There is no doubt that Christians have become a force to be reckoned with in American politics. But are we fighting a loosing battle?
For about the last 50 years of American politics Christians have been asserting and inserting themselves into the political landscape in a way that has been truly amazing to watch. One can find a long list of ways in which Christians have asserted their voice into politics. The rise of the Moral Majority. Countless efforts and campaigns to end abortion. Jerry Falwell starting Liberty University to create a generation of conservative lawyers. The campaign to re-brand the founding fathers as Evangelical Christians and thus to declare that the U.S. was and is an explicitly Christian nation. More recently the sweeping campaigns to outlaw gay marriage. And of course, the campaigns to keep Christian prayer in public schools.
The past 50 years have seen Christians, particularly conservative ones, make serious and sustained efforts to find positions of political power and to assert a particular understanding of Christian belief through legislation, court appointments and changes to state and federal constitutions. My point here is not to pick on conservatives, because liberals most certainly use the same tactics. My point is this: Christians have taken to using political power to influence society in a way that is almost unprecedented in U.S. history. The question is “why”?
While many see these efforts as the growing dominance of Christians in our society, I see these as evidence that the grip over society that Christianity has enjoyed for a very long time is slipping away, and fast.
When the church first started, it was a minority, persecuted group of people. People did not assume that everyone was a Christian. Between the years of 300 and 400 ce. being Christian became not only legal, but mandatory for citizenship. This started a relationship between the state and the church throughout Europe where the basic assumption was that everyone else was already a Christian. The church asserted a control that touched every aspect of life. This overarching influence of society is known as Christendom. Even though the church splintered in the 1500’s, Christendom has been alive and well.. The default assumption in the last 500 years has been that everyone else is still Christian, and that Christianity is the dominant cultural force that controls virtually all aspects of life.
But things are changing. You can no longer assume that everyone in the U.S. is a Christian. The power and control over society by Christianity that was once assumed can no longer be counted on. Simply put, we’re not in charge anymore.
There are many denominations and groups of Christians who have benefitted from Christendom. They have enjoyed positions of power, influence, and notoriety. For these groups, the end of Christendom is a threat to everything that they hold dear, nay their very existence. To stave off what they see as imminent death, they have tried to maintain their control in the only way that they can see. Faced with a rapidly declining control over society, they have tried to mandate their control over the world through politics while they still have the slim majorities to do so. The increase in Christian involvement in politics, then, is not evidence of a growing majority, but rather is the last gasps of Christendom.
Christendom is coming to an end and there is nothing we can do to stop it. To some, this is terrifying. To me, and many others, it brings the hope for a renewed and refined church. I know that Jesus called us to be salt and light, substances that have a substantial impact in small quantities. As Christendom falls the task is not to attempt to re-assert a dominance that we once had, but rather to reclaim the vision of Jesus. We must figure out how to, once again, be salt and light in the world.
So what does this shift mean for Mennonites? The second half of these thoughts can be seen at the Mennonite Weekly Review blog, or they will be posted here shortly.