Christendom Exceptionalism

Not sure what Peter Leithart is working on, but recent posts on medieval and early modern Europe have shed new light on the claims that exalt Christendom and blame Protestantism for ushering in a disordered, licentious modernity.

Just how united was Christendom, you ask? Not much:

In a 1971 essay, H.G. Koenigsberger challenged the notion that the Reformation broke up a unified Europe. He criticizes historians and social scientists for assuming a norm of unity: “We have assumed that the theological and ecclesiastical unity of Catholic Christendom was its natural condition and that, in consequence, the Reformation was a dramatic break in this condition which ran counter to all previous Christian experience and which, in a sense, destroyed the natural order of things.”

Much of the essay presents an analysis of the kind of unity that existed in pre-Reformation Europe. Koenigsberger poses the question this way: “For the thousand years of the Middle Ages, Christendom and its institutions remained obstinately divided, and Christians remained distressingly prone to engage in deadly wars with each other. Why was it that only the Church survived as a unified institution?”

His first answer is sardonic: “it did not do so. Throughout the Middle Ages there existed Christian churches in Africa and Asia which were never in communion with Rome at all.”

The more elaborate answer answer is that “medieval unity, insofar as it existed, was a function of an economically poor society. The small surpluses of production of any given area would not be wanted in the adjoining area, which was probably producing the same commodities, but rather in much more distant areas. Medieval trade was, therefore, small in volume but covered large distances.”

Craft skills were specialized and scarce, and thus craftsmen had to be mobile: “Bell founding was a highly skilled and specialized craft. After a master founder had cast the three or four, or even six or eight, bells for the church of a small town, he would have to move on, for there would be no further work for him in this town nor, very likely, in the neighbouring towns. It was the same with all other skills, from the cathedral builder to the learned scholar, from the forger of fine weapons . . . . Different areas of Europe might advance in certain skills, as Flanders did in the weaving of fine cloth; but no single area of Europe could support all of the skills which European society required. Only the whole of Europe could do this.”

Cultural unity thus depended on a “thin crust of men highly skilled in the production of sophisticated commodities or in the performance of complex services. This upper crust was international in education, attitudes, and often, physical mobility; for this was the only way it could function.” Cultural unity depended on a low rate of entry into this upper crust. European unity was a unity of the “1%.”

Sounds like modern America. Substitute media elites, policy wonks, federal government workers, Ivy League professors, and Hollywood types for “thin crust of men highly skilled in the production of sophisticated commodities or in the performance of complex services” and you an American exceptionalist unity that rivals Christendom’s.

That means, the Reformation was not a break with the past but a fulfillment of medieval Europe:

Signs of centrifugal forces are evident throughout the centuries leading up to the Reformation – reforming movements within the church, sometimes breaking free into independent movements; rival papacies, with kings taking sides, anticipating the anti-papalism of their sixteenth-century Protestant counterparts. The conciliar movement tried to arrest this process but “the defeat of this movement, and the subsequent concentration of papal energies on Italian power politics made it virtually impossible for the Church to adapt itself to the changing conditions of European Society.”

Koenigsberger acknowledges that the Reformation broke the camel’s back, but sees it as the culmination of several centuries of mounting instability. He identifies two factors that made the sixteenth century decisive in this process: “the increasing political tension between the monarchies and the papacy over the question of the control of the institution of the Church and its personnel in the different countries of Europe; and the spread of the printing presses, which made the Bible available to the Christian laity and thus undermined the claim of the Church to act as the indispensable intermediary between God and man.”

Now if we reboot those arguments about the Reformation as the forerunner of 1776, we have lines of continuity between Roman Catholicism and Americanism.

The Whig historians will set us free!

Christendom or America

Mark Noll made me aware of Hugh McLeod’s definition of Christendom:

a society where there are close ties between leaders of the church and secular elites

the laws purport to be based on Christian principles

apart from some clearly defined outsider communities, everyone is assumed to be a Christian

Christianity provides a common language, shared alike by the devout and the religiously lukewarm

A 2ker has to wonder where any reader of the New Testament supposes this is the blueprint for society. The Roman Empire was pagan. The apostles knew that and sought to make the gospel known to those whom God foreknew as his people. They also expected seemingly a quick return by their ascended Lord.

If you want that kind of society from the pages of Scripture, you go to the Old Testament. Say hello to theonomy. But Christ and the apostles failed to measure up to Christendom on all these grounds:

They had bad relations with pagan elites. That’s why they were executed — hello.

They had no instruction about laws being based on the gospel (or even “Christian principles”).

Shouldn’t have to be said, but they did not — get this — assume everyone was a Christian. Nero? Hello.

They had a firm sense of the antithesis. The difference between believers and the world pervades the New Testament.

One could reasonably conclude that Christendom is not Christian.

That makes secular America Christian. Christians have bad relations with secular elites. 2kers at least don’t expect laws to be based on Christian principles (whatever that is). No Christian (not sure about some progressive Roman Catholics) assumes every American is Christian (mainline Protestants are equally progressive but they draw the Christian line to keep Trump voters out of the kingdom). And most serious Christians in the United States go through life recognizing a gap between Christian and American cultural norms — shops are open on Sunday.

In other words, 2kers live more in line with the teaching and experience of Christ and the apostles. Christendom-inspired critics of 2k use as their norm Christian developments after Constantine, not those after Christ. Indeed, the novos ordo seclorum of 1789 was a return to the kind of society Christ and the apostles lived and breathed in. They did not know Constantinianism or Christendom which America rejected.

That also means critics of 2k are anti-American. For shame!!!

But there’s hope for Christendom. Even as Norway secularizes it still has a national church:

On Jan. 1, the Scandinavian country cut some ties with its Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Norway, rewording the national constitution to change the denomination from “the state’s public religion” to “Norway’s national church.”

The change means the nation of just over 5 million people – about 82 percent of them Evangelical-Lutherans – will still fund the church but will no longer appoint its clergy, who will still be considered civil servants. . . .

Secularism has been on the rise in Western Europe since the 1960s, with church attendance declining and strict laws on public displays of religion in nations such as France. But the past decade has seen the rise of anti-secular groups and politicians in England, Germany and France.

Meanwhile, some Norwegians feel the divorce is not sharp enough. Kristin Mile, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Humanist Association, told The Local No, an English-language Norwegian news site, that the change only muddies the relationship between church and state.

“As long as the constitution says that the Church of Norway is Norway’s national church, and that it should be supported by the state, we still have a state church,” she said.

Is that what piners for Christendom want?

When Did Christianity Become Imperial?

Pierre Manent begs more than he explains:

What to do about our diminished collective capacity is the great political question of Europe. Whether in relation to European unification or to Islam, it is clear that we have nothing pertinent to say if we refrain from making claims about European identity. One way to outline essential characteristics of European political and spiritual life is to contrast them with certain fundamental features of Muslim life.

Running the risk of a somewhat rough stylization, we might say something like the following: Islam throughout its history has largely preserved the form, the impulse, and the consciousness of empire (traits that are found with renewed vigor today), while Western Christianity, though born in an imperial form, and very much subject to great missionary and conquering movements, found its relative stability in a very different arrangement. Islam was never able to abandon the imperial form that ­Christianity could never assume in a lasting way. Christianity instead found its form in the nation, or in the plurality of nations once called “Christendom,” then “Europe.”

Anyone who reads the first pope Peter, finds little sense of Christian empire:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:9-11 ESV)

The early church thought of itself more in exile than as part of the establishment. Then came Constantine. Then came empire. Then came establishment. Only with the novos ordo seclorum did Europeans begin to question the fit between Christianity and empire.

Those Were Really the Days

Christendom, Schristendom:

I recently described the tumultuous years 1675-1685, and how they shaped the future of Europe and North America. Here, I want to explore the implications for the politics of religion in this era, and for some of the stereotypes we might have. Everyone knows that religion played a vital role in the Early Modern era: according to customary stereotypes, Protestants fought Catholics, Catholics fought Protestants, and Christians struggled against Muslims. All those statements are correct as far as they go, but they stand in need of some nuance. (Orthodox Christians also had their conflicts, but I will leave those out here).

As they say in Hail Caesar: Would that it were so simple …. [mirthless chuckle].

To recap briefly, I described the Protestant-led Hungarian/Magyar revolt against the (Catholic) Holy Roman Empire in the late 1670s. That in turn led to the Muslim Ottomans intervening on the side of the Hungarian rebels. The resulting war led to the siege of Vienna in 1683, and the ensuing battle, which really marked the end of Islamic expansion into Europe. Most historians would agree that this really marked a turning point in European (and world) history.

Looking at the battle of Vienna, several thoughts come to mind. For one thing, it is odd to realize just how late that happened, and how in fact it coincides so closely with an event like the settlement of Pennsylvania or (almost) the Salem witch trials – or indeed, the height of the Royal Society in London. It’s also sobering to think through the “might have been” of an Ottoman victory in that war, which might theoretically have extended Islamic power deep into southern Germany, and who knows how much further? If that had occurred, then the immediate cause would have been tensions and persecutions between Protestants and Catholics within the Holy Roman Empire.

Further afield, an Ottoman victory would, oddly, have been good news for France’s Most Christian King, Louis XIV (1643-1715). Both Louis and the Emperor Leopold were zealous Catholics, who (as we have seen) actively persecuted Protestants within their own realms, and both wished to uproot those Protestant minorities completely. Even so, dating back to the sixteenth century, the Catholic French had a long-standing entente cordiale with the Ottomans, on the basis that both had a common enemy in the Habsburgs. In the 1540s, the French allowed the Ottoman fleet to winter at their port of Toulon, and built mosques to make the Turkish forces feel welcome.

Recall that the Empire included what we would today call Germany and Belgium as well as Austria (and several other countries). When Louis tried to push the French border eastward to the Rhine, he was encroaching on Imperial territory. He was the Empire’s aggressive neighbor on the West, as the Ottomans were on the East. Cooperation made great sense, regardless of faith.

Hence, the revival of the alliance in the 1670s. The (Catholic) French originally supported the (Protestant) Hungarian/Magyar revolt, and later:
In 1679 and 1680, Louis XIV through his envoy Guilleragues encouraged the Ottoman Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa to intervene in the Magyar Rebellion against the Habsburg, but without success. Louis XIV communicated to the Turks that he would never fight on the side of the Austrian Emperor Leopold I, and he instead massed troops at the eastern frontier of France.

That is what gave the Ottomans the confidence to launch the assault on Vienna, although at the last minute in this campaign, Louis shifted his support to the Habsburgs. So much for any sense of Christian political unity, or indeed of Christendom as such.

A few years afterwards, Ireland witnessed the pivotal Battle of the Boyne (1690). The Protestant William III defeated the Catholic James II in a victory that established Protestant supremacy in the island for two centuries afterwards. Not surprisingly, the battle lives on as a potent myth for both sides in Irish religious divisions. William was “of Orange,” and still today, Protestant Orangemen proclaim King Billy’s triumph each year when they march on the anniversary of the Boyne, on July 12. Patriotic Irish Catholics see the Boyne as a national calamity.

Yet neither Catholics nor Protestants ever like to confront the full context of the battle. When Calvinist William triumphed in 1690, his victory was celebrated joyously by his international Catholic allies, including the Emperor Leopold, and the Pope, Alexander VIII. Austrian (Catholic) cathedrals sang a Te Deum to hymn the victory. Why? Because James II was allied to Louis XIV, and any defeat of Louis must be excellent news, not to mention long-overdue payback. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, and arguably a great Christian warrior.

Religious politics in this era were distinctly messy.

Would a Christian emperor like Constantine have prevented this? An infallible pope certainly did not.

What about a Christian lord like Jesus who sits at the Father’s right hand? In which case, Christ’s rule may have a lot less to do with Europe, America, South Africa, or Scotland and a lot more to do with NAPARC.

Those Were Also the Days

Is it bad form to compare ISIS to Europe’s religious wars after the Reformation?

This Protestant versus Catholic division – our version of Islam’s Sunni versus Shia – was replicated all over Europe. In Britain, France, the Netherlands and Germany, what started as disagreement and protest later morphed into religious persecution and then, often enough, into civil war. Only when these conflicts came to an end in the mid-1600s was this nightmare, which lasted 140 years, brought to a close.

What Syria is going through at this time is no worse than what Germany experienced in the Thirty Years War that ended in 1648. The historian Norman Davies describes the post-war scene thus: “Germany lay desolate. The population had fallen from 21 million to perhaps 13 million. Between a third and half of the people were dead. Whole cities like Magdeburg stood in ruins. Whole districts lay stripped of their inhabitants, their livestock, and their supplies. Trade had virtually ceased.”

Nor is the Syrian calamity any more disastrous than the English Civil War, which petered out in 1651. Read what the Cambridge historian, Robert Tombs, has to say about the conflict: “The Civil War was the most lethal conflict England had suffered since the Conquest. A recent estimate suggests around 86,000 killed in combat, nearly all soldiers; another 129,000, mostly civilians, succumbed to the diseases that accompanied war; and infant mortality reached the highest level ever recorded. These losses, in a population of 4-5 million, are proportionately much higher than those England suffered in the First World War.”

I should add that neither the Thirty Years War nor the English Civil War was caused solely by religious hostility. The former was part of a Continental power struggle, as well as being a contest between Catholics and Protestants. On the latter, Tombs comments that: “Religion was the clearest dividing line, but even that does not explain everything.” But then religion is not the sole generator of Middle East conflict.

Sure, as a committed (or soon to be committed) Protestant, I’d prefer not to be compared to religious terrorists. And when I think about the start of the Civil War I’d like to think (in the neo-conservative part of me) that this was oh so different from the American War for Independence. But can Western Christians really avoid noticing certain parallels between their own past and Islam?

David Robertson, never one to miss a chance to send a missive to a newspaper, thinks we can refuse the analogies by rebranding Presbyterians as — get this — “freedom fighters”:

Rather than Calvinists being the Tartan Taleban, they were the freedom fighters of their day and a key part of the founding of modern Scottish democracy. The National should be celebrating their heritage, not comparing them with the Islamist fascists of ISIS.

How pastor Robertson describes the “freedom fighters” that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, a rebellion foreign policy initiative that helped to create ISIS, is a question that may be answered the next time someone in the British newspapers traces the American revolution to Scottish Presbyterianism.

When the Skinny Lady Sings "Silent Night" You Live In A Christian Nation

Even before I watched Senator Ben Sasse’s video about the murders in San Bernadino, I had a sense that what binds Americans together is not freedom (as Sasse argues) but Christianity. How’s that? Well, take a gander at the Netflix Christmas special and watch Miley Cyrus, with her tatted-up arms and long legs, atop a white piano, sing the worst of Christmas carols — Silent Night (lame lyrics, awful, repetitive and simple melody). When you have Hollywood stars singing and listening to the line, “Christ, the savior is bor-ooorn,” you have to wonder what Muslims see when they look at the United States.

To make the case for Christian America, you don’t need to argue as some do that even secularists adhere to Christian morals:

The other half of the population dismisses conventional expressions of Christianity but actually believes more fervently than any Falwell, albeit in attenuated form. They are Christian radicals that have taken the Christian idea of loving one’s neighbor, stripped it of every attendant belief, and elevated it to an absolute principle. Theirs is a faith of nonjudgmentalism, accepting every refugee, and always blaming oneself whenever one is attacked. Call this outlook “multiculturalism” if you like, but the only culture capable of producing it is a Christian one.

Nor do you have to mock those believers who oppose commercializing Christmas as if the secular observation of a church holiday has no religious significance:

In their militant efforts, evangelicals have not only politicized the debate, but they have appropriated a “tradition” and even a word. To say “Christmas” is to state one’s faith. Now, any use of the phrase, “Happy Holidays,” calls into question the state of one’s soul. I’m reminded of Tracy Fessenden’s work here, as I think what we are seeing is “the ability of a Protestantized conception of religion to control the meanings of both the religious and the secular.” What we are seeing is a Protestantized conception of religion to control the meanings of both “Christmas” and “Holiday.”

As if scholars who study the history of religion can’t pay some heed to the millennium old conflict between Islam and the West and not notice that to outsiders the festivities that crowd the December datebook of most Americans might seem like a lot of Christian remembrance of the birth of Christ. When Muslims observe Ramadan, do scholars chalk it up to secular celebrations of a Middle-Eastern holiday? It is hard to imagine cultural Muslims producing the kind of songs that Americans have for Christmas. What might be the Islamic equivalent for Hajj that Sleigh-Ride captures for American Christians as they prepare home decorations and bake cookies?

Just hear those sleigh bells jingle-ing
Ring ting tingle-ing too
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you

Outside the snow is falling
And friends are calling “Yoo Hoo”
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you

Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap
let’s go
Let’s look at the snow
We’re riding in a wonderland of snow

Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap it’s grand
Just holding your hand
We’re gliding along with the song
Of a wintry fairy land

Our cheeks are nice and rosy
And comfy cozy are we
We’re snuggled up together like two
Birds of a feather would be

Let’s take the road before us
And sing a chorus or two
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you

There’s a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray
It’ll be the perfect ending of a perfect day
We’ll be singing the songs we love to sing without a single stop
At the fireplace while we watch the chestnuts pop
Pop! Pop! Pop!

There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy
When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie
It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives
These wonderful things are the things
We remember all through our lives

Of course, it doesn’t take an infallible bishop to know that the Christmas holidays in the United States are much less about religious devotion than they are an excuse for mirth, relaxation, and consumption. (And in an all about me moment, I am an enthusiastic supporter of mirth, relaxation, and consumption once final grades are in). But right in the middle of it all are celebrities like Miley Cyrus, or Frank Sinatra, or Elvis Presley (think all those Christmas albums) whose personal lives are far removed from communicant membership in a Christian communion, singing about the savior who saves the world from sin.

In which case, when Muslims look at the United States, they may see Christianity much more than they see freedom, or godlessness, or secularism. After all, the American soldiers who keep watch in Muslim dominated societies in the Middle East do not attend services that recite the American creed of freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, but the Christian creed of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

None of this amounts to anything like a basis for policy for either domestic security or foreign relations. But it does point to a longer history of which Americans are both ignorant and part. For over a millennium Europeans have been either explicitly fighting Islam or implicitly forcing Muslims to conform to a global order dominated by the West. After World War II, the United States was the last pro-Western nation standing to defend the West’s hegemony in an order that Europeans had been building ever since the Portuguese and Spanish began to chase Muslims in the Mediterranean Sea and on the continent of Africa. If Americans noticed their ties to this larger history, Miley Cyrus might be less comfortable singing “Silent Night” and U.s. legislators might frame the nation’s relationship to Islam and Islamism differently than they do.

Help From Across the Pond

Additional returns on Protestant efforts to transform culture:

Taken together, Stewart, Sutton, and Wacker offer important new perspectives on the means by which America was born again. America has become a holy nation, but those who are most responsible for it so often refuse to recognize it. But these books also suggest the extent to which evangelicalism itself has been born again. In the course of the past century, even as its cultural power steadily increased, the “old-time religion” has been revolutionized. Across the board, the doctrinal and political specifics that once shaped popular Protestantism have given way to what evangelical-turned-Catholic sociologist Christian Smith has described as a “moralistic therapeutic deism.” This religious style mimics the structure of evangelical theology while advancing only a few of its ethical demands.

Investigating this trend, Todd M. Brenneman’s Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (2014) analyses the rhetorical and media strategies of several best-selling evangelical ministers. Despite some differences, Brenneman argues, Max Lucado, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, and other celebrity preachers share a common exhortative style. Their pitch mixes ideas that are often atypical of the evangelical theological heritage in a mélange of unreason and sentiment. In their presentations, theology is reduced to clichés that reiterate the image of a “fatherly God desperately in love with his children…a God who is infatuated with human beings.” . . .

As the recent books discussed here suggest, the religious and political divisions that have so often beset born-again Protestants have become increasingly pronounced. In this era of “designer” religion, as believers become increasingly divided in their religious and political convictions, their moments of common purpose become ever more difficult to identify. Evangelical religion has won America at the price of its own evisceration. Contemporary evangelicals might have much more in common with those associated with “the heretical origins of the American republic” than they could ever have imagined. They tried to change the nation by re-inhabiting the zeitgeist, but the zeitgeist swallowed them in mid-transformation. For the evangelicals who made it all possible, the redemption of America has come at enormous cost.

Too bad evangelicals didn’t learn from Roman Catholics about the danger of identifying faith with place:

The West, still primitive, discovered through the Crusades the intensive culture, the accumulated wealth, the fixed civilized traditions of the Greek Empire and of the town of Constantinople. It discovered also, in a vivid new experience, the East. The mere covering of so much land, the mere seeing of so many sights by a million men expanded and broke the walls of the mind of the Dark Ages. The Mediterranean came to be covered with Christian ships, and took its place again with fertile rapidity as the great highway of exchange.

Europe awoke. All architecture is transformed, and that quite new thing, the Gothic, arises. The conception of representative assembly, monastic in origin, fruitfully transferred to civilian soil, appears in the institutions of Christendom. The vernacular languages appear, and with them the beginnings of our literature: the Tuscan, the Castilian, the Langue d’Oc, the Northern French, somewhat later the English. Even the primitive tongues that had always kept their vitality from beyond recorded time, the Celtic and the German [Footnote: I mean, in neither of the groups of tongues as we first find them recorded, for by that time each—especially the German—was full of Southern words borrowed from the Empire; but the original stocks which survived side by side with this new vocabulary. For instance, our first knowledge of Teutonic dialect is of the eighth century (the so-called Early Gothic is a fraud) but even then quite half the words or more are truly German, apparently unaffected by the Imperial laws and speech.] begin to take on new creative powers and to produce a new literature. That fundamental institution of Europe, the University, arises; first in Italy, immediately after in Paris—which last becomes the type and centre of the scheme.

The central civil governments begin to correspond to their natural limits, the English monarchy is fixed first, the French kingdom is coalescing, the Spanish regions will soon combine. The Middle Ages are born.

The flower of that capital experiment in the history of our race was the thirteenth century. Edward I. of England, St. Louis of France, Pope Innocent III., were the types of its governing manhood. Everywhere Europe was renewed; there were new white walls around the cities, new white Gothic churches in the towns, new castles on the hills, law codified, the classics rediscovered, the questions of philosophy sprung to activity and producing in their first vigor, as it were, the summit of expository power in St. Thomas, surely the strongest, the most virile, intellect which our European blood has given to the world.

Two notes mark the time for anyone who is acquainted with its building, its letters, and its wars: a note of youth, and a note of content. Europe was imagined to be at last achieved, and that ineradicable dream of a permanent and satisfactory society seemed to have taken on flesh and to have come to live forever among Christian men.

No such permanence and no such good is permitted to humanity; and the great experiment, as I have called it, was destined to fail.

While it flourished, all that is specially characteristic of our European descent and nature stood visibly present in the daily life, and in the large, as in the small, institutions, of Europe.

Our property in land and instruments was well divided among many or all; we produced the peasant; we maintained the independent craftsman; we founded coöperative industry. In arms that military type arose which lives upon the virtues proper to arms and detests the vices arms may breed. Above all, an intense and living appetite for truth, a perception of reality, invigorated these generations. They saw what was before them, they called things by their names. Never was political or social formula less divorced from fact, never was the mass of our civilization better welded—and in spite of all this the thing did not endure.