How American Christendom Weakens American Christianity

An age of scandals reveals how institutions of the faith can fundamentally oppose the faith.

Five Foot 10 inch Jerry Falwell Jr. Towers over Trump (in lifts) at his towering 5 foot eight inches...because it matters so much to Trump

David French

I’m going to share a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot—especially in the years since the rise of Trump and the months since I’ve been diving deep into the sex abuse scandals that have corrupted powerful and important American Christian institutions.

The question is simply this: Is American Christendom increasingly incompatible with American Christianity?

The root of the question comes from Soren Kierkegaard’s Attack on Christendom, a series of searing essays aimed directly at the established Danish church, a church that was deeply entangled with the Danish state. In Kierkegaard’s formulation, “Christendom” refers both to the legal institutions of the church and to the culture those institutions create.

Think of the distinctions roughly like this—Christianity is the faith, Christians are believers in the faith, and Christendom is the collective culture and institutions (universities, ministries) of the faith.

As Whitman College professor Matt McManus explains, Kierkegaard believed Christendom is dangerous to Christianity:

For Kierkegaard, the middling and enforced homogeneity of Christendom was the greatest danger facing genuine Christianity. In many ways, it was far better to see Christendom shrunk down to a few genuine believers than to see it ballooned and enforced into a parody of itself. It was designed, in his famous phrase, to “make the way [to Christianity] easier” when, in fact, the genuinely faithful must always make the way harder.

As I’ve written before, America doesn’t have a state-established church, but it certainly possesses a version of the Christendom Kierkegaard despised. America possesses immensely powerful, immensely wealthy Christian institutions that may not be part of the state but in many places are strong enough to exercise power over the state.

And they certainly create their own culture, a culture that shapes the daily lives of millions of Americans.

Kierkegaard, however, would look to those institutions and see not the triumph of Christianity, but rather the risk of its what he called Christianity’s “abolition.” Here’s how.

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  1. The long-term effect of making Christianity the state religion in Denmark was a mostly agnostic population and churches that mostly serve as architectural tourist attractions.

  2. To “make the way [to Christianity] easier” is the language of Corporate Consumerism where Big Data is a mass Commercial Enterprise for Big Business in a Technocratic State, the world of the fundamentalist preacher who is more like a motivational trainer, preaching the neoliberal ideology of self-optimization.

    “The human soul owes its defining tautness and depth precisely to negativity:
    That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength … its inventiveness and courage in enduring, persevering, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness – was it not granted through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”
    Quote from the book Psychopolitics- author Byung- Chul Han.

    “If virtual worlds are controlled by corporations, as they seem to be right now, will that lead to potentially dystopian realities where the corporations are controlling everything in our environments? I think there are obvious reasons to worry about that,” so says philosopher David J. Chalmers.

    Big Business has outsourced Big Brother to the subject itself, the self- monitored Commodity of a Digital Class System.

  3. All creatures (humans are no different) acknowledge a connection between the visible and the invisible. A force behind life that is not tangible but imbedded in the spirit.
    Religion usurps this intuitive natural connection and stands as a middleman to take 10% plus whatever the widow has left at the end. It was a horrible idea born of military conquest, and will dissipate on its own, but should have been gone a couple hundred years ago.
    The product of dispersion is obvious and embarrassing.

  4. “””Christendom …….was designed….. to “make the way [to Christianity] easier” when, in fact, the genuinely faithful must always make the way harder.”””

    Matthew 11: 28-30
    28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

    29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

    30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

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