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The Twilight of Christendom and the Tactical Turn

The media has been flush with stories and commentary on religion in the public square. When a panel of religious leaders is called to testify before a congressional oversight hearing, how could it be otherwise? For a country which has canonized a separation between religion and governance these spectacles of power and politicking quickly call into question the Post-Christendom thesis….

The media has been flush with stories and commentary on religion in the public square. When a panel of religious leaders is called to testify before a congressional oversight hearing, how could it be otherwise? For a country which has canonized a separation between religion and governance these spectacles of power and politicking quickly call into question the Post-Christendom thesis.

There are two ways of approaching this flurry of religious fervor. First, one can argue that Christendom has not been on the way out, at least in the North American context. All the publicity and commentary are signs that Christianity still holds significant cultural sway in American society. The second interpretation is that these events are part of the Church’s attempt to claw its way back into legitimacy while the state goes through the motions of listening. In this last scenario, events like the recent congressional hearing regarding the Health and Human Services mandate of coverage of birth control is not a show of religious power, but of politicians pandering to an institution that can deliver a significant block of voters.

It is this last interpretation that will guide the my argument. In all of the fury over the wars on religion and confrontations over policy versus practices of faith, the reality is that the logic of the American experiment is reaching its conclusion. In not recognizing one religion over another the government and the political discourse have been separated from any need of legitimation offered by religious communities. Liberal democracy finally has the ability to invest itself with authority through specifically economic means. Rather than clamor for control, or rehearse arguments for the morality of a democracy that is based on the virtues of individual Christians, I want to pursue what it might look like for the Church to assume a powerless posture in the midst of an ever increasing Empire.  To that end, the argument will proceed in three stages. First, Max Weber’s landmark study of the Protestant roots of the capitalist spirit will show how Christendom has shaped our assumptions about political economies. As a counter point, I will summarize James K. A. Smith’s description of cultural fiturgies as a competition between formational strategies. The final section will turn to Michele deCerteau and his articulation of tactical practices. There assertion here is that the tactical posture is the most appropriate mode of action for the Church within the world.

Weber’s Christendom Thesis

Max Weber’s seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is both a work of sociological brilliance and significant study of religion in the public square. Whether or not one agrees with his descriptions of Christian traditions, the ascetic impulse, or the very nature of capitalism itself, Weber’s thesis is built on the Christendom assumption that faith and the political economy are intertwined. Of course, we must ask of Weber’s text which came first, the Protestant ethic or the capitalist spirit. Yet, the very idea that one’s religious piety would be confirmed in the accumulation of wealth and social power is an assumption rooted in Christendom. The state and the faith are not competing claims about truth and practice but rather are mutually reinforcing. Or as Weber says in the introduction, the work deals “with the connection of the spirit of modern economic life with the rational ethics of ascetic Protestantism.”[1]

Weber’s assessment is simple. Though capitalism has existed in communities outside the West- that is outside of Christendom- the intersection of Protestantism and capitalism produced a grand flourishing of wealth. As he queries in the opening pages, “why were the districts of highest economic development at the same time particularly favorable to a revolution in the Church?”[2] In a Hegelian rejoinder to Marx, Weber asserts that the answer is to be found in the “permanent intrinsic character” of religious beliefs.”[3] Yet, the thesis is not completely Hegelian in that the material and ideal are informing one another.To explain this interaction Weber turns to the words of Benjamin Franklin. Weber then asserts that“the earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling; and this virtue and proficiency are, as it is now not difficult to see, the real Alpha and Omega of Franklin’s ethic.”[4]

In a more theological look at the intersection of piety and capital, Weber turns to Luther’s theology of the “Priesthood of All.” The Lutheran shift in understandings about vocation, he argues, shifted calling from clerical or monastic vocations to emphasize one’s work in the world. Thus, the highest value is not cloistered piety but “the fulfillment of duty in worldly affairs.”[5] How one conducts him or herself in these worldly affairs will be demonstrated negatively, at least in the case of Luther’s theology, by the limits placed on success. So, for  example, the person who strives for wealth beyond what is sufficient for personal need works outside the bounds of grace. They are living in a kind of works righteousness within the existing economic order.

When this celebration of duty and virtue within the social and economic order is combined with the Calvinist conceptions of objective grace, the link between wealth and piety, or more specifically election, is solidified. For it is within a system of double predestination that anxiety about salvation is never really assuaged . Rather, uncertain if one is of the elect or the damned, the believer is often searching for confirmation of salvation. Weber argues, then, that “faith had to be proved by its objective results in order to provide a firm foundation for the certitudo salutis.[6]” The effect is the substitution of a “spiritual aristocracy of the predestined saints of God within the world” for the monastic elite set apart from the world.[7] Economic achievement is an external confirmation of one’s spiritual status. Wealth, in this line of argument, nearly becomes sacramental in nature. It is an outward sign of an inward grace.

It is difficult to imagine early Christian theology and practice having such spiritually defined social influence. Weber’s argument, and the interrelationship of theology and economics only makes sense in Christendom society. For any theological system to intersect with cultural practices with such impact and influence assumes the Church is in a place of significant power. Such potential is possible when ecclesial practices and cultural liturgies are nearly indistinguishable. What is more, metaphysical claims are made to reinforce triumphalist conceptions of social transformation. As Weber notes in his discussion of Calvinism: “God requires social achievement of the Christian because He wills that social life shall be organized according to His commandments, in accordance with that purpose.”[8]

Smith’s Competing Liturgies

Weber’s is not the only model for assessing the interaction of faith and Empire. James K.A. Smith in his recent book Desiring the Kingdom has convincingly argued that cultures have within them formative practices, liturgies, that pre-consciously shape our social imaginaries. In more simple language, the cultures we participate in form the ways we imagine and interact with the world without our awareness. To modern ears this sounds troublesome, even heretical. How is it that our minds can be influenced and yet never be cognizant of the effects? Is not the mind and its reasoning capacity the pinnacle of the human race?

Smith answers such rhetorical and confounded questions throughout the book, making significant use of anthropological and psychological categories. By the end of the book, it is clear that the things we do- our mundane actions, our attentive practices, and our liturgical habits- influence what we think, desire, and thus perceive. Yet, as parts of our cultural experiences, these practices and rituals touch everything we do. In fact, we participate in numerous, and at times contradicting, cultural liturgies. As Smith states, our task is to “recognize that these practices are not neutral or benign, but rather intentionally loaded to form us into certain kinds of people– to unwittingly make us disciples of rival kings and patriotic citizens of rival kingdoms.”[9]

Rather than assume a kind of Weberian Christendom, Smith’s articulation of formative liturgies highlights the competing nature of overlapping cultures. In more Christendom language, it was once thought that political forms were populated by the values and beliefs of the people. Thus, a critical mass of engaged and virtuous Christian citizens could in some ways guarantee a virtuous state. In the light of Smith’s thesis, however, it is clear that as a culture, capitalism and democracy have intrinsic imaginaries which are inscribed into the people through the the practices of Empire.

This is beautifully explained early in Desiring the Kingdom as Smith describes the liturgical quality of the “Mall Religion.”[10] Narrating a walk through a typical mall, Smith shows how the cathedral of consumer driven capitalism parallels Christian worship. The mall not only organizes time and space, but it presents multiple visions of “the good life.” The movements and practices entailed in a simple shopping trip, through Smiths thesis, becomes a religious experience. In fact, he notes, it is better than a Sunday morning worship because consumerism is a whole body experience- it involves body, mind, emotions, and desires in formative rituals. Or as he says, “we can at once appreciate that the mall is a religious institution because it is a liturgical institution and that it is a pedagogical institution because it is a formative institution.”[11]

Unlike Weber’s description of capitalistic confirmation of salvation, Smith presents the two as competing cultures. This is most evident in the ways the two liturgies, that of the mall and the Church, handle desire. The mall, he says works on people so as to keep them coming back. Newness and fads present an ever changing  goal. It isn’t just a matter of having a certain body, but having the newest clothes and the newest piece of technology. In essence consumerism fuels desire but leaves it forever searching for the ultimate end. Christian liturgy too fuels the desire for certain ends, but establishes those ends in a constant God, “who was and is, and ever shall be.” As I said in another discussion of Smith’s work, “the Christian liturgy brings God’s reign to life, even if it is but for fleeting moment.”[12] The worshiper’s desire for the Kingdom of God is satiated in short discernable moments throughout life, while the mall just fans desires without ever giving them rest. The result of this competition is an ironic synthesis of opposed desires. Or, as Smith notes about Christian Universities, the product is a population “who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder ‘from a Christian perspective.’”[13]


The Tactical Turn

So, then, what are we as Christians to do in the ever expanding Empire of consumerism? Weber’s Christendom argument no longer stands true in the light of new understandings of formation and ritual. It is too clear now, through the lens of Smith’s cultural liturgies, that our economic practices reveal a set of values and goods completely different from the vision of the good life depicted in the Christian narrative. While the Empire expands and interiorizes each new frontier, the Church grows increasingly marginalized as it tries to witness to ways of living that are based on abundance and mutuality rather than scarcity and individualism. In the case of the birth control mandate noted above, the Church is now stuck trying to make its case for life in a public square defined by economics. That is to say, any alternative vision for the common good whether moral or religious, must argue against the dollar. In the case of the birth control mandate, the bishops must address the economics of health care since insurance plans that do not cover contraception will be more expensive due to the cost of care.

The Roman Catholic hierarchy, and those communions that have stood along side of them, have tried to operate from what Michele deCerteau has called the strategic posture. Here, these denominations have assumed that the public space is still their own proper field and argued as such. Yet, in the light of economic tyranny, this is no longer the case. As has been said by presidents and politicians in the last twenty years, “its the economy stupid.” Christianity is no longer in the position to define terms and establish the morals of the society. Now the government seeks the investiture of economic networks. The Church, still seduced by the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, must come to acknowledge its proper location in the  world of deCerteau’s tactics.

In his study of practical logics, The Practices of Everyday Life, deCerteau outlines two modes of action- strategies and tactics. In doing so he seeks to “determine the use to which [social phenomenon] are put by groups or individuals.”[14] Using the traditional semiotic distinction between lange and parole, language and speech, he highlights the elements of both strategies and tactics. “Speaking operates within the field of a linguistic system; it effects an appropriation or reappropriation, of language by its speakers; it establishes a present relative to a time and place; and it posits a contract with the other (the interlocutor) in a network of places and relations.”[15] A language, the syntax and grammar, are strategic in nature. They outline the proper forms of speech and writing. With each conversation, however, the speaker subverts these formal qualities of the language. It is a making, a poesis, that takes place in time.

This distinction between a proper place and an action in time highlights another facet of the strategic and tactical difference- power. “A Strategy,” he says, “assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, ‘clienteles’, ‘targets’ or ‘objects’ of research). Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model.”[16] Power, then, allows these strategic modes to define space so as to distinguish between interior and exterior, proper and illicit. Tactics, on the other hand, are a mode of action that does not have such a capacity. Instead, a tactic- or ruse-  “cannot count on a ‘proper’ (a spatial or institutional localization), nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tactic belongs to the other.”[17] Instead, tactics operate in discreet moments of time, making manifest interests and desires apart from those of more established systems and institutions.

The tactician, then, inhabits the strategic context. In fact, there is no leaving them. As deCerteau says, the lay person makes the cultural powers “function in another register.”[18] Every tactical action breaches the boundaries established by these proper boundaries. “These ‘traverses’ remain heterogeneous to the systems they infiltrate.”[19] By inhabiting these systems, the tactician makes use of its goods in effect  producing “a flash shedding a different light on the language of a place.”[20] Unlike the gains of strategic action, however, tacticians cannot claim the spoils of their actions. “It takes advantage of ‘opportunities’ and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position.”[21]

The Church, throughout time, has valued the strategic over the tactical. The establishment of institutions around the globe have been a way of holding off the effects of time, the slipping away of the goods of its actions. However, in the presence of Empire the Church should reclaim its pre-Christendom, and tactical, nature. This is not to say that the Church cannot witness to its vision of the Kingdom of God. As Smith highlights about ecclesial liturgies, the practices of the Church form our hearts and desires in that precise direction. Yet, the work of the people of God in the world takes on more tactical qualities. We engage in ruses- making use of opportunities to witness to the peace of Christ- shedding new light on unfulfilled desires of the Imperial liturgies.

Rather than trying to influence strategically oriented institutions, the Church finds its stride in little steps towards the parousia. Trying to reclaim a strategic posture is to turn back the clock of Christendom in vain. Rather than court politicians and make legal cases for our practices, the witness of the Church is best seen in its historic practices. By sharing in the economic goods among believers the Church counters the value of personal accumulation so celebrated in the Empire. Even in a simple act of hospitality- the welcome of a stranger- the Church counters isolation and chronic xenophobia.

Of course this tactical turn runs counter to over 1600 years of Christendom. Habits of politicking, of courting power die hard. What is more, the seduction of security, so palpable in the decades after the persecutions of the 3rd century, often hinders a deep trust in the promises of God. Yet, the tactical turn restores us to a proper position of faith. As we hear in the epistle to the Hebrews, faith finds us reliant upon the strategies of God. Fortunately, through scripture and the practices of the Church, we come to know the values of that strategy. In living by faith we counter the equally potent cultural strategies with each tactic, bring to life another politic.


Joshua Brockway is both an academic and a minister. Currently he serves as denominational staff in the Church of the Brethren. His work in the church focuses on the practices of discipleship and the spiritual life. In academic circles he studies monastic practice and theology of the 4th and 5th centuries. He is currently a doctoral candidate at The Catholic University of America. Josh blogs at www.collationes.wordpress.com and serves as the blog editor and book review editor Brethren Life and Thought (www.brethrenlifeandthought.org).

[1] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism trans. Talcott Parsons (New York; Routledge Classics,2001), xxxix.

[2] Weber, Protestant Ethic, 4.

[3] Weber, Protestant Ethic, 7.

[4] Weber, Protestant Ethic, 19

[5] Weber, Protestant Ethic, 40.

[6] Weber, Protestant Ethic, 68.

[7] Weber, Protestant Ethic , 74-75.

[8] Weber, Protestant Ethic, 64

[9] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 90-91.

[10] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 21-23

[11] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 23

In  a blog post sometime after the publication of Desiring the Kingdom, Smith highlighted a recent neurological analysis of the mind in an Apple store. It showed how the experiences in the store triggered similar parts of the brain engaged in religious experiences. http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/2011/05/this-is-your-brain-on-apple.html

[12] http://www.brethrenlifeandthought.org/2012/03/06/ascetic-christianity-brethren-dress-and-smiths-cultural-liturgies/

[13] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 219

[14] Michele deCerteau, Practices of Everyday Life (Berkley, CA; University of California Press, 1984) xii.

[15] deCerteau, Practices of Everyday Life, xiii.

[16] deCerteau, Practices of Everyday Life, xix

[17] deCerteau, Practices of Everyday Life, xix

[18] deCerteau, Practices of Everyday Life, 32.

[19] deCerteau, Practices of Everyday Life, 34.

[20] deCerteau, Practices of Everyday Life, 38.

[21] deCerteau, Practices of Everyday Life, 37.

2 thoughts on “The Twilight of Christendom and the Tactical Turn

  1. Thanks for pointing me to this thoughtful engagement. In volume 2 of the project, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, I try to at once deepen the account drawing on Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty while at the same time deflecting concerns that I’m merely “naturalizing” Christian liturgy.

    It’s in volume 3 that I’ll tackle the political more directly. You’re right that I’m eschewing any naive “Christendom” project; on the other hand, I’m not quite given to simple dismissals of Christian concern for the common good. I’ve been too influenced by Oliver O’Donovan, Hans Boersma, Eric Gregory, and Peter Leithart: so I find myself in a weird “between” where my thinking on these matters is still in flux. Volume 3 will return to Augustine’s “liturgical” analysis of the empire in City of God as a contemporary resource.

    Thanks again for your engagement.

    1. Thanks for the comment Dr. Smith!

      The next two volumes sound great. I am looking forward to those segments of the larger argument.

      As for Christendom, as a Anabaptist I often find myself stuck with the very question you highlight, namely that I quickly set aside Christendom and yet wonder how the Church is a catalyst for the common good. In more lucid moments, that is to say when I am not railing against efforts to reclaim Christendom as the height of Church History, I argue that the evangelical mission of the Church is the foundation for any ecclesial action toward the common good. Of course colonial labels soon follow. Yet, I think the invitation into the story and the liturgy of the ecclesia are essential.

      I must admit, that I struggle with Leithart. As a patrologist, I reviewed his recent “Defending Constantine”- and honestly found it wanting.

      Thanks for jumping in, and of course for writing such a clear and insightful book!


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