The Death of Christendom? December 15, 1791, when the Bill of Rights was Ratified

It being the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and Inaguration Day too, I’m taking the liberty to republish a post you may have missed the first time ’round (April 09,2012).

For those of you longing for the days of yore, when the culture was seemingly steeped in Christianity, and all acknowledged it as the one true faith, I’ve got some news for you. Though the faith is alive and well, Christendom is dead and gone. Before you fall all over yourself in consternation, fear and loathing, it’s time to have a look at that word and recall its meaning.

Looking in the handy Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, I find the word defined as follows:

Definition of CHRISTENDOM

1: Christianity

2: the part of the world in which Christianity prevails.

Guess what? Those definitions are weak and worthless, basically. And the reason they fail to define the term is because though #1 gives the simple definition of Christianity as one of the meanings, and #2 points towards a geographical meaning, neither one of these definitions goes to the heart of what is implied when using the term “Christendom.”

Back in mid-March, I learned of a First Amendment scholar who also happens to be a bishop. You may recall Bishop Thomas J. Curry’s comments regarding how some provisions of the HHS Mandate are not unconstitutional. I noted then that he had written several books on the history of religious freedom in the United States and I quickly logged onto my public library’s website to order them up, pronto. What I share with you here is what I gleaned so far from reading Farewell to Christendom: The Future of Church and State in America,.

I wonder whether the title of his book is descriptive enough, because it gives you the impression that we are only now saying goodbye to an ideal that we have yearned for and lived with for so long. That is why it is important to understand the meaning of the term “Christendom,” you see. Bishop Curry clearly and succintly defines it as, “the system dating from the fourth century by which governments upheld and promoted Christianity.”

Yes, you can see it all now in your mind’s eye. The full sweep of glorious Christian grandeur from the time when the Roman Emperor Constantine lifted the ban on Christianity and made it the approved state religion of Rome until the fall of the empire. Whereupon the Church stepped into the void of the power vacuum left by the fall of Rome, where she continued as a sort of quasi-government reigning supreme throughout the Middle Ages and seemingly uninterrupted into the Age of Enlightenment.

The truth, though, is far from as rosy as the one painted above. There were plenty of wars, power grabs, and corruption moving along swimmingly throughout the heyday of Christendom. And though I am hard pressed to sum up here all of the history of Christianity in the world between the Edict of Milan and Vatican II (hello, this is a blog post after all), thinking that we are saying farewell to Christendom may give you the idea that we live in some Christian version of a Raymond Chandler novel called Christendom: The Long Goodbye. Because thinking that we are only now moving into the realm of “Post-Christianity” is wrongheaded.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry

Bishop Curry argues that confusing Christianity with Christendom is wrong because the fact of the matter is, Christendom died right here in America. But not yesterday, not last week, and not even 40 years ago. No siree. Our Founding Fathers put the stake through the heart of Christendom when the Constitution, along with the Bill of Rights, was ratified way back when. If you have to pinpoint an exact date for the obituary of Christendom, see, December 15, 1791 would be a good starting point. Though truthfully, it’s more of an ending point.

If you are trying to wrap your head around the idea that everything you know about the history of religion in America is wrong, that’s because it probably is. Bishop Curry, and I am indebted to his scholarship here, notes in the first chapter of Farewell to Christendom that two great proclamations of the end of Christendom have been written. I’ve told you what the first one is. Care to hazard a guess what the second one is?

This book revolves around two major proclamations of the end of Christendom. The first originated in the Protestant tradition and came by way of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, enacted 1789-1791. The second emerged from the Declaration on Religious Freedom proclaimed in 1965 by the Second vatican Council of the Catholic Church.

Christendom was killed in America!

I betcha didn’t see that one coming. The problems that the Church, and all churches and religions face in the U.S. nowadays, stem from the problems that Bishop Curry says derive from the misunderstanding of the history of religion in America. The Puritans came to the New World in search of a better Christendom, you see. The experiences of the settlers, and the two dominant approaches that were followed by the them to settle differences among competing Christian denominations, were the experiences that set the stage for the drafting of the First Amendment later on. The ways these differences were settled amount to approaches of  1) religious liberty and 2) religious tolerance.

Bishop Curry writes that “the interpretation of the earlier of these two proclamations, the First Amendment, has reached a point of deep crisis.” And that is because,

Modern Church-State discussion has been based on the following misassumptions: that the free exercise of religion is the equivalent of religious toleration; that members of the First Congress disputed the definition of establishment of religion; that the Free Exercise and No Establishment provisions of the First Amendment serve differing purposes and exist in tension to each other; that the amendment deals with government aid to or hinderance of religion; and that it requires government to maintain a neutral stance between assisting or impeding religion, between religion and nonreligion, and between differing religions.

And guess where the roots of those problems lie?

These misassumptions proceed from a mindset essentially derived from Christendom. Modern attempts to build a wall, to draw a line, to define a boundary between Church and State replicate the perennial struggle of Christendom to separate the secular and the sacred into their proper spheres, even though the First Amendment was designed to end that conflict by proclaiming the end of Christendom in America.

That last bold highlight is mine. Because Bishop Curry shows convincingly by tracing the history of religion in the colonies how the two main approaches on the issue of religious freedom were worked out by the Framers and that the “religious liberty” approach was the one that was decided upon, and not the “religious toleration” approach. The reason why comes down to the idea that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written in a manner that limited the powers of the federal government.

If the Framers had decided in favor of the “religious toleration” approach, it is likely that state religions would have been established, as in the model that was followed in Massachusetts, for example. The Framers steered away from those rocks because they did not want the government to have to “maintain a neutral stance between assisting or impeding religion, between religion and nonreligion, and between differing religions.” What they wanted instead was,

a self-limiting, self-denying ordinance restraining government, a mandate that the State will exercise no power in religious questions, that “Congress shall make no law” in that domain of human experience. Religious freedom proceeds from government’s leaving people to decide on their own religious beliefs and practices…

In reality, the First Amendment is about government’s lack of power. It is no more a mandate to promote religion than it is one to create a boundary defining the sphere and activity of religion. Rather, it embodies a new way of arranging government, the full understanding of which is still emerging.

He can say that again.

…the great American experiment still challenges religious believers to realize that the denial of government power over the Church resulted not from deprecation of religious belief, but from a profound appreciation that religion was too important to be left to politicians, too precious and necessary to a vibrant society to be made a tool of government manipulation. The following pages are offered as a guide to that developing understanding and to the realization that the limited, secular, non-ideological government mandated by the Constitution and the First Amendment provides the best hope for Church and State in the new millennium.

Now that is the kind of mandate I can get behind. Which is why our bishops are fighting the HHS Mandate in the manner that they are: as a fight about religious freedom. This may displease those who lament the poor catechesis of the Vatican II generation on the one hand, and the disuse of Church teaching on artificial contraception as outlined in Humane Vitae in America on the other. But those problems are an internal matter for the Church to address. It is not one for the government to decide for us, as they are attempting to do through the HHS Mandate.

I’ll be sharing more from Bishop Curry’s thoughts in future posts.

  • Maggie Goff

    This is fantastic. Thank you for doing this.

  • diddleymaz

    The Americas were never in Christendom, that maedieval concept was over by the time europeans began spreading there. It was over before it began as the great schism of eastern and western churches saw an end to one church in 1054

    • Frank Weathers

      Apparently Spain didn’t get the memo. Also, dating the demise of Christendom to the Great Schism is a bit early. Especially given the fact that the Middle Ages date between 500AD and 1500 AD. In other words, from the Fall of Rome up until the Protestant Reformation. Also of interest is the development that the Puritans embarked to the New World with the intent of setting up Christian commonwealths, i.e. a newer, purer, reformed Christendom. Though that may have been the idea, that isn’t how things panned out.

      More forthcoming from me on that front. But you can always get Bishop Curry’s book as well. Gulp! You can see why I checked it out from the library. ;)

  • Joshua

    Sir, you are a fantastic writer. I enjoy everything you post. God love you.

    • Frank Weathers

      Thanks Joshua.

  • Caine

    $60 for a 160 page book! Even the Kindle version is over $47! Think I will let you read it for me. Thanks for this.

    • Frank Weathers

      Heh! Thank heavens for “inter-library loan.”

  • Theophile

    When the 1st public school was started by the Protestants in NewYork, it was to provide their children with the ability to read the Bible, not read ledgers, newspapers , etc. Since education of the next generation is the real battleground for belief therewith, You have to wonder why the Catholic Bishop was opposed to public funds being used to promote Bible study, and spearheaded the “separation of church and state” in “public” schools issue. That is, unless You have read Foxes book of Martyrs, then You understand it’s a battle between God’s word, and mans.

    • Frank Weathers

      What’s with all the capitalized “You’s?”

    • Rachel Gohlman

      Foxe’s book of martyrs is one biased piece of historical revisionism if there ever was one.

      The issue of separation and church of state was actually brought up to protect the church from the state, which is why the bishops brought it up. Contrary to popular belief, separation of church and state was originally meant to mean that the state can’t force their views on the church, not the other way around.

      The Catholic Church reads four portions of Scripture at every service then explains what it means, they don’t need state funded Bible studies, their whole religion is a Bible study.

  • Theophile

    Hi Frank,
    Sorry if the capitalizing isn’t proper, but when I capitalize “i”, referring to myself, I feel the same respect is due You! or who ever else reads my comment.

  • Stephen Peterson

    Hi Frank,

    I just read your article and I have to say that I disagree with both the “nails in the coffin” of Christendom as suggested by Bishop Curry. By my understanding, Christendom was more than just an arrangement where governments promoted Christianity, but one where a great multiplicity of secular judiciaries overlapped with an international ecclesiastical judiciary. In practice this allowed the Church to arbitrate authoritativly between the princes of Europe. No, I’m under no illusions that Christendom was at any time ideal as the many wars and intrigues of the time give testament to, but it was a heck of a lot better than what came after, namely, the unchecked supremacy of the nation state.
    By this definition, of course, the US was never part of Christendom.
    I would suggest that the nails in the coffin of Christendom were: Diet of Speyer (1526), Act of Supremacy (1534), Diet of Augsburg (1566), Peace of Westphalia (1648), Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790), Imperial Dissolution (1806), and the final nail – the Capture of Rome (1870) after which Christendom ceased to exist.
    What happened in the US is peripheral to the picture since the US never shared a judiciary with the Church. The Declaration of Religious Freedom is neither here nor there – the Papal States as well as the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth allowed freedom of religion within their territories even though both were clearly part of Christendom.


    • Stephen Peterson

      If I can explain why I chose those nails in the coffin of Christendom:
      * Diet of Speyer (1526) – although these were small and inconsequential states by themselves and this was only intended to be temporary, for the first time Christian states began to exist beyond the boarders of Christendom and the idea was entertained that a secular prince could determine the religion of his territory.
      * Act of Supremacy (1534) – building upon the philosophy of Speyer, a great power of Europe declared its independance from the international jurisdiction of the Church (i.e. from Christendom). Although Mary I tried to initiate a reunion, her inability to restore ecclesiastical territory ensured this would never be permenant. That a former province of the Roman Empire could do such a thing was a significant blow to Christendom.
      * Diet of Augsburg (1566) – the idea of “cuius regio, eius religio” was declared a permenant fixture ensuring that there would exist Christian territories permenantly separate from Christendom.
      * Peace of Westphalia (1648) – although this added nothing new to Augsburg, the Peace was essentially a declaration by the Princes of Christendom that they had given up the fight. From this point the death of Christendom was inevitable.
      * Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) – the Eldest Daughter of the Church divorced herself from her mother, and with a single blow the territories of Christendom were less than half what they had been two centuries earlier.
      * Peace of Pressburg (1806) – with the abdication of Francis II, the greatest secular prince of Christendom surrendered and the core territories were lost.
      * Capture of Rome (1870) – the Eternal City itself, capitulated. However, despite the overwhelming odds and the inevitable conclusion, Blessed Pius IX refused to surrender the last remnant of Christendom without a fight, a decision has often been criticised. His decision challenges us today to pick up the banner again and begin a new Reconquista.

      • Frank Weathers

        I think Bishop Curry is saying that it was a radical break from the past when the Constitution of the U.S. with the First Amendment gave de jure freedoms from government intrusion in the realm of religion, for the first time from inception of a government. It was a radical idea. “Congress shall make no law…” This occurred even when the colonies had (with a few notable exceptions) continued the traditions learned in Christendom, and brought to the New World. For example, publically supported churches, through taxation on the populace, etc.

        The taxing power of government, used to support, and enforce compliance with alleged “true churches,” combined with the state as arbiter of what was, and was not “religious,” is what was avoided in the U.S. with ratification of the Bill of Rights.

  • Stephen Peterson

    That’s fair enough, the US avoided any civil favouritism of any particular religion, but that’s going off a fairly broad understanding of Christendom. If you understand Christendom to be simply those nations in which there is a Christian majority or those nations with a state Christian religion it makes some sense. But by that definition Christendom still exists in countries like England, Denmark, Norway, etc. which have state religions and provide some state funding to them.
    I would seem to me that there are at least three definitions of the term “Christendom” in use:
    The Reformed Protestant definition – Christendom is Christianity; or those nations where Christianity is the dominant religion.
    The Evangelical Protestant definition – Christendom is those nations that have a form of Christianity as a state religion. I believe the Eastern Orthodox use something similar.
    The Roman Catholic definition – Christendom is a unified polity in which there is a single supernational ecclesiastical jurisdicition coexisting with national and local civil jurisdictions (based off the Catholic Encyclopedia).
    It would seem to me that Bishop Curry is using something like the Evangelical definition in his argument in opposition to the Reformed definition, which seems to be the most popular. The founding colonies of the US had brought their Evangelical understanding of Christendom with them, but this was very different to the traditional Catholic definition and greatly in opposition to it – the Evangelical understanding essentially made the state institution supreme in matters of faith and morals. Yes, I would agree this is a bad thing. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water, for while I would agree that a national church is a bad thing, I wouldn’t say that about an international church – indeed, such an arrangement provides additional checks and balances in the political sphere as well as a point of arbitration. Just look, in recent history, at the invation of Iraq by coalition forces – there was no authority available to judge the rightness or wrongness of such an action.
    As Catholics we need to go beyond the argument between Reformed and Evangelical Protestants over state religion and recognise that we have something unique to offer that doesn’t involve choosing one side or the other.
    Incidently, the Vatican II Declaration Dignitatis Humanae on Religious Freedom does allow for the state to give constitutional recognition to a particular religion (cf. §6), all it requires that that such a state doesn’t obstruct the private and public practice of religion by those who don’t profess the state faith as long as such practices don’t undermine public order (cf. §4) – something that is not opposed to the Catholic understanding of Christendom.

  • Rachel Gohlman

    One correction, Constantine lifted the persecution but he did not make Christianity the state religion of Rome. That was the Emperor after him.

  • Dave G.

    “The experiences of the settlers, and the two dominant approaches that were followed by the them to settle differences among competing Christian denominations, were the experiences that set the stage for the drafting of the First Amendment later on. ”

    That’s so true. The important thing to remember is the situation in England at the time. Fresh in the Founders’ minds was the back and forth brutality that defined so much of the English reformation. Both Catholics and Protestants gave as good as they got, and the Founders were moving away from the idea that any traditional ideas were the solution. Their wording actually worked to head off at the pass the two most likely ways that people were persecuted for their faith: establishing a national church, or just going for broke and persecuting those trying to practice the wrong religion. I think that is crucial to remember in reflecting on the purpose behind the original religious liberty clauses.