Kierkegaard, Christianity and Contemporary Civil Religion in the United States
Like his mentor and role model Socrates, Søren Kierkegaard sought to challenge the established ideas of his contextual society through the use of irony in order to lead the interlocutor to see the fallacies of his own arguments and the poverty of his expertise. In his final series of essays, Kierkegaard juxtaposes New Testament Christianity with the Danish State Church. Whereas early believers lived contemporaneously with Jesus and followed Him to their own martyred deaths, believing in His divinity as God’s chosen Messiah and Son of God, state sponsored churches made Christianity so easy that one became a Christian without any commitment or effort, but only by virtue of birth. Christians were born Christians. They were “in” unless they chose to be “out,” and even then, were often still granted church sponsored rites (as was Kierkegaard after his death). To be a “Christian” became meaningless in terms of commitment and synonymous in terms of citizenship. “Christians” were the dominant group, held the wealth and political power, faced no persecution or loss due to their faith, and, indeed, were the most honored of the society.
This form of “Christianity” or Christendom properly began with Constantine’s Edict of Tolerationin 313 AD, expanded with the Edict of Thessalonicaby Emperor Theodosius, which in AD 380 made Nicene Christianity the state religion of Rome. During the first three centuries of Christianity, followers of Jesus, almost without exception, renounced all forms of violence, refused to participate in official government roles, refused military service, and renounced the lordship of the Caesars. They insisted on proclaiming, “Jesus is lord,” which meant, “and Caesar is not.”
Gaius Octavius dissolved the Roman Senate and ushered in the era of absolute despotism after adopting the title Caesar Augustus, attributing deity to himself, claiming to be the son of the gods, proclaiming his ascension as the evangel, and coining the phrase, “There is no other name under heaven by which one can be saved except by Caesar Augustus.” Rome’s military bludgeoned every woman, man, and child into submission through violent force. The Romans perfected crucifixion into the most torturous method ever devised to kill humans and used crucifixion extensively as a weapon of terrorism to subjugate whole people groups. When an uprising, or even criticism of Rome arose, legionnaires swooped into villages, gathered people at random and nailed them to crosses for all to see. The individual freedom Socrates championed was crushed.
Christians, the early followers of Jesus, however, refused to call Caesar “lord,” bow to his images, or participate in his armies. Many Jews who saw their belief that a man, Jesus, was God incarnate as blasphemy already despised believers. (It should be noted that Jesus was Jewish, as were all of His original apostles and followers.) Now, beginning with Augustus, followers of Jesus were persecuted by the state as atheists for refusing to accept Roman gods and traitors for refusing to bow to Caesar. The best religion of the day, Judaism, and the best political culture of the day, Rome, combined to first crucify Christ, then to martyr Christians.
After the Edict of Toleration, persecution stopped. After the Edict of Thessalonica, Christians found themselves in power. Theologians, notably Augustine, scrambled to accommodate the teachings of Jesus to the power structures of the empire. Augustine taught that one could love one’s neighbor while killing him. The clear teaching of nonviolent love for and forgiveness of enemies that Jesus taught and demonstrated on the cross, and which the Apostle Paul reiterated in his writings was reinterpreted to not only permit, but glorify war, killing on behalf of the state, and participating in political power. This perspective dominated the Orthodox Church in the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, and the Latin (later Roman Catholic) Church in the west. It continued to dominate among the Reformers. Luther and Calvin both sanctioned violence. Only the radical reformers, the Anabaptists, seized upon the teachings of Christ, most notably the Sermons on the Mount and on the Plain (Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6) and insisted that one became a Christian by personal decision, not by birth, and that, having decided to follow Jesus, one was obligated to renounce all violence, forgive one’s enemies, refuse military service, and seek the way of peace as a lifestyle. For their trouble, the Anabaptists were persecuted and martyred by Protestants and Catholics alike.
Colonists from Europe profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment founded the United States of American. Justified by papal, royal, and clerical edicts, they invaded North America, killed or subjugated native peoples, stole their land, and imported African slaves to build a global economy. With the exception of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, all the first presidents were slaveholders.
A civil religion utilizing Christian terminology, adopting post-Constantinian theology of empire, and blending Enlightenment ideals developed. This civil religion dominates today. Conservative Catholics and white evangelical Christians in the States worship the state, seek and enjoy political power, embrace consumerist exploitative capitalism, support the military and nationalistic wars, and see no contradiction with the teachings of Jesus in spite of the fact that what they believe and how they act are diametrically opposite those teachings.
Kierkegaard boldly challenged the Danish State Church. Modern Anabaptists, such as members of the Church of the Brethren and Mennonites, and contemporary neo-Anabaptists are today utilizing Kierkegaardian principals as they insist on refusing military service, refuse to pledge allegiance to any flag or nation other than the Kingdom of God, respond to injury with cruciform love, and seek to live nonmaterialistic simple lives of generosity and service to the neediest among us.
Like Kierkegaard, they make Christianity less attractive and less easy. Being a Christian means actually doing what Jesus said to do – turn the other cheek, go the second mile, forgive one’s enemies, become the servant of all, lay down your life for others, and so on. Like Kierkegaard, they eschew political power and seek to change the world through individual hearts rather than legislation or military might.
Today, in the United States, conservative Catholics and white evangelical Protestants are enthusiastically championing political leaders whose personal behaviors and policy positions are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christ. They have a passion, but it is an unreflective passion. In Kierkegaard’s thought, there is a distinction between reflective and nonreflective passion – the former being wholehearted enthusiasm based on careful thought and consideration; the latter being based on false premises or ideals. The terrorist acts on nonreflective passion; the Christian martyr on reflective passion.
Modern conservative Catholics and white evangelical Protestants often quote from Romans 13 in support of their “chosen one.” The key to understanding Romans 13 is to not separate it from Romans 12. Chapter 12 instructs us clearly to embrace nonviolent cruciform love. Chapter 13 tells us to accept the consequences when obeying God is contrary to the laws of human society. We do not obey the government, but we submit to it. We obey God. Thus, referencing Kierkegaard again, there is sometimes a legitimate teleological suspension of the ethical. At times the individual, ruled by God, is higher than the accepted universal ethic.
Faith, for Kierkegaard, is paradoxical in that it is not based strictly on what is reasonable or logical. Faith may lead us to behaviors that result in persecution, loss, even death. Unlike human reason, faith is not focused on self-preservation. We must learn to follow Jesus contemporaneously; i.e., to enter into our apprenticeship with Him, as did the first disciples who expected no monetary rewards or societal honors. Conversely, they knew that following Jesus meant persecution. Daily, they took up their crosses joyously, denying themselves, to follow the Master. The reward is in knowing Him, in being with Him.