Christians, Christianity and Christendom

[The video above is substantially the same as the text below.  The text has more links and a few additional notes.  The video may be more convenient for some.]

Nicholas Kristof wrote a very interesting column imagining a conversation between Jesus Christ and Speaker Paul Ryan. There will no doubt be controversy as to whether it is brilliant satire or blasphemy.

Kristof’s point is that Ryan is a hypocrite for professing to be a Christian and yet supporting a health care bill that would result in poor people losing health insurance coverage.

The theme is one that Democrats have hammered on for decades: how can the Republicans get such strong support from Christians, and vocally proclaim their own devout Christianity, while simultaneously pushing policies that appear to be in opposition to what Christ taught?

Not being a religious person, I don’t really consider myself qualified to get involved in this argument.  What I can do, though, is talk about the historical and philosophical background of this apparent hypocrisy.  As my readers know, I like to try to understand things in their historical context.

In this case, we are going to need some 2000 years of historical context to properly understand what’s going on here.

Buckle up.

But first–a word of warning:  I’m going to discuss the history of Christianity here, and I’m going to address it purely as a geopolitical phenomenon, and not consider the question of whether it is divinely inspired or not.  Edward Gibbon did something similar, and people got very mad at him for it, so I thought I should make it clear at the outset. I have many readers of all faiths, and I do not wish to disrespect any of them.

Now then, you probably already know that Jesus Christ preached things like clothing the poor, feeding the sick, and so on.  He was in favor of what we would generally call “charity”.

But Christ was speaking to small groups of people; and mainly to his disciples.  How his teachings relate to governing a nation-state are less clear to me.  You might assume, as Kristof does, that he would recommend the same things to them as he did to individual people. But that would still be an inference, however obvious and easy it may seem.

As far as I know–and again, I am not a biblical expert–the only thing Christ said explicitly relating to government is the famous “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”, which gives little insight into his views on the relationship between the individual and the state.

And of course, Christ’s most notable encounter with the government was when he was captured and executed. At that time, he barely acknowledged Pontius Pilate, clearly not impressed by Pilate’s political authority.

So if you want to build a political entity based on the teachings of Christ, it’s a little tricky, because you have to either (a) assume everything he told the individuals he met should also be applied to governance, or (b) do what the Republicans always do, and infer that, because he never explicitly discussed a government-run system of charity, Christ was a small-government libertarian.

Based on this, you might think that Christian governments would be few in number, small in scope, and brief in lifespan.  But you would be wrong; because some of the most powerful hegemonic states in the history of the world have all had Christianity as their dominant religion.

There’s not much in the gospels to suggest Christ’s teachings were designed to–or even in favor of–creating globe-spanning empires.  And yet, that is just what professedly Christian nations would repeatedly do.

What’s up with that?

Christians weren’t treated well following Christ’s crucifixion. Christians were persecuted by the upper-management in the Roman Empire until the year 313, when the Edict of Milan was issued.  This was in large part due to the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was very sympathetic to Christianity, ultimately converting late in his life.

Constantine was an important ally for Christianity who, among other things, restructured the government of the Roman Empire into what is now known as the Byzantine Empire.  Effectively, this was “Rome East”, only with Christianity as its dominant religion. By 380, Christianity was the official state religion of this modified Roman empire.

In less than 100 years, Christians had gone from being a persecuted religious group to being given the keys to the most powerful Empire in Europe. (Albeit in a modified form.)

Thus began Christianity’s gradual spread across Europe.  And whatever your personal religious beliefs may be, you can’t argue that its influence on culture in Europe and North America is absolutely profound.

One interesting thing to note about the Christians’ long march to hegemony over European culture is the way they incorporated the traditions and customs of other religions as they went.  The Christmas tree is perhaps the most obvious example: there were no evergreen trees in the desert where Christ was born, but there were plenty of them in Northern Europe where the Norse were celebrating Yule.  More generally, the celebration of Christ’s birth as a winter festival owes more to the Roman Saturnalia and the Northern European pagan solstice celebrations than it does to anything that is actually in the Bible.

The Catholic church was very successful in this regard, incorporating various pagan rituals into their customs. The Protestants attacked the Church strongly for this, but whatever criticism it might invite as far as supposedly making the religion “impure”, it was no doubt an effective political tool for bringing more pagans into the fold.

But I think its reasonable to wonder if some of the cultures that were assimilated into Christianity were really buying into the teachings of the Bible, or if they were just adopting certain symbols and names and then continuing to do whatever they had been doing. A culture may adopt the outer forms of a religion while still adhering in practice to its own philosophy and worldview.

“Culture?” “Outer forms?” “Worldview?”  I bet my long time readers know what this means…

Image via Wikipedia

Yes, that’s right; once again, it’s Oswald Spengler Time. You knew I wouldn’t be able to write about this without bringing up everyone’s favorite long-dead, pessimistic, reactionary nationalist, relativistic German historian-philosopher, didn’t you?

In his writings on world-history, Spengler was careful to differentiate between the early Christian world and modern Western (he called it “Faustian”)  culture. According to his theory, the latter began sometime in the 10th century in Northern Europe.

The underlying logic of Spengler’s philosophy was that culture is tied to the immediate environment. “Men migrate, and their successive generations are born in ever-changing landscapes; but the landscape exercises a secret force upon the extinction of the old and the appearance of the new one.”

For Spengler, the Northern European culture would always be tied more closely to the area where it developed, and any connection to some desert religion would be superficial at best.

Thus, while the Anglo-Saxons and Normans may have been nominally Christian, as a cultural and political force, they operated far more like vikings and the conquering tribes of Europe than they did like adherents of doctrinal Christianity.

Consider the Crusades:  what is there in the Gospels that encourages raising invasion armies to invade territory? Not much. So why did the Crusades occur?

Remember the Byzantine Empire–you know, the first Christian government in history? Toward the end of the 11th century, they were being threatened by the rapid spread of Islam, and so asked the Western Church for help to fight against it.  This help came in the form of Northern European mercenary armies, and established a pattern for subsequent crusades.

Over the next few centuries, the power of the Byzantine Empire and the Eastern Church waned while that of the Northern European Western Church grew.

The obvious conflict in the Crusades is the one between  Christianity and Islam. But there is also the more subtle shift in the balance of power within Christianity from the “old” Eastern church to the “new” Western one.

The overall effect of this is that over the centuries, Christianity’s “center of gravity” kept shifting further Northwest. And if you buy into Spenglerian ideas about geography exerting influence over culture, you would expect that this would result in the meaning of Christianity changing to conform to the culture of the people where it was most prevalent.

All of this does explain some things about why supposedly “Christian” nations got so far removed from the original teachings of Christ. (You could view it as history’s most spectacular example of “mission creep“)

For instance, think about the British Empire. You would not normally expect people who professed belief in a pacifist desert religion to build an empire based on an island nation and relying on naval power as a means of extracting tribute from other conquered nations.

But that is exactly the sort of thing you would expect the descendants of old viking raiding bands and other northern Europeans to do. And so, if you interpret their “Christianity” as simply an incidental bit of custom, adopted for the sake of a strategic alliance, it makes a lot more sense.

This brings me to an important concept. That concept is called “Christendom”. It’s not a word you see or hear much anymore.  Its usage has really declined over the past few centuries.

So, what was “Christendom”? Well, it has several meanings. It could mean simply “all persons who identify as Christian throughout the world”.

But it also could be used in a geopolitical sense, in which case it meant something similar to “the West” or, in Cold War terminology, “the Free World”. In this sense, it is a term encompassing many different nations and cultures, defining them on the basis of one characteristic so as to set them apart from another section of the world.

There’s a big difference between these two different meanings.  It’s one thing to refer to the set of people who have a given characteristic–in this case, belief in Christianity. It’s another to refer to the parts of the world where those who have that characteristic predominate. The former simply acknowledges a group of people.  The latter is an acknowledgment of political power.

Put another way, in the latter sense, you could be in Christendom without being a Christian. In this way, Christendom was divorced from Christianity’s moral and spiritual principles, and was instead an expression of cultural dominance.

To tie all of this back to Nicholas Kristof vs. Speaker Ryan (remember them?): the fundamental disconnect there is that Kristof is thinking about Christianity in the sense of what Christ taught.  He is thinking of Christian philosophy and understanding it as a set of guiding moral principles.

Ryan, like many Republicans before him, is a Christian in the cultural sense of belonging to the geopolitical force that identified itself as “Christendom”. It is in this way that the Republicans have so long been able to present themselves as the “Christian” side in the so-called “culture wars”.

Throughout its history, many people have professed belief in Christianity.  But few of them have ever actually adhered to its tenets. This is so common that over time, the meaning of the word “Christian” itself changed–it has come to mean simply membership in a powerful society, rather than belief in any moral precepts.


I am grateful to P.M. Prescott, whose writing on the history of Christianity–and in particular, this blog post–first interested me in this subject.  I am also grateful to Eileen Stephenson, who introduced me to the history of the Byzantine Empire. They helped arm me with many of the facts and dates referenced in the post above. Egregious errors, wild inferences, random assumptions and crackpot opinions are mine alone, however.


  1. Wow, that was forever and a day ago! Thanks for the mention. One of the ironies of French history as I’ve interpreted is that every monarch, Louis the Pius, Saint Louis, Louis XIV, and others nearly destroyed the country. (XIV’s revoking the edict of Nantes set in motion the Revolution.)
    Jesus kingdom was as always has been spiritual, not physical. To force His beliefs by the power of the state destroys the state.

    1. Well said. And I’m very glad to give you a mention–that post of yours has always stuck with me as a really good explanation of how Christianity spread and incorporated other traditions.

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