The Decline Of Christendom

For all its history, America’s majority religion has been Christianity. For most of American history, other faiths were tolerated, but not celebrated. Church attendance was seen as a reflection of a person’s stability, honor, reasonableness, and good standing in the community. This mash-up of religious devotion and cultural norms is what we’ll call Christendom, and it started not with the pilgrims, or the Bill of Rights, or the Supreme Court. It started in 380 AD.   

That’s the year that the Edict of Thessalonica ordered all subjects of the Roman Empire to profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria, making Nicene Christianity the state religion of Rome. The edict is often confused with the Edict of Milan, issued by Constantine who became the first Christian emperor of Rome. What followed the Edict of Thessalonica was a buffet of state-sponsored churches gorging on religious freedom.  

I read recently that Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet who gave us Inferno and Divine Comedy, was convinced that the Roman Empire was a God-ordained vehicle for the spread of the gospel. He and many of his contemporaries thought that a globe-spanning Roman government was rising with the power of Providence to be just the thing the gospel needed to reach every person on Earth.  

It didn’t work out that way.  

When Christianity became the official religion, the kingdom of heaven morphed into a kind of sickly fiefdom of Earth. The gospel lost its power as the church gained hers. And there arose an unholy union of church, state, and culture called Christendom in which every blessed soul was rinsed with the half-known, half-potent patina of ecclesial commons as a substitute for being washed in the blood of the Lamb. The Edict of Thessalonica gave rise to the phenomenon of cultural Christianity. Today, we might call it “Geico Christianity.” People followed the teachings of the church because, “It’s what you do.” 

And now, seventeen hundred years after Constantine, we are seeing an undeniable shift away from Christendom. According to a May 2015 report by the Pew Research Center: 

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. 

Religious “nones” — a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” — now make up roughly twenty-three percent of the U.S. adult population. This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when sixteen percent of Americans were “nones.” (During this same time period, Christians have fallen from seventy-eight to seventy-one percent.) 

“Nones have made more gains through religious switching than any other group analyzed in the study.” Only about nine percent of U.S. adults say they were raised without a religious affiliation, and among this group, roughly half say that they now identify with a religion (most often Christianity.) But nearly one-in-five Americans (eighteen percent) have moved in the other direction, saying that they were raised as Christians or members of another faith, but that they now have no religious affiliations. That means more than four people have become “nones” for every person who has left the ranks of the unaffiliated.  

All this is not to say that Christianity is doomed or persecuted in our culture. Nor that belief itself is threatened. Postmodern Americans are more interested in matters of faith and spirituality than ever before. But they’ve had it with Christendom. They don’t attend church. They spurn any cultural religious expectation as “intolerant.”  For us to redeem the cultural dialogue with our post-Christendom neighbors, we’ll have to refocus our attention away from cultural Christianity and hone in on the disruptive, transformative power of the gospel.