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.