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.