If you haven’t read Politico’s lengthy investigative report on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s conduct as president of Liberty University, published earlier this week, I’d urge you to do so. It’s a sordid tale of the self-dealing, personal ambition, and extreme intolerance for dissent that’s long been an open secret at Liberty and beyond. It’s also an extraordinarily familiar tale for any person who’s spent any time around institutional evangelicalism. Time and again, powerful Christian men create or nurture powerful Christian institutions — only to fall prey to the temptation to equate the advance of those institutions and their own power with the advance of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.
In other words, the zeal for the advance of Christendom harms the practice and witness of the Christian faith.
Some readers will read that sentence and immediately think, “Ahh, Kierkegaard.” I was reminded of Kierkegaard’s Attack Upon Christendom by Matt McManus in his fascinating essay about the challenges Christians face in an increasingly secular age. McManus invokes Kierkegaard and the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor to note that “as the course of secularization deepens — many traditionalist-Christians can be convinced that only worldly power can prevent the world from sliding into irreligious darkness.”
The Evangelical analogue to the state religious establishments of years past — the “Christendom” that all-too-often redefined the faith as a kind of cultural and legal conformity, a rote adherence to external religious dictates — is the creation of a series of extraordinarily wealthy, powerful, and influential institutions that not only reach and influence Americans by the tens of millions, but also shape the course and conduct of the domestic and foreign policy of the most powerful nation in the history of the world.
A form of Christendom is necessary and important. That form should not be state-sanctioned Christianity, but rightly oriented private institutions that facilitate the spread of the Gospel and the compassionate works of the church. I’ll never forget the kind and loving Catholic social worker from Catholic Charities of Tennessee who helped my Calvinist family adopt an Ethiopian Orthodox child.
Moreover, rightly oriented institutions can impose the necessary theological and spiritual discipline that prevents churches from spinning off into apostasy and error. If a church proclaims that it is Southern Baptist or a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (my denomination), that has to mean something.
But it is the very importance of these institutions that can lead Christians astray. The institutions of Christendom are a means of advancing Christianity. Liberty University is valuable not because it exists, but rather because at its best it can and absolutely still does deepen and strengthen the genuine faith of its students and faculty. At the same time, the imperative that “Liberty must prosper” is not the same thing as declaring that the “Gospel must advance,” and the very moment that those two concepts start to conflict, then the institution must yield to the Gospel.
Take the extreme (but unfortunately common) example of how the defense of Christendom can damage Christianity: the often-reflexive institutional defensiveness in the face of sex-abuse allegations in both Catholic and Protestant religious institutions. Has any secular force harmed the church more than the church has harmed itself by its defensive response to the terrible crimes and horrific sins in its midst? “We must protect the church” is an impulse that can directly contradict the imperative to seek justice and care for the souls of those who are wounded by abuse and exploitation.
I expect that Jerry Falwell Jr. could look you in the face and declare with extraordinary sincerity that his work and ministry has been an unmitigated success. Liberty is far wealthier than it was when he took control. It educates tens of thousands more students. He’s welcome in the halls of power, including even in the Oval Office. On his watch, Christendom has advanced.
But has Christianity? When we study declining faith in America, especially among America’s younger generations, we hear time and time again that hypocrisy and corruption within Christian institutions alienate American hearts and minds. We don’t want to hear that message. We claim time and again, often with justification, that we’re defamed in the media. “We’re better people than they say,” we think. “If only you truly knew us, then you’d feel the warmth in our hearts.”
But those with eyes to see can plainly view Jerry Falwell Jr.’s thumbs-up picture in front of a Playboy cover. They can recognize double standards, including Franklin Graham’s righteous anger at Bill Clinton’s lies giving way to his emphatic declaration that Trump’s infidelities and illegal payoffs are “nobody’s business.” They can see in their own communities when faith leaders cover up abuse or engage in the petty intolerance or self-dealing that Politico exposed at Liberty.
And they also can hear when people of faith justify hypocritical alliances, double standards, and even blind ambition by arguing that it “protects the church.” No, it protects Christendom, and there are times, sadly, when Christianity retreats even within the heart of Christendom itself.
The practice of Christianity requires faith and courage. It often requires believers to do what’s counterintuitive and utterly contrary to worldly logic. We gain our lives by losing our lives? The last shall be first? There are times when every single earthly impulse will be screaming at you to compromise, to forsake the hard path, to “trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong.” Christianity thrives when you resist that impulse, when you trust in the seemingly upside-down truths of scripture.
Our wealth can be great. Our influence can be vast. But it is for naught if our commitment to Christendom supersedes our commitment to Christ.