Billy Graham has been called America’s Pastor. His voice in the American conversation and his access to twelve U.S. presidents is unmatched. He is the ultimate example of Christian faith wedded to societal and governmental power. This marriage of faith and power has a name: Christendom. Theologians, sociologists and historians use this term to describe the marriage of Christianity to state power from the fourth century until…well, this week with Reverend Graham’s bold proclamation of support for Mitt Romney and tolerance towards Mormonism.
The Roman Edict of Toleration (311 AD) followed by the Edict of Milan (317 AD) legally transformed Christians from societal pariahs regularly giving their lives to martyrdom into rightful citizens with legal protections. Within a generation Constantine embraced Christianity. He rose to power as emperor putting Christians at the apex of dominion and influence.
In many ways, Christendom culminates in the person of Billy Graham. Graham has golfed, counseled, and spoken into the lives of repeated U.S. presidents. Presidential candidates are expected, as with the Alfred E. Smith gala last night, to pilgrimage to Black Mountain where they pay their respects to America’s sage.
And yet, these days of wedded bliss are numbered. Society and government, particularly, have slowly been moving farther and farther away from the influence of Christian leaders. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, a series of Supreme Court cases dividing church and state, and threats to remove a church’s tax free status indicate Christians will soon no longer hold a favored status in America.
Some laud this divorce saying the Church was fundamentally changed by the seduction of earthly power rather than living out the upside down values of God’s kingdom, as preached by Jesus. The same theologians argue that the Church grows in number and in depth when persecution is highest and Christians are a minority voice. Your average church goer, yet, senses disequilibrium. They are no longer the predominant voice in society, but one of many minority voices clamoring for influence. A minority view is a new identity to embrace.
Whatever Christendom’s arc, historians will surely look to the move by Billy Graham in this 2012 presidential campaign as a defining turning point. The Charlotte Observer reports that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association removes Mormonism’s cult designation from its web site. At the same time Billy Graham publishes a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal telling the public, “I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.” Any doubt who he means?
Such a move is both ironic and profound at the same time. It is ironic that Billy Graham, the embodiment of Christendom, moves his people from the apex of Christendom into an age of exile. Withdrawing hostility towards Mormonism by removing their cult status and expressing public support for a Mormon candidate is recognition on Graham’s part that expectations among Christians for their president must change. The country is increasing in diversity. Those against Christian values are more of a threat than allies like Romney who share many of the same values. As with the martyrs in Rome before Constantine, alliances must be built with like-minded individuals and constituencies to advance a preferred agenda.
What does this new age hold for the Church? As a pastor leading amidst such tectonic shifts in society and the church’s place in it, I see both the need to help my congregation identify the shift, mourn the loss of influence, but embrace a new future and identify as exiled minorities. History shows that the Church in exile may not command a mayor’s attention, or garner the resources to afford lobbying firms. However, sociologists claim the Church grew exponentially in its first exile such that by Constantine’s coronation in 325 AD there were an estimated 15-20 million Christians in the Mediterranean basin. A Church in exile brings about a depth of discipleship and the growth of the church is unparalleled. Perhaps Billy Graham knows what he is doing after all.