Does Christianity Unify?

From George Washington to the National Council of Churches (and their evangelical counterpart, the National Association of Evangelicals), white English-speaking Protestants in the U.S. have insisted that religion of the right and moral sort will unify the nation. It doesn’t take very long in chronicling the history of Christianity to understand the difficulties of this pious (and sentimental hope). When our Lord said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26), he was not exactly recommending Rotary Club or the Chamber of Commerce to his disciples. Even if you take those words as hyperbolic, sort of like gouging out eyes and handling snakes, most believers have enough experience of converts to Christianity who lost ties and associations with family members over the faith.

Why then would Peter Leithart continue to laud unity as a mission of the church, even in the face of life in real congregations where church members are hardly unified except on matters like those affirmed by Paul — “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5)? One answer for Leithart’s continuing belief in the unifying mission of the church is his man crush on Constantine and most subsequent Christian emperors. In a series of recent posts, Leithart promotes a church-based social unity.

First, he frets that America is becoming increasingly fragmented and that such disunity owes to the demise of Christian civilization:

America is abandoning the last remnants of our historic Christian foundations. This is most obvious in law, where specifically Christian claims are ruled unConstitutional precisely because they are Christian claims. It’s evident in the universities and among intellectual elites, who cannot make sense of a theological argument that claims to be a public argument. Theology is by definition private opinion, dangerous and tyrannical when it demands public assent.

What replaces our historic Christian consensus is a patchwork of disconnected communities. The thin public “theology” of liberalism doesn’t meet human needs. No one tribe can command universal assent, and so we retreat to our tribal affinities, to our small communities where consensus is still possible. Secularization is in a symbiotic relationship with by postmodern fragmentation.

The problem with this view, at least from a paleo-conservative perspective, is that America has never been more centralized, the national government has never consolidated more of social life and that the laudable small communities and worthwhile regional diversity of the early republic that Barry Shain documented are casualties of national economies and foreign wars.

Back to Leithart — despite the current fragmentation of church and society, we should not be discouraged. Maybe Constantine can happen again:

The Constantinian settlement is gone in much of Europe, waning elsewhere. Many of these disruptions have persisted to the present day, but each new disruption has produced tectonic shifts in the church.

Why would we think, then, that the current topography of Christianity is permanent? We have no reason to assume this. We have every reason to assume the opposite, to expect that sometime, somewhere, God will shake and reconfigure the church yet again.

And if the church recognizes that it has the solution to the woes of contemporary society, perhaps Christendom will yet return if the church recognizes unity as its mission:

There is no traditional religious replacement for the loss of this establishment, and what effectively replaces it is a consensus about the freedom of the individual to do whatever he wants. The normal resources that establish identity – family, work, community – cannot serve that purpose. Divorce rates are high, and families are broken; work is insecure; mobility and double-income households have damaged neighborhoods as sources of community. Se are told to construct our own identity but denied the resources where people have historically discovered their identity.

The church has an enormous challenge and opportunity in this setting. Alienation from God is at the root of these social ills, and the church is the steward of the mysteries of the gospel. But the churches’ proclamation of the gospel is to take not only verbal, but communal, social form as the church. As in the early centuries, the churches can provide communities of intimacy, friendship, and material support for lonely people; churches have the resources to give lost moderns a sense of identity with a community, a tradition; churches can provide support for failing families, and a network of brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers for those who come from broken families.

Aside from the sort of objections that come from Letter-to-Diognetus conceptions of Christianity not as culture but as cult, Leithart misses arguably the greatest weakness of his proposal and it comes from a post that appeared just before this series on church and unity. From his reading of Scott Manetsch’s recent book on the Geneva company of pastors, Leithart observed what happens to the ministry of the church when it becomes part of an effort to unify and regularize society — even a Christendom inspired one:

Confessionalization “modernized churches and transformed the clerical office in a number of important ways. Church life became more carefully regulated, supervised, and documented through the codification of confessions, catechisms, and church ordinances; the establishment of eccclesiastical bureaucracies; and the creation of disciplinary courts. . . . Likewise, the clerical office was increasingly professionalized with the establishment of formal educational requirements and more detailed guidelines for examination and ordination. In this process of modernization . . . clergymen emerged as quasi-agents of the state, serving as a crucial link for communication between political leaders and their subjects; supervising public discipline; and providing administrative resources for the state (such as maintaining baptismal, marriage, and death registers).” In Geneva in particular, “the Small Council’s campaign to gain control over clerical recruitment and election was indicative of a broader strategy to bring the city[s pastors in line with the political objectives of the governing authorities. The ministers were gradually transformed into quasi-agents of the state who were not only paid out of the state coffers but were also hired, supervised, and dismissed with significant involvement of the magistrates” (96).

Why in heaven or within Christendom would Leithart expect the church’s mission of unity to turn out otherwise than either the liberal Protestantism of Europe, the liberal Protestantism of the mainline U.S. denominations, or the social gospel/teaching of Pope Francis and his papal predecessors? Does Leithart really think that when Pastor Smith goes to Washington he won’t be forced by political compromise and the demands of social unity to trim and cut his “thus, sayeth the Lord” to some version of the Great Society?

Update: then there is the view that (culture) war unites more than Christ:

But they’re the old insults. That’s the important thing. They’re getting worn out, frayed around the edges, long in the tooth. They’re losing their power as Evangelicals and Catholics grow in friendship and the world itself pushes them closer together. The two boys yelling at each other are two brothers. At some point, probably when someone else attacks one of them or both of them, they’ll stop yelling and start acting like brothers.


46 thoughts on “Does Christianity Unify?

  1. Peter sure writes a lot on the interweb. Maybe that goes hand-in-hand with being “off the reservation”..i don’t know..

    Good post, Darryl. Thanks.


  2. Jason Stellman prosecuting this guy must have been interesting. Good thing in the OPC all our deliberations are out in the open.

    The OPC – the only church for me!



  3. Imma just throw a bunch of stuff out there at once:

    Famous last words: “This time it will be different, I promise”. A very self-centered statement because the person saying it assumes that the critical difference from last time is them.

    I always thought something that was very powerful about Christianity is it’s ability to look at this world and affirm that it is corrupt and heartbreaking without making excuses for it, or expecting it to get better before the new heavens & new earth. One of the things that Genesis & Ecclesiastes tells us is “Yes, it is as bad as you think. Which is why you–and the world–needs a savior.” This whole “church is the engine for the great society” motif seems to do an end around Christ and his mission to come back and set things right. It’s almost like somebody wants the church to take the place of Christ. Isn’t part of the peace of the gospel that Christ sustains us in the barren wilderness, not that he removes us from it? Not only has this stuff been tried and failed over and over again, it sets everyone up for failure because we begin to expect things God hasn’t promised. Danger.

    As a side thought, wouldn’t it be fair to say that Rome has always been confessional too? The source of the confession differs, but not the expectation that the adherents tow a defined, external line. Couldn’t that second paragraph work if you took out Confessionalism and stuck in Roman Catholicism? I’m honestly curious about that.

    Wait, if that’s true, is Leithart’s framework more Roman than Protestant? Now I’m really confused…


  4. David D., I think Rome is finally sacramental more than confessional. But that’s less important here for Christendom and cultural unity than the papacy’s long history with temporal politics, both as arbiter of European aristocracy and as temporal ruler. I am inclined to think that Constantine was Rome’s model.


  5. I think it was Machen who emphasized the point that if Christianity is fashioned to serve some other cause, it is no longer Christianity. At the same time, we need to recognize that Christianity does speak to today’s social ills and sins as much as it speaks to personal ills and sins. It is just that Christianity was never meant to build a unified nation. And those Christians who think otherwise have a patriotism that just might be pushing them into polytheism.

    As for Leithart, he is, IMO, a part of a evangelical conservative-catholic consortium that seeks to reestablish Christianity’s former privileged status in America.


  6. Current influences and trends maybe immoral but I don’t think they’re amoral and so the former have stores of energy.

    In his writing on ethics and morality, Robert Musil distinguishes between them by noting that a real ethical experience (love, examination of conscience, humility) is so personal and so difficult to instruct on that it’s mostly and necessarily anti-social. IOW it’s not being faked or attached to zeitgeist, political or religious.

    And the anti-social nature of it protects the ethic learned and gained from politicization or prostitution of it. Taken then into life, it can be lived instead of harped on or preached.

    The degree to which a person can be brought to understand this (the opportunity arises in crisis, humiliation, defeat, etc) is the degree to which a person moves from reasons to live to wanting to live, given even a vale of tears. It also can inoculate against seizing an enemy of your enemy and declaring him to be your friend. The kind of de-escalation fruitful for self and neighbor.


  7. What replaces our historic Christian consensus is a patchwork of disconnected communities.

    “Historic Christian consensus”? Those beards must be pretty powerful.


  8. I attended at talk at my school (IU Law — Bloomington) in which a religion prof argued for non-sectarian prayers before city council meetings and the like on the premise that religion itself unifies people.

    Over against that professor’s idea of unity (generic civil religion) and Leithart’s idea of unity (Christendom), there is the idea of confessionalism.

    Confessionalism works both ways b/c it fosters both unity and disunity. Confessionalism promotes disunity because it affirms some things as true and other things as false — that is, it makes public truth claims.

    Confessionalism promotes unity for the exact same reason — confessional churches and denominations can recognize other confessional churches and denominations as holding to the same truths.

    Unity must always be based upon truth — to unite with error is to affirm error and deny the truth.

    Of course, there are other ways of relating besides union and there are various degrees of cooperation that can occur in various settings.

    I have no problem working with and atheist or praying with a Baptist, but I don’t want either in the pulpit of my church.

    We confess one, holy, and apostolic (ie biblical) church — but it is wrong to sacrifice holiness or apostolicity on the alter of unity. In fact, by confessing that the church is holy and apostolic, we are also confessing disunity — because we cannot be united to an unholy or unbiblical “church.”


  9. don’t ‘we’ have to admit there would be at least more serious consideration for what the Lord is saying and wants if it weren’t ‘all about me’… agreeing on its reality Eph 4: 4-5,1 Peter 2:9, 1 Cor 12:4-6,12;
    and purpose Romans 15:6;1 Peter 2:9b. Christ is not divided.


  10. “… We confess one, holy, and apostolic (ie biblical) church — but it is wrong to sacrifice holiness or apostolicity on the alter of unity. In fact, by confessing that the church is holy and apostolic, we are also confessing disunity — because we cannot be united to an unholy or unbiblical “church” …”

    Thanks for that (too). I’ve always felt that this is the broken arm of contemporary ecumenical American evangelicalism.


  11. From George Washington to the National Council of Churches (and their evangelical counterpart, the National Association of Evangelicals), white English-speaking Protestants in the U.S. have insisted that religion of the right and moral sort will unify the nation

    They were right.

    Washington said

    Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.

    You’re the one mixing your religion and politics, by separating them with this 2 Kingdoms BS. A politics without natural law is 51 vs 49, the war of all against all.
    Opinion trumps principles. Tribe trumps truth.

    You’re putatively a historian. Your little tribe here survives mostly on dogging the Catholic Church and that boring justification thing.


    My erudite evangelical friend who is converting to Catholicism wrote:

    I made the mistake of reading some more comments at that horrid blog. Seriously? What gives with those guys? It’s so creepy how they talk, especially to you, even the blog owner. How did you find that place? Do you know them?

    I replied that I only stopped by Old Life ithe first place to try to learn something about Theodore Beza re my study of Calvinism in the Revolution. I never got a straight answer but was fascinated/appalled with what I did find.

    I have learned a lot at Old Life, more than I ever expected in my study of “Calvinism,” as a history.

    Me, I’ve always been ecumenical toward anyone who loves God and loves his neighbor as well as he loves himself.

    Perhaps y’all love God but you treat each other like shit, not to mention the rest of us non-Elect.


  12. Me, I’ve always been ecumenical toward anyone who loves God and loves his neighbor as well as he loves himself.

    Perhaps y’all love God but you treat each other like shit, not to mention the rest of us non-Elect.

    C’mon Tom. I would put more stock in your assertion here had I not seen how you interacted at other blogs outside this one. You like to mix it up as much as anyone at OldLife, or anywhere else for that matter. I am not dogging your comments (a few Patheos sites, e.g. Throckmorton’s), because I typically enjoyed them – even if I thought you were wrong. But, you have too much of a nose for controversy for me to think that you are too worried about how you are treated here – which is to say you give as much as you take.


  13. Tom has a point regarding how some people are treated here. And how people are treated isn’t some 2K problem with how it separates religion and politics, it is due to how some separate doctrine from life and how to regard and treat others.


  14. Sorry, recent controversies and bumps in the road notwithstanding, there’s no need to be piety juked by outliers and freaks. If you think justification is boring, church attendance is optional, and/or either left- or right-wing politics should be mixed up with religion you’ll get no quarter here. The church is the thing ’cause that’s where the gospel is heard and that’s where salvation is ordinarily “found” — stop messing it up with your ideologies and great ideas.


  15. If it matters, the divisions in the Church cause those outside of it to think of God as our god of the provinces; making the Church the repository, not of the answer to Pilate’s question, but the question itself.

    Maybe the Reformed doctrine of double predestination makes what I just wrote stupid.

    If not, DGH, don’t you have to make up your mind as to whether it matters “if they think the same thing about us” or not? And once you make up your mind doesn’t that require you to leave the heretics to their heresies?

    I don’t think you take your existence from all things that Rome isn’t but it sure seems that way sometimes. And if you think that, in the name of God, you have to defend the Work of Christ against the high visibility and error(s) of Rome that makes sense but you have no one with the stature to address the world and address all of that. What does it profit you to make RCism the smoking hot dish you love to hate and can’t stay away from?

    Rome will always be bigger than you. Your advantage is that you answer all the questions flowing out of my devious heart with Christ is the answer. That’s no small advantage.

    But at some point Machen’s advice about participating (not self-consciously or loudly) in every field and discipline of culture and world is the only advice that can possibly be heeded right now. Competence is what makes a person believable and what makes people pay attention to her (all about her!).

    I disagree w/Erik’s thoughts on people wanting to persecute holiness. That can be the case when a movement is expanding but a lot less likely when it’s contracting. Marginalization resulting from disrepute is more likely to be the present outcome.

    All that Christians have to commend themselves now is competence. The Church can refuse to marry homosexuals and retain the respect of those brow-beaten into accepting the enterprise as justice; most people don’t hold race and sexual practices as equal playing fields.

    But respect isn’t coming the Church’s way absent holiness. Which is revealed by internal discipline and the way you treat others. The damage, because of her visibility, that Rome has inflicted on Church at large wrt the pederasty scandal is inestimable.

    Where can Leithart or any similar disciple enter the stage here? Is God The Physician or is He a Trickster screwing with the unbeliever? Or the Lord of sanctified, protected bishops who can disregard the well being of their sheep in so loathsome a way?

    The Fearsome Pirate said once that theologians are at a terrible disadvantage because they can’t get work elsewhere making the answer to the competence question become “get a job.”


  16. MLD, my beef is much more with Rome’s apologists than with Rome itself. I’m not all that worried about the bishops or pope. I don’t see that much substance there. It’s the apologists who somehow invest the current magisterium with all the stature of the previous bishops that bothers me. Not only are they in denial about the gap between the current Vatican and its predecessors (think pussy cat vs. lion), but they also overlook all the bad stuff that comes with 1500 more years of history. I mean, if it was one be truth fest of doctrine and liturgy, the pre-Reformation church might look attractive — -sort of like Cranmer’s Church of England. But you can’t look at papal supremacy too carefully without finally encountering Richard Nixon. No thank YOU.


  17. D.G.,
    Either it is Machen with Marx or Paul as he talks about bearing the fruit of the Spirit while not compromising doctrine despite the presence of the Judaizers.

    Didn’t you know that when it comes to conclusions, it’s better to look before you leap.


  18. Cw il Unificatorio, you sound upset and determined.

    Is it ’cause ‘unificatorio’ as the mission of the church is no longer possible?

    Just askin’.


  19. And I’m not saying Curt finds justification boring, but if you feel the need to sex up your Xianity with a little Marx, Zinn, Occupy Movement, and social justice warriorism…I wonder if you’ve got it right. But no one’s perfect and I’d say Curt is a good dude.


  20. Touché!

    I just argued with someone about using an argument from Doug Wilson on a matter unrelated to the doctrine of justification in a fairly Confessional setting… I told him I won’t bother engaging him ’cause he is using arguments from a man who has erred on the doctrine of justification.

    Apparently that was extremely rude on my part…

    I just thought it was unthinking of him to belittle the doctrine of justification by bringing up a character like that, willy-nilly, and not see a problem with it.


  21. D.G.,
    Paul or the Judaizers. When Paul confronted the circumcision party, he not only condemned a different gospel, he spoke of the results of following the right one. The walking in the Spirit or being in the Spirit belongs to the hearing with faith. And the walking in the Spirit (Gal 5) produces fruit. Isn’t that a biblical call for harmonizing doctrine with life?

    So while you think I am referring to Marx, I am really referring to Paul.


  22. DGH, fair enough.

    Though I think you’re undervaluing President Nixon.

    We would have had health care for everyone if Ted Kennedy hadn’t made victory impossible.

    Nixon thought it disgraceful that a man could lose his home if one of his children became seriously ill. And he wasn’t an ideologue; he would have appointed competent men to put universal health care in place.

    He ended conscription.

    He received 39% of the African-American vote.

    And last but not least, as he was getting ready to board the plane taking him back to San Clemente he tried to distance his parents from his crimes. By all accounts they were God fearing Quakers.

    P.S. The apologists may annoy you but they’re of as little consequence as the bishops and popes your rightly see as holding “nothing there.”

    When the topic of conversation can be about the advantages of masturbation over adultery you know you’re probably not dealing with anything close to perseverance or flourishing.

    Dreher ain’t likely to feature that in his Walker Percy weekend fest. Just sayin’

    Lastly, Van Dyke, maybe more than a year ago bragged about the defeat of Old Lifers to the CtCers as it relates to debating points. The truth, IIRC, according to him was not an issue.

    Yeah, sure. A whole host of horrified, scandalized, pearl-clutching converts can’t make a silk purse of that sow’s ear.

    Paradigm = safe perimeter.


  23. I suspect that the Culture War is over. In most northern states, opposition to the civil legitimacy of civil same-sex marriage (CSSM) is already a professional liability. In 2004, one of my colleagues in Ohio was given a one-week vacation without pay as discipline for having voiced his opposition to CSSM at work. If that were to happen today, the employee would surely be fired for cause.

    That’s probably not true yet in many parts of the South. But that will change. And when it does, many in the PCA and SBC will opt for socially moderate, evangelical flavored mega-churches. In other words, Tim Keller is not the future of evangelicalism; Andy Stanley is.

    The credibility of the RCC to speak on matters of sexuality ended with the priest abuse scandal. If evangelical social conservatives feel a kinship with conservative catholics, it’s that they are both members of institutional structures that sit on the verge of collapse.


  24. D.G.,
    I simply don’t know where you get that idea. First, it is Paul who does that. Second, though I agree with Marx’s analysis of Capitalism, his solution is structurally deficient. His solution doesn’t change the game, it simply switches the first and last place teams. The result is that he is among many who teach revolutionaries to externalize evil. You can’t do that and be consistent with the Scriptures.


  25. D.G.,
    Again, his analysis is good, his solution is nicht sehr gut. But regarding what my fellow leftists think, there are a variety people on the left. Those who follow the example of the pharisee from the parable of the two men praying are not going to listen to me because they are not going to listen to anyone except trusted authority figures.

    As for the opium of the masses remark, both Marx and Lenin made those statements with Lenin’s statement being more explanatory. And before rejecting what they say, one has to ask if they were basing their statements on their observations of behaviors by Christians or on their views of doctrines. For if it’s the former reason, we would be foolish to ignore what was said.


  26. Thanks for using einege Deutsch in your language Curt… you’re now reminding me of my Hausaufgaben that I’ve been procrastinating… so very nice of you.


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