How American Christendom Weakens American Christianity

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

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.

The University of Chicago’s Russell Johnson has argued that “for Kierkegaard, an essential part of the Christian life is self-examination and imitation, finding oneself confronted by Christ and beckoned to follow.” But as Kierkegaard himself wrote, “the imitation of Christ is really the point from which the human race shrinks.” In that sense, he was profoundly pessimistic. “If there is emphasis on this point,” he wrote, “the stronger the emphasis the fewer the Christians.” 

If, on the other hand, “there is a scaling down of this point”—on the imitation of Christ—“so that Christianity becomes, intellectually, a doctrine,” then Christianity may well grow. But regardless of numbers, the more the imitation of Christ is lost, the more the actual faith is diminished. This is the “abolition” Kierkegaard feared, the end of the faith regardless of the power of its institutions or the numbers of its members. 

Ok, that’s a lot. But let’s make this concrete. Anybody can believe in (or profess) a doctrine, even a countercultural doctrine. In fact, in the present age, there is a great deal of money and fame to be gained by directly and “courageously” attacking secular ideas like, say, critical race theory or so-called “cultural Marxism.” 

You can stand strong for solid teaching and sound doctrine on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. You can boldly venture into hostile territory in the academy or Hollywood. You can build immense churches and ministries. You can form powerful political movements—all without compromising one inch on the orthodox theological truths of the Christian faith. In America at least, Christendom thrives. There is a market for what it sells.

But Kierkegaard’s fear was that as Christendom waxes, Christianity wanes. The true imitation of Christ becomes not wisdom, but folly. Many people may choose doctrine. Few people choose the cross. For who would really choose the cross when their ministry does such good, when it reaches so many people, and when it’s so very important to the soul of a nation?

Here is where the upside-down truths of the imitation of Christ become so difficult, including one of the most foundational, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” 

In other words, to live I must die. Yet our death, unlike Christ’s, isn’t innocent. We sin, we repent, we’re symbolically buried with Christ, and then we’re reborn by his power alone. Or, in the words of Paul in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Or, elsewhere, in Romans, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

As we’ve watched Christian abuse scandals unfold, we’ve seen Christendom enact the exact reverse of this message—for it to live, someone else may have to die. When a girl or a boy, a woman or a man, comes forward, fearful and trembling, with a story of abuse, it is simply remarkable how often American Christian institutions adopt, entirely, the godless playbook of secular corporate self-defense. 

And in fact all too many American Christian institutions are corporations first. They’re perpetually-existing legal entities who confront each and every scandal with a single prime directive: This ministry must endure. It is too important to fail. It cannot die. 

In this construct, the truth is a threat. If people knew what really happened, then they might not support the ministry, or listen to its teaching. Its good work would cease. And so it seeks silence.

Justice, similarly, is a threat. True and fair compensation for the immense amount of pain and suffering inflicted on innocent boys and girls might strain and tax the treasury of the ministry to the point of liquidation. Its good work would cease. And so it resists true restitution.

And if truth and justice are threats, then the victim is a threat and must be treated as such. We saw this when Ravi Zacharias actually sued Lori Anne Thompson when she came forward after he groomed her and abused her. We saw this when Kanakuk Kamp tried so aggressively to force an abused child to execute a nondisparagement agreement that it attempted to fine his family for failure to sign. 

The most poignant part of our Kanakuk investigation was reading an obituary of a Kanakuk abuse survivor. “For years,” it said, he “fought valiantly against the trauma he suffered.” And when he fought, he had to fight against the very institution that inflicted such harm. That young man is gone, but Kanakuk lives, and it still fights to live today. 

Yet the institutions of Christendom should model the way of the cross if they’re going to preach the way of the cross.

What if an institution like Kanakuk decided to die? What if it decided that its continued existence was irrelevant compared to the necessity of repentance and justice, and it should close before it denied truth and restitution to the children who were so terribly victimized on its grounds? That institution of Christendom might wither away, but would such a profound act of humility and obedience harm the faith? 

I have written time and again about the immense amount of Christian fear that motivated support for Donald Trump. Christians voted, it was said, in self-defense. Faced with an avalanche of fearmongering that falsely proclaimed an existential threat to Christian institutions if the Democrats won just one more presidential race, Christendom responded—we must live.

And so the mighty power of tens of millions of American Christians was exerted on behalf of a cruel, incompetent man—a man whose vanity and ignorance contributed to the deaths of countless thousands of his fellow citizens. Even now, when other options for leaders abound (and we are far beyond the days of “binary choice”) most of those same tens of millions still cling to him for the same reason. He is their champion as Christendom allegedly fights for its life. 

What if white Evangelical Christendom had said no? What if the institutions of the faith had opted to lay down their political arms rather than wield the weapon of Trump? What if they had said they would rather risk persecution than inflict pain? That they would rather lose their power than defend lies?

In this instance the sacrifice would have been small. It’s hard to identify a single Christian institution that would have died in response to such a stand. The cost would have been so very slight, with an ability to contest all those same issues again, soon, through far more virtuous means. Would that sacrifice have harmed the faith?

I first read Kierkegaard in college and thought he was too pessimistic. He was way too dark. After all, during my youth, it was the orthodox churches that were growing, and they demanded far more of their congregants than the shrinking progressive churches that, I believed, conformed their teachings to the fickle demands of a hostile world.

Now my perspective has changed. I can’t tell you how many I speak to who are deeply shaken by the events above. They face crises of faith that they’ve never confronted before. In my friend Russell Moore’s powerful and anguished words, “What happens when people reject the church because they think we reject Jesus and the gospel?” He continued, “What if people don’t leave the church because they disapprove of Jesus, but because they’ve read the Bible and have come to the conclusion that the church itself would disapprove of Jesus?”

And why would they come to that conclusion? Because the institutions of Christendom are rejecting the example of the cross. “That,” Moore says, “is a crisis.” And he’s right. 

As Kierkegaard reminds us, it’s an old crisis. There are times when the great enemy of Christianity is Christendom itself. But Christendom isn’t Christianity. Indeed, the collapse of the institutions of Christendom does not mean the collapse of Christianity. And their collapse may be necessary for people to see through doctrine, through celebrity, and through politics to catch at last a glimpse of the man who is the faith, the man who carried a cross and now commands us to do the same. 

One last thing …

I can’t think of a better song for the week than “Give Me Jesus,” a song that we would play each evening when our children would fall asleep. It’s simple and beautiful, and so is this version.