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.