “with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can be rightly called Europe.” Pope Benedict insists on the essential link between European societies and Christianity.
While the Pope uses this historical connection to promote the continual dominance of the church, which is not our argument here, he articulates the genetic link that binds Christendom and western societies together. The connection between “Christendom” and “Europe” is so intimate that it seems unnatural to name them as separate identities, as if we could talk about one without the other.
As the anthropologist Talal Asad has put it, “Christianity is regarded as a central tradition in ‘the West,’ even for atheists, and the constant reinterpretation of its history is part of what ‘the modern West’ is about.” In other words, as citizens of Western societies continue to engage in the kinds of political debate that define their cultural identity, they cannot help but operate within the evolving mutations of Christendom.
Once we leave behind the myth that we live in post-Christendom, we can see at least two possibilities for faithfulness to the gospel, two options that start from a realistic appraisal of our cultural situation within the different forms of neo-Christendom.
The first option: This can be associated with the work of Lesslie Newbigin, the foundational thinker of the missional church movement. According to Newbigin, Christianity saved Europe from social disintegration and political anarchy. It would have been “an act of apostasy,” he wrote in Foolishness to the Greeks (SPCK Publishing, 1986), for believers to step away from the opportunity “to create a Christian civilization, to shape laws consonant with the biblical teaching.” We shouldn’t abandon the legacy of Christendom, he argued, but adapt it to the changing times. What we need is “a Christian society,” where we maintain “a privileged position for the Christian faith in the public domain,” wrote Newbigin in a 1994 essay called “What Kind of Britain?”
The alternative to a Christian society, according to Newbigin, even as it subtly grows under the auspices of secularism, is Islam: “I do not wish my grandchildren,” Newbigin admitted, “to live in an Islamic state.” This fear, it seems, still feeds the powers of neo-Christendom as it lives in the systems of Western societies.
A second option: This option has to do with forming relationships of solidarity with minority religious groups, the communities among us that are pushed into the margins of society because of their faith. While the post-Christendom thinkers want us to imagine ourselves as deviants because we are Christians, we want Christians to recognize that we are not foreigners to the powers that be, that we are not social deviants because of our faith in Jesus Christ, that we are not a persecuted minority within the cultural and political systems of western societies. Alternatively, we believe that we should actively disown the systems of neo-Christendom that permeate our lives by forming relationships that draw us into the borderlands of cultural Christianity. Instead of pretending we are “a powerless minority of resident aliens in a culture that no longer accords Christianity special treatment,” we should join our lives to actual resident aliens in our society, religious minorities in our Christianized culture, powerless communities that do not benefit from the favoritism of our political systems.
We would argue for the second response, a creative and humble engagement with estranged religious communities and cultures. For example, what would it mean to give up the social power that comes with owning prominent buildings and calling them churches and instead renting space from a local mosque or Sikh temple? Such a relationship would be a small step toward disestablishment within our neighborhoods and communities and an embodied commitment of solidarity with people rendered outsiders to mainstream cultures. To become renters rather than owners would start us on a divergent path from groups who claim institutional and geographic power. Of the many gifts we would receive from the hospitality of minority communities, they could share with us what it feels like to gather for worship on the fringes of neo-Christendom.
As we assemble as Christians within the sacred space of Muslims or Sikhs, we would be invited to make ourselves vulnerable to the violence they experience from Christian bigotry. This would be one way to learn from others how Christendom remains a source of oppression and fear, realities hidden from us so long as we live by the illusion that Christendom is dead and gone.
Ron Adams is pastor at Madison (Wis.) Mennonite Church. Isaac Villegas is pastor at Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Church.