I always encourage my young parishioners in Word and in Sacrament that the world is Christ’s. Everything is His, and not one square inch can be taken. I am always delighted to have our young parishioners articulate these ideas in their classes and in their lives. Here is a paper by Kanaan Trotter defending these ideas, and painting a picture of this cosmic gospel:
It is no secret that Christianity in modern Europe and North America finds itself struggling. The Church is under attack not from outside persecution, but from within. Congregations are growing increasingly willing to admit feminine and homosexual leadership. Many give ground in crucial debates like abortion, and even entertain assaults against the reliability of the Bible itself. What is not so apparent is the geographical shift occurring in modern Christianity. While the Church from Western Europe to the United States finds itself questioning its very identity, the Church elsewhere is not. In the Southern Hemisphere it is growing by the day. Many claim that the Church in the Global South is the new center of gravity for worldwide Christianity. What then does this say of the Church in the North? Why does the American Church grow weaker by the day? What has caused this deterioration?
The situation before American Christians, like any characteristic of a nation, is the result of the culture that has shaped our Christianity. That culture is the social arrangement and religious disposition of American democracy. This democracy has affected how Americans, as primarily political citizens, understand the Gospel and its claims. Alexis de Tocqueville offers an insightful interpretation of American democracy, contrasting it with the traditional monarchies that preceded it. His analysis allows a better understanding of the expression of Christianity that has grown from the ground of this unique democracy.
Political and social structure in Europe up to the 18th century was arranged in a hierarchy. Power descended from the monarch and made its way down the social structure. Classes were distinct and immutable. A member of one class improved only insofar as the class allowed improvement. The baker was a man of little power, born into his profession, trained into it by his father and grandfather. He may become the greatest of bakers, but no more than that. He cannot become a man of science or a lord, not even a blacksmith. The baker is bound to his job. Monarchies mean determined structure and dependence. Medieval England, for example, was associated with and subject to the Church of Rome until the reign of Henry VIII who established the Church of England. Only a few years later Mary I would move the kingdom back to Catholicism, but immediately after her Queen Elizabeth I would rename England as Protestant. And while the people might oppose the sovereigns’ monarchical declarations, their protests could never be voiced in keeping with the political system. Opposition to the crown’s religious affiliation, and thus the nation’s religious affiliation, meant rebellion, which was criminal, often punished by execution. Freedom in the monarchy did not mean citizens held the right to counsel their government. That was never their place (Tocqueville 522).
But a new social structure is born with the birth of democracy. In a democratic system there is no central source of power, and there is no hierarchy to divide and maintain separation between classes. Democracy allows individual freedom in an altogether new way. Men are not constrained by their social position. The cobbler may be so by birth or his own will. He has every right to begin a career as a cobbler and then become a soldier, a lawyer, or a politician. The uniquely democratic idea of equality creates this social liberty. Every man has the same right to any job and any lifestyle. He must only be willing to dedicate himself to the role he desires (Tocqueville 522).
In the religious sphere, the democratic impulses of liberty and equality claim that there is no single power to guide the people. There is no monarch to determine what the cobbler will believe. Instead, only the cobbler has this freedom, this independence. He is the caretaker of his own soul. He is his own priest. To exist in a democracy a religion must be willing to coexist with other religions because no man can impose his beliefs upon another. The cobbler has every right to choose the religion that he believes to be true, but he is in no position to force the blacksmith into the same belief. How dare he place himself above his fellow citizen?
Democracy is characterized by religious freedom. The cobbler has an equal right to adopt Christianity or Atheism or Islam. And while all religions proclaim themselves to be true, they must coexist in the political society of democracy, in the system of equality. But is this the nature of Christianity? Does the Gospel of Christ allow religious pluralism?
In the Gospel of Matthew Christ commissions his people to go out into the world, spreading the truth of his gospel and baptizing the nations (Matt. 28:19-20). His command is not concerned with moderating the size or extent of his kingdom. He does not caution his disciples against baptizing too many people. Nor does Christ remind them of the limitations of his power. There is no realm where Christ’s gospel does not apply. He claims the whole world as his. Christ’s gospel is not tolerant of other religions. God’s people never have bought into religious pluralism, but instead see themselves engaged in warfare with those around them. The Israelites were ordered time and again to utterly destroy other nations, and when they refused it was they who were injured. Israel is said to be “playing the harlot” (Jdgs. 8:27) with the gods of other nations. God’s punishment for Israel comes from the tribes they have incompletely conquered. Jesus’ own charge is not a reminder to be kind and tolerant of Islam and Buddhism, but to go out and baptize. The Great Commission is a battle cry. It is a call to holy warfare.
Democracy however attempts to neutralize war. The aim of religious freedom is a society without conflict. If men cannot impose their will, political or religious, upon each other, then they have no reason to be in contention. They recognize, according to the principle of democracy, that they individually possess the right to whatever religion satisfies them. Religious freedom is an attempt at pacifism. It effectively enfeebles the Gospel’s power to make war on Christ’s opponents.
How then can Christians maintain their identity and continue to obey the Great Commission when they find themselves supporting an idea which opposes the nature of their own Christ? Can they? The answer is no. Christianity cannot remain unchanged in a society that demands it conform to the political goals of the nation. When the Gospel submits to men’s politics, it will change. This is the position in which American Christianity finds itself. It has lost the body and substance of its own gospel. It has been deceived into believing that democracy and national politics ought to inform the Christian message more than the words of Christ. Democracy demands that Christianity coexist with Atheism and Islam, and the Church has complied. And by aligning itself with the pacifism of religious freedom and democracy, the American Church, as is natural, has become something exceptionally different than the militant Church going forth on the continents of Africa and Asia and South America. While Christians in Africa multiply daily the number of North American Christians shrinks because they have been trained out of their passion. They have been tamed.
Faced with this devolvement, Christianity in the Northern hemisphere must reorient itself. We must relearn who we are and what we are out to do. If Christians are engaged in holy war, we must act like it. The world is dangerous and tempting to Christians, but even more so we ought to see that we are dangerous to the world. We are a threat to the kingdoms of the world. Pagan Rome understood the potential of the Church and sought to put it down, only to make its people more victorious in martyrdom. Christianity does not concede to political systems. The Father demands that the kingdoms of this world orient themselves around the Son, and that democracy submit to a jealous God.