Christian History Home > 2003 > European Christianity's "Failure to Thrive"
European Christianity's "Failure to Thrive"
Why Christendom, born with an imperial bang, is now fading away in an irrelevant whimper.
We're not going to stop any presses by declaring that Christianity has suffered serious decline in Europe—the place where apostles preached, and where Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Barth, and countless other spiritual luminaries called home. Witness, to take just one example, the current sad turmoil in the Anglican Communion between the theological liberals of the statistically stagnant British mother church and their conservative brethren in rapidly growing, vibrant African and Asian dioceses.
Until recently, many Western academics accepted the sociologists' "secularization thesis," which asserts that intellectual advance and economic modernization lead people and nations past a need for faith, to a more enlightened and more secular mode of life. Europe's ongoing and increasing contempt for organized religion has been their prime example, while the growth of Christianity in countries such as Nigeria and China have been dismissed as a primitive stop on the road toward a godless society.
Perhaps no nation more proudly flaunts its secularism than France. The land that launched the millennium of Christendom by crowning Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor in 800 has morphed into a staunchly secularist state, opposed to even the most cursory mention of Christianity's historic influence in the European Union's recently drafted constitution. Over the years France has exemplified the convergence of academic skepticism and popular unrest that has produced empty church pews across the continent.
But events have thrown the secularization thesis into disrepute—to the point where few now defend it in its original form. At the crux of this intellectual shift is one piece of glaring counter-evidence: the United States of America. American Christianity has survived and thrived despite suffering many of the same factors that have proved so troubling to Europe. Americans have been dragged into modernity by scientific advance, brutalized by modern mechanized warfare, battered by urban squalor, seduced by consumerist materialism, and bombarded by anti-Christian critiques from a secularist media and academic establishment. But through it all, they have clung to faith and resisted the destructive ideologies that so deeply scarred twentieth-century Europe.
Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the most famous links between France and the United States, illuminated American Christianity's cultural resilience. During his trip to the United States in 1831, he found a vibrant, flourishing crop of denominations and churches. These, he insisted, "all agreed with each other except about details." All agreed, too, that "the main reason for the quiet sway of religion over their country was the complete separation of church and state." Tocqueville claimed that throughout his stay in America, he met "nobody, lay or cleric, who did not agree about that."
While no single factor can exhaustively explain the stark differences between these Western strongholds, the contrast between Europe's long legacy of government-sponsored religion and America's historically recent and unique separation of church and state provides one wide window on European Christianity's decline.
Constantine Launches the Long Era of Church-State Unity
Constantine's conversion in 312 looms large for the study of church-state relations. During the early church era Tertullian famously said, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church," but after Constantine saw his vision at Milvian Bridge the empire that formerly shed Christian blood began conquering behind the cross. Suddenly, Christian faith became a stepping-stone to secular success, and those who yearned to become truedisciples began to feel they could only do so if they first escaped the compromised "Christian" cities into desert caves and monasteries.
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