Christendom Isn’t Dead?

Recently Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas penned a brief article for Mennonite World Review that called the Post-Christendom thesis into question. By highlighting the recent political developments in North Carolina, especially the influence of figures like Billy Graham and the US Catholic Bishops, he states quite emphatically that “Given the dominance of Christianity in the United States, we ought to rethink using the language of ‘post-Christendom’ to describe our time and place.” This understanding of the Post-Christiendom interpretation of culture, however, narrows in on one element of the thesis: “The Christian story has moved from the center to the margins of culture.”

While Villegas rightly observes the dynamics of the American political process, he marshals the narrative as evidence that Christendom is alive and well. There are two problems with such a generalization. First, a robust definition of Post-Christendom entails more than just these political power moves. Second, social research is showing quite clearly that fewer and fewer persons are self-identify as Christian. So then, these political anecdotes are not a sign that Christendom is flourishing but are indicators that established groups of Christians are fighting to stay in positions of cultural power. In other words, we are in the slide toward the marginalization of Christianity. These days are simply the death rattle of Christendom in North America.

British Christians like Stuart Murray are speaking to America from the other side of this journey. In fact, Murray himself is clear as he engages American Christians that even the idea of Christendom in the United States differs significantly from that of modern Europe. Their outlining of the Post-Christendom thesis, then, includes a number of markers. “Christians therefore no longer feel at home in the dominant culture.” As a result, Christians “no longer enjoy automatic privileges.”  More to the point of Villegas’ criticism of the perspective, “The church no longer exercises control over society but instead Christians can exercise influence.” The wider cultural reality of pluralism and the constitutional disestablishment of a particular form of Christianity have created an atmosphere of anxiety among previously established church leaders.

At the same time, sociologists are backing up this interpretive frame. Ross Douthat, Diana Butler Bass, and George Barna have all noted in their recent books that the number of persons who self-identify with a particular religion has significantly declined in the last decade. Even those traditions that had flourished as Mainline Protestants declined in the late 20th century- non-denominational Evangelicals and Mormons- have decreased in percentage of population.

So what are we to make of this decline? I for one, agree with Stuart Murray, we are on the path to a Post-Christendom culture. The church in the coming decades will only be one more voice among many. What is more, established and institutional religion will most likely be “on the margins.” Part of the Post-Christendom assessment within North America is not to say “we are now the minority,” but rather to say this is the coming reality. Do we cling onto the previous vision of cultural hegemony as was the case for previous centuries, assuming that Church life and political culture are intertwined? Or, do we embrace the emerging realities and reconsider the Mission of the God.

David Fitch, in his book “End of Evangelicalism?” points to this dilemma in his discussion of the ideology of the Christian State. American Evangelicals, especially, have embraced the disestablishment clause of the first amendment but have assumed a kind of privilege in terms of political governance. This is also clearly argued in James Davidson Hunter’s book “To Change the World.” These Christendom minded groups, both liberal and conservative, assume that the society can become more Christian as the people assert their democratic influence. Such an ideology, however, is soon to not be a reality. Both the numbers and the stories are showing that christianity will eventually lose influence. Even in cases where Christian leaders can influence the political debates, these laws will eventually be struck down by the constitutional logic of rights and freedom of religion. What we see now are Christendom leaders trying desperately to keep their power as it slips through their fingers.

Unfortunately, Villegas falls into the same trap as many of the Christendom diaspora. He has assumed that Christendom is summed up in the political discourse and process of the country. But as Murray and others reflect on their own cultural realities, the Post-Christendom move is starting to show up in North America. We can no longer assume that those around us naturally know the parts of the Christian story. We cannot assume that just because we have a church building people will automatically come to worship. What is more, the typical “return to church when you are married and have kids” perspective will no longer sustain the institution. In sum, the Post-Christendom argument is about much, much more than just politics. It is an assessment of the culture in which we are finding ourselves.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Christendom Isn’t Dead?

  1. Chris Jones

    Great thoughts Josh. I would say that the more I read N.T. Wright, Andrew Perriman, Scot McKnight and Darrin W. Snyder Belousek I realize that many of us in the pews don’t know many parts of the story either.

  2. Ted Grimsrud

    Good thoughts.

    I wonder, though, if you and Villegas might be using “Christendom” in different senses.

    A few months ago David Fitch visited Eastern Mennonite University and we had a lively discussion after his talk. I was surprised that he didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the role “Christianity” plays in political discourse in the country (maybe especially here in the South). He was focused more on the religious diversity (including lack of religion) that he sees in urban and suburban Chicago.

    But I wonder if it might be possible to have both Christian imperialists in power while at the same time there is great ignorance of Christian beliefs among everyday people. I don’t imagine any form of Christendom ever relied on or tried to enhance knowledge of Christian convictions on the part of everyday people. The more ignorance the better, I would guess.

    That is, I wonder if might want to hold on to both the post-Christendom and Christendom still lives analyses in that the US right now seems to be traveling in uncharted waters in relation to Christianity.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Ted,

      I really appreciate you reading, and commenting. I think you are right that Isaac and I are probably talking across one another here, especially in terms of a definition of Christendom. I think his typology of the rhetoric helps fill in some of the back drop of his own reflections and will provide a fuller critique of my own as I comment there.

      Regarding Fitch and the regionalism of his perspective. Dave and I have talked some of our shared experiences in rural southern Indiana. So I am not sure I think he is totally out of touch regarding the rhetorical and emotional force of a good ol’ Christian argument. However, I do think his criticism of the “Christian State” ideology sticks in urban Chicago and Valley Anabaptist land. The intersection of American exceptionalism and Anabaptist ecclesiology has always been an odd pairing, and yet somehow it still stands as a kind of regional orthodoxy. I think what Fitch gives us in End of Evangelicalism is a good ‘disrobing of the emperor”. Thus for those of us who are working with congregations in the US context, especially Anabaptist rooted ones. the task is to translate how christian language is being co-opted for the imperial gains of political platforms.

      As I have argued about the Health and Human Services mandate, the weight of a religious tradition any more is not in its logic or rhetoric, but in the number of adherents it can deliver come November.

  3. Hi Josh. Thanks for engaging with my article! By the way, I wish I would have been able to stick around at the Occupy thing in H’burg to chat with you; I was glad you brought Hardt & Negri to the table.

    Anyhow, I guess I’m most interested in the rhetorical force of “post-christendom.” How does that language form us? I think people who are using the term are trying to form us in three different ways — and I’ll use Murray as my conversation partner, although there are others who say similar things:

    1) Post-Christendom as an invitation to stop trying to rule the world with coercive power. The church has done that for too long and it’s unfaithful. So, for example, Murray: “The development of missionary congregations requires, among other things, a disavowal of Constantinian attitudes and reflexes, and the adoption of a different understanding of the role of the church in society” (Church Planting, 172). This is good. I’m all about the disavowal of constantinianism.

    2) Post-Christendom as a description of our time and place. This is where I have a hard time seeing the term as helpful or accurate. I understand the stats about less people identifying themselves as Christian, as you mention. Murray makes the same case in his books by offering individualistic reports of people not knowing the Christian story. But, hasn’t it always been the case that the “faithful” Christians throughout history claim that people don’t really know the story? It’s nothing new to claim that people have forgotten the story of Jesus. In fact, even Murray claims that during the height of Christendom not everyone really believed in Christianity: “Christianisation was superficial in many areas on the eve of the Reformation. Richard Fletcher…catalogues disturbing examples of the survival of pagan practices, ignorance of Christianity, monastic corruption and widespread disdain for the church” (Post-Christendom, 111). So, Christendom cannot be reduced to whether or not individuals really believed the faith, or if they really knew the story, and so on (thus, I think, the insufficiency of stats that focus on personal beliefs). Christendom is about who gets to determine the shape of culture and society, it’s about determining who really belongs, and, of course, who doesn’t belong. And, as I mentioned in the article, Christians are the ones who definitely belong at the center of Western culture, especially in the U.S. version of Western society. The president still has to be a Christian, and our society wants the president to exercise pastoral care during tragic events. It is still the case that Christian civilization provides “a framework for political, economic, social, military and cultural life,” as Murray says of the earlier version of Christendom (Post-Christendom, 66). Christendom was and is about more than personal statements of faith; Christendom has everything to do with the dominant cultural logic, the default assumptions about social values. It’s not just about statecraft, although the agents of statecraft definitely influence our social and cultural form. Murray is helpful here: “Christendom is sometimes presented as an alliance between church and state, but this discounts the integration of church and culture. Partnership with the state enabled the church to exercise influence throughout society and engage in mission towards the whole culture” (Post-Christendom, 131). My point is that we are not beyond this fusion of Christianity and society. We are not “post.” We are instead witnessing a mutation of the same cultural system. Given our current situation, this statement seems like wishful thinking: “Imperial Christianity is finished” (Murray, The Naked Anabaptist, 78). And this claim doesn’t seem to jive with life as we know it in the U.S. (and Europe?): “the Christendom era draws to a close and the churches find themselves back on the margins, no longer feted or favored by society” (Naked Anabaptist, 56).

    3) Post-Christendom as a prediction and hope. For the history of the church, we have always been drawn to people who like to predict what the future holds. Recent thinkers have tapped into our desire for prediction by claiming that the future will be “post-Christendom,” which means that our society will be truly pluralistic, without any one religious culture dominating all of society. Assuming that it is possible to rid Western society of its Christian legacy, I remain agnostic about the future shape our culture. For a while, cultural critics were talking about the triumph in the West of secularism and the eradication of Christian values. But there seems to have been a shift, especially since the mass murders in NYC in 2001: even with fewer and fewer people claiming to believe in the Christian God, European countries are surprising us as they defend the mark of Christianity on their societies — the Swiss have forbidden the construction of minarets on mosques in order to privilege church steeples, the French banned Muslim dress for women in public spaces, the UK prime minister outlines a British future that is decidedly Christianized, and so on. Given the way Christendom seems to hang on, even in secularized Europe, I am surprised when Murray writes about about the advent of Post-Christendom as already a done deal: “[my 2004 book on Post-Christendom] celebrated the demise of imperial Christianity and welcomed the opportunity to rethink all kinds of issues as the European church found itself back on the margins of society” (The Naked Anabaptist, 19). The reason why it may be a problem to assume that post-Christendom is an imminent reality is that it forms us into a way of thinking of ourselves as the marginalized. Murray: “the post-Christendom church can revel in its freedom form associating with status, wealth, and force and can welcome this plural environment as a much healthier context in which to share faith and work for peace and justice” (Naked Anabaptist, 87). But the problem is that Christians do have the power in Western societies; Christianity is still held within the powers that be. To claim that Christianity does not occupy power over society is an act of repression, which only further enslaves us to the mutating powers of Christendom. We are not yet free from the legacy of Christendom; it still holds us within its grip. Statements like these ring hollow: “In a post-Christendom context, the church is liberated from the corrupting influence of political, economic and social power. As a powerless minority of resident aliens in a culture that no longer accords Christianity special treatment, the church is freed to live and witness in new ways. The church is released from any sense of responsibility for supporting the status quo…” (Church Planting, 172). Despite Murray’s predictions, we have not yet been released, and to pretend that we are not still on the inside of Christian power is to benefit passively from the status quo while ignoring the people who are being marginalized. Even if we want to say that post-Christendom is in the future, how is such a prediction helpful? It seems like we need all the help we can get in trying to live faithfully in the now: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

    If you have time, please come back at me with any of these points. I’m willing to be shown otherwise.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Isaac,

      Thanks for the extended reply and the insight into the critique of the formative language of “post-christendom.” That is a valuable reminder. I am with you that #1 of your typology here is where I am most at home. Your criticisms of the following two uses of the rhetoric are important warnings.

      As Ted Grimsrud noted in his response, we are probably talking about two different forms of Christendom. I am more commenting on the cultural aspects and expectations while your article attends to the political forms. I think it is important to recognize that the form of Christendom of Europe is and was qualitatively different from that of North America. The disestablishment clause of the Constitution created a unique context where no one form of Christianity could be favored- even identified- by the government. Instead a kind of governing form of Christendom, the American experiment established a cultural Christendom. That is the probably the hardest and last form of Christendom to fade into the history books.

      I think Hunter here is helpful. Both liberal and conservatives in America assume a kind of democratic force inherent in gathering people around a particular vision- one that can be enacted by officials elected to office. What happens then, is a competing vision between Christians. Is it a kind of social conservatism or social transformation. The result is an argument internal to the Church being worked out in the political processes of our government. Yet, both parties assume that the way to a virtuous (ie their kind of Christian morality) society is to work at the political processes instead of within the church to 1) evangelize and 2) discern what it is that God is already doing.

      By narrating the slipping influence of Christianity in our social context, my hope is to encourage the Church to let go of the Constantinian vision that “if we could just get the politicians to convert” our society would be more heaven-like.

      For myself, I am under no illusion that Christian rhetoric is an influential force within American culture. By using the “Post-Christendom” narrative my hope is to help people to see the things around us as an opportunity to greater faithfulness and action- rooted not in the political/partisan show around us, but in the work of the church itself.

      As I work in the Church of the Brethren I am realizing more and more that the simply telling the narrative is new enough to our members. Setting aside the structure and emergence of post-christendom too quickly puts aside the opportunity we as Anabaptists have in the current cultural landscape of North America.

      Thanks again for pushing back. I am not sure I have found fault with your typology as such, but tried to fill in the intention of what I wrote originally.

      Josh

  4. I’m coming to this conversation late. I like Isaac’s article and comments. On the other, more progressive side of “Christendom,” that is, the influence of Liberal Protestantism in American society, see the current piece in the Christian Century (July 2, online or in print copy) titled “Culture Changers.” David Hollinger, in his presidential address for the Organization of American Historians, notes the great contributions of ecumenical Christianity to the 1960s and post-60s cultural transformations: feminism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, sexuality, etc. Although mainline Christianity is in numerical decline, Hollinger argues that it achieved “a cultural victory even in the midst of its own organizational defeat” as jumpy folks in the pulpits and pews made too many accommodations to conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. Hollinger is at Berkeley and has Anabaptist roots and I think he makes an important contribution to this conversation. In a Free Church or disestablished church society like the US there are interesting varieties of the Christendom paradigm. For Hollinger, the achievements of liberal, ecumenical Christianity/Christendom have largely been secularized, and perhaps happily so.

    • Joshua Brockway

      True Scott, and I will have to go check out the Hollinger article. With all the Brethren reunions this month and too many miles to note, I am a bit behind myself!

      I am sure you have seen all the dust ups between Butler Bass and Douthat regarding liberal Christianity. I hate to say this, but the optimism of Liberal theology is a bit lost on me. Yes, I can agree that 40 years ago ecumenical and more liberal Christianity made a significant impact on the American culture. But two things stand out to me. 1) local congregations drifted further and further from these national bodies through the years. So true, they made changed policy, but they also lost sight of the need to transform the local communities which supported them by “duty”. Now we have national organizations that blow hard, while their constituencies shout that “the emperor clergy have no clothes.” 2) We live in the midst of dramatic religious, political, and domestic violence. Just as the liberalism of Schleiermacher died in the ovens of the Holocaust, the 60s liberal really needs to face the reality that even amidst “cultural changes” very little has really changed. Humanity is the most destructive force in the world, and has the capacity for dramatic horror.

      Regarding your comments about varieties of Christendom, I agree. In fact, I think the ‘Christian Culture’ of conservatism and the ‘advocacy’ platform of liberal mainliners stand on the same precarious limb of Christendom. Yet, each has their own emphasis within that Enlightenment matrix of democratic expectations. For me, I think that project is reaching its own conclusion, and the Christendom impulse that resides within it will eventually fade. And as I have said, either here or elsewhere, I think what we see in the US is people clawing at the inevitable, Christendom in its death rattle.

  5. Pingback: Prodigal Christianity: The God Who Kneels | Collationes

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