America and the death of Christendom

By Simon Barrow
October 21, 2007

The US religious right is powerful and vocal, but it is defending a dying corpus while failing to attend to the true source of life, suggests Diana Butler Bass in remembering respectfully yet critically a man described by Rolling Stone magazine as "the most influential evangelical you’ve never heard of.”

Born in 1930, Dr D. James Kennedy lived in a world so distant from our own that it may well have been possible to believe in a Christian America. Churches stood on every public square; members of the clergy shaped public opinion on every issue; schoolchildren uttered Protestant prayers and read Protestant scriptures daily. Many people from Kennedy’s generation remember—or imagine they remember—a vanished Christian world, an ordered society with Protestant faith at the center. Much of the Religious Right’s energy derives from a desire to restore that world, or to “reclaim America for Christ.” To that end, Kennedy mixed evangelicalism with classical Reformed theology and a kind of soft Christian Reconstruction, creating the spiritual fuel for a right-wing political and media empire that meshed with the longings of a certain age.

While Kennedy’s generation was ascendant, new Christian voices began questioning such nostalgia. “Sometime between 1960 and 1980,” wrote Methodist leaders Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, “an old, inadequately conceived world ended, and a fresh, new world began.” They recounted “the end of Christendom” in Greenville, South Carolina (the home of Bob Jones University), when the local Fox Theater opened—for the first time ever—on a Sunday in 1963. “The gradual decline of the notion that the church needs some sort of surrounding ‘Christian’ culture to prop it up and mold its young, is not a death to lament,” they claimed. “It is an opportunity to celebrate.”

The contrast between Kennedy and Hauerwas and Willimon is dramatic. Kennedy believed in Christendom, an American Christian nation divinely designed as the leader of a global spiritual empire, and in creating a Christian politics toward that end. Hauerwas and Willimon believe that Christendom, the ideal of a Christian nation, was historically wrongheaded from the start. “The church,” they argue, “doesn’t have a social strategy; the church is a social strategy.”

The contrast defines the generational shift regarding attitudes toward Christendom. Older evangelical leaders, for the most part, want Christendom back. Emerging leaders, influenced by theologians such as Hauerwas and Willimon, are less interested in “reclaiming” Christendom and more interested in strengthening a confessing church based on the model of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s alternative community in Hitler’s Germany. For younger Christians—evangelicals and progressives alike—Kennedy’s nostalgic world bears no resemblance to their own. The vision of a post-Christendom church, a community of pilgrims joined together in practices of faith and justice, energizes their hope for the future. As the Christendom generation passes away, a post-Christendom faith will, most probably, take its place. That may take some time, but it will eventually recreate Christian political theology in America.

D. James Kennedy, RIP. And while we are at it, let us bury American Christendom, too.

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