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The good old days of Christendom

Book Book Review Part I, Title How Should We Then Live?, Author Francis A. Schaeffer, Rating 2.5, Part 1 of 4, The Good Old Days of Christendom

How Should We Then Live?

Francis A. Schaeffer

Book Review Part I

Here is a sentence to memorize: To make no decision in regard to growth of authoritarian government is already a decision for it.
-Francis A. Schaeffer,  How Should We Then Live? (page 257)

I first read parts of this book in 1976, when Francis Schaeffer was a humble missionary to the intellectually curious, and not active in politics, or so it seemed. Several recent histories have described Schaeffer as a primary actor in the post-Roe-v-Wade shift of U.S. Evangelical Christians into high gear politically, who married themselves to the Republican party to return a morally corrupted secular society to the absolute moral certainty of Christian culture. This prompted me to re-read this book, to answer the question: What did Schaeffer have to say that influenced so many Evangelicals to become more politically active?

The first part of this four-part review summarizes the primary theses of the author, then brings out critical historical events that were minimized or left out of the author’s analysis of Western Civilization and assesses their impact on the book’s major arguments.

The superiority of the Christian worldview & Call to action

Schaeffer said that Christianity, or as presuppositionalists like to say, the Christian worldview, is the only absolute model for the morals and the governance of human beings, and the only solution to fix a morally decadent and fallen Western society. Non-Christian, humanist or secular ways of looking at the world he described as limited, relative, dissolute, despairing, brutal, and so on.

His book, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, was a celebration of Western art and ideas as a set of intellectual triumphs derived from the Christian mind-set and philosophy – from Christendom – and a historical attempt to explain how the rise of Western society can be attributed to its Christian heritage, and how its current decline comes from its modern secularization. The presentation of Western history in this manner served the author’s argument that Western society was best and strongest when Christianity was in control, particularly the late-developing Protestantism, and that the solution to modern problems would be to return our culture and government to the good old days of Christian-dominated Western culture.

Schaeffer posited that current Western, but especially the U.S., secular governments are authoritarian and serve to lead their citizens morally astray, to stifle the Christian worldview. The book was finally a call-to-arms to Christians to become politically active so as to move society back to the superior and historically successful Christian norms. The final page of the book has this exhortation to his fellow Christians:

Here is a sentence to memorize: To make no decision in regard to growth of authoritarian government is already a decision for it.
(page 257)

Missing: The history of Christian authoritarianism and cruelty


The Inquisition. PD-US.

The author’s descriptions of Western accomplishments in art, ideas, government and society are often pithy and informative. Unfortunately, too much of his exposition on Western history has critical gaps, precisely where important but inconvenient events and ideas would show the deleterious effects of Christian culture, or where they might conflict with his ideology.

Schaeffer’s primary theme, that the Christian worldview is the only means to temper authoritarian government, can only hold up if the author ignores 1,400 years of Christian history to the contrary.

Schaeffer spent some time on the periodic persecution of Christians by Rome because of their resistance to worshiping Roman gods, developing his theme of the intolerability of life under an authoritarian state, particularly being coerced to worship gods one does not believe in. But when he arrived at the great inversion in 381 CE, when Christianity became the state religion of Rome, the one which all citizens of Rome must worship besides their own, something the author described as an intolerable condition of an authoritarian state, no explanation is provided. The same persecution, once applied to Christians, was now applied to pagans who didn’t adhere to the new state religion: Christianity.

The coercion, repression and brutality of the Christian Church when it was the state religion of the authoritarian regimes of Rome, Byzantium, Russia, the Holy Roman Empire, and every European state and territory from medieval times to the French Revolution is well-established history. From the 5th century CE forward, Christendom was essentially a mono-religious society, where all other religions were either heavily discouraged or against the law. Believe or be cast out of society! Venture an unorthodox opinion, and be terrorized: threatened with punishment, imprisoned, tortured or burned for heresy. The book touches very lightly on these things, ever careful not to draw any conclusions that would reveal the authoritarian history of Christendom.

The author talked at length about the cruelty of Rome, and happily pointed out the stability of medieval times, when Christianity flourished, but glossed over what life was like for those who were not part of the corpus Christianorum, those baptized a Christian, particularly what life was like for the Jews: Limited civil rights, limited access to work, periodic forfeiture of property, exile or death. He paused to admire the considerable accomplishments of the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, without describing the brutal excesses of the same ruler, particularly his role in extending Christianity via the sword. He touched on the Inquisition without mention that it was an office of the Christian Church which used terror in search of heretics or hidden Jews or Muslims. (page 124,132) Of the violent Crusades he says only this: "Even the Crusades became vehicles of economic expansion. " (page 48)  Unmentioned was the murderous and sometimes genocidal behavior of European explorers and colonialists toward native populations, especially the many episodes of forced religious conversions, and the wholesale suppression of native religions in the name of Christianity. So much else was left un-noted, including the economic and political slavery of the vast majority of the population of Christendom, Western and Eastern, as serfs. (The word is derived from the Latin servus, slave.)

A good deal of the worst authoritarian and cruel behavior of Christian societies was left unexplained by the author, often just by omitting it, or when it was mentioned, dismissed by suggesting that it wasn’t the Christian part of Christendom that produced the behavior, but alien or pagan influences or something that was carried out by secular authorities; in a similar vein, he posited that sometimes Christendom had just lost sight of the purity of Christianity, particularly early Christianity, by way of saying the worst of Christian culture was mere human weakness not attributable to the Christian ideal.

Perhaps the biggest omission of the book was the great historical sin of Christianity as a culture: Its virulent and hateful anti-Semitism, based on a Biblical interpretation that the Jews were Christ-killers. Since this behavior has persisted in Christian society even unto today, it is bewildering that some careful examination of this subject cannot be found in this historical defense of Christian culture. (note 3)

Missing: The Reformation’s antecedents and unintended consequences

What did the Protestants seek to reform? The immorality, venality, and deep corruption of the Christian Church for hundreds of years preceding their day. The Western Schism of 1378 occurred when there were disagreements over who would control the Catholic Church, so both a French and Italian Pope were elected; each was backed by portions of Europe, and each excommunicated all the followers of the other, consigning all of Western Christendom to hell! This outcome genuinely shocked Europe. The subsequent Conciliar movement attempted to reform the Church, but was relatively unsuccessful. (notes 2,3) (Of course, this was not the only mass excommunication in Christian history; there were many, one other which impacted an even larger population: The Great Schism of 1053 was the final split between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, during which each Church excommunicated the followers of the other – all Christian believers were consigned to the bowels of hell.) The author mentions these events in passing as regrettable.


Revolting peasants with the Bundschuh flag. 1539. PD-US.

The author argued that the Protestant Reformation was an important antecedent of modern liberal institutions, of modern individual freedoms. Troeltsch, in his Protestantism and Progress, made a similar argument, but, unlike Schaeffer, acknowledged that much of the subsequent Reformation influence on modern society stemmed from consequences clearly unintended by the reformers, particularly the growth of individual freedom and capitalism. Once Luther opened the Pandora’s box of individual freedoms (i.e. each person had the right to read and interpret the Bible on their own) as a weapon against the Catholic Church, he spent the remainder of his life trying to shut it, to the point of exhorting the German Princes to subjugate and kill any of the peasants under revolt (1525), those peasants who had taken Luther’s initial call for individual freedom seriously.

Similarly, modern individual freedoms did not flower in Calvin’s theocratic and authoritarian Geneva: Those who did not follow the Reformed Church’s strict interpretation of the Bible met with exile, imprisonment, forfeiture of property and even execution; this was unmentioned by the author. (note 3)

-John Milton, On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament
Men like Luther and Calvin limited the freedom of individuals to that of interpreting the Bible for themselves, needed to justify new interpretations of the Bible, particularly their own. The Catholic Church had only allowed the priesthood that privilege; Luther insisted on a “priesthood of all believers“. Tellingly, the early Protestants did not lay to rest the concept of orthodoxy and heresy; that is, they maintained that even if you read it yourself, you may get it wrong, and their clerics were the ones who finally determined if your interpretation was right or wrong. If this seems dizzying, it may be because these men came back full circle to Catholic coercion, if not completely to Catholic theology.

The Protestant Reformation is at the heart of Schaeffer’s historical defense of Christendom; much of the history of Christendom found in the author’s account downplays or ignores important events before the Reformation, and outside of Europe. When the author did touch on the worst of those events, he treated them as if they were not part of his modern Protestant tradition and therefore did not have to be accounted for. For example, he said of the Inquisition: "In Spain, where the Inquisition continued into the 18th century, persecution and lack of freedom has lasted in one form or another up to our own day." (page 124) He said this to contrast the Inquisition to his description of the liberal influence of the Reformation, as if Catholicism can be lumped historically, politically and ethically with his persistent bogeyman, secular humanism. Yet of course he cannot actually say this, since the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are Christendom, and for a thousand years the very parents of his brand of Christianity. So he had to elide over these inconvenient truths, as he did in many other places, in this case not even mentioning that the Inquisition was a very Christian institution, built to enforce orthodox thinking and behavior and punish heretical deviations from institutionally determined orthodoxy.

Missing: Western Christendom’s internecine Wars of Religion


Cardinal Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle, Henri-Paul Motte. PD-US.

During the Protestant Reformation and the reactionary Counter-Reformation, every European duchy or state declared a state religion, whether it be Catholicism, Lutheranism, or the Reformed Church (Calvinism): The price of not adhering to a region’s stated religion was excommunication and other punishments, including death. This re-alignment of Western Christendom was one of the final steps that led to the terrible Continental Wars of Religion.

In the violent century after the start of the Reformation, Wars of Religion were fought between Catholics and Protestants, which killed nearly as many people (by percentage) as the terrible secular world wars of the 20th century. This period of acute intolerance produced a secular reaction, as organized religion came to be seen by many intellectuals as bloody, bloody-minded, and mindless; their reaction was to seek more rational views, and sometimes overly rational views of the world. Christians killing one another because they disagreed on their interpretation of the Bible was seen by many as deeply immoral. There was no mention of these wars or their religious, political or ethical consequences on the part of the author. (note 4)

During this same period, Protestants excommunicated all Catholics, and Catholics excommunicated all Protestants, yet again sending several generations of Continental Christians to hell. (The English were already excommunicated, when Henry VIII reformed the Church to wed Anne Boleyn and to capture the Church’s wealth on behalf of the nobility.) Again, the author was silent on this subject.

The concept of religious tolerance in Europe grew out of exhaustion from the Wars of Religion. Protestant movements often took the lead, precisely because they were generally the ones who required that toleration from the entrenched political and ecclesiastical Catholic culture they grew up in. Even that tolerance was selective: the Puritans in the English Parliament of the Commonwealth period enacted laws allowing freer worship for other Protestant sects aside from the Church of England, which could not be dislodged as the state religion, but did not allow it for Catholics. Puritans in North America have a similar history. In Massachusetts, Roger Williams was stymied in his efforts to worship outside of the Puritan tradition by local officials; he ultimately left the colony and formed his own colony, Rhode Island, on a much more open principle of freedom of religion.

Again, the Reformation ultimately drove modern freedom of religion, but much of the impetus came unintentionally and begrudgingly; it was a much more common story for a group to gain enough power to grant themselves freedom of their own religious expression, and immediately turn around and restrict the religious freedom of others who were not part of their religious outlook. Full religious freedom in the West was more often promoted by men who had distanced themselves from organized Christianity, such as the 18th century deists Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, men who were influenced both by the Enlightenment and their Christian roots.

The historian Ernst Gombrich pointed out that the Christian wars of religion were a major influence on the development of secularism, particularly in the emergence of the Enlightenment:

A Little History of the World, by E.H. Gombrich

Modern liberal states, that is those based on individual freedoms, have a secular and a Christian base. The separation of church and state did not flow altogether beneficently from a Christian-dominated polity, but was partially constructed in reaction against its illiberal repression to ensure that the excesses of political Christianity were not repeated.

Modern Western governments: Authoritarian like Rome, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union?

The final theme of the book is that modern Western societies, primarily U.S. society, are controlled by authoritarian governments. The author contended that these governments are authoritarian in the way that Rome, Europe before 1800, or the German and Soviet totalitarian regimes of the 20th century were! This is such a stretch: How does one seriously address this, something one still hears from the Evangelical Right, which regularly labels those who oppose them Communists, or compares them to Hitler, meaning that they are acting in the manner of an illiberal totalitarian government? I suppose the simplest answer is, if modern liberal democracies indeed met Schaeffer’s definition of authoritarian, they would not be liberal democracies, nor would the author be free to express such an opinion.

End of part 1 of 4.

(To read part 2 of this four-part review, click here. The second part of this review examines the author’s historical approach, and evaluates his comparison of Christendom and secular society.)



1. Christianity as the state religion. Schaeffer’s very modern liberal thesis, that of the right of every man to live freely, suffers when looking at the history of Christendom. In 381CE the Roman Empire made Christianity the state religion and paganism heretical. Christianity quickly came to dominate the Europe of the Roman Empire. As the Roman Empire split, and then faded in the West, Christianity remained the state religion up to the French Revolution. In the West, the organized Church itself dominated society and performed many governmental functions, particularly during the Early Middle Ages. The Holy Roman Empire explicitly prescribed Christian worship, and proscribed the worship in other religions, either completely, or to civic limits applied primarily to the Jews.

During the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Church and Absolutist monarchs fought over secular and sometimes religious control of countries and regions. The Church, when monarchs held sway, held the line on heresy and apostasy via ecclesiastical courts and Inquisitions, and when a civil penalty was determined, such as forfeiture or property, exile, imprisonment, or execution, the punishment was carried out by the prevailing secular authorities.

Church and state in some ways were unified: note that Huss and Luther were tried for heresy not by the Church, but by the Holy Roman Empire. The nobility, members of the authoritarian class which held secular control over Christendom, for all practical purposes also held control over the Church: The high positions of the Church hierarchy, the cardinals, bishops, archbishops, and so on, were mostly held by the second sons of the noble class, those who’s first-born brothers had inherited their family’s secular power. Christendom was Christian politically, religiously and culturally. No matter what the political form, citizens of Western Europe had no option but to follow Christianity: It was all-controlling, coercive and decidedly illiberal. See related summaries here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The coming of the Reformation produced overt declarations of state religions for the realms, fiefs, and finally nations of Europe, choosing sides politically between the Reformation and the Catholic Restoration (Counter-Reformation). One that stands out particularly was Geneva, where under Calvin the only worship allowed was under the auspices of his nascent Reformed Church (Schaeffer’s tradition). By the mid-twentieth century, most of Europe had established freedom of religion and either removed the explicit alliance of the state with a particular religion, or had seriously weakened the power of the state over religious worship and institutions. That being said, there are many vestiges of Christian state religion still to be found in Europe, both Protestant and Catholic.

2. The Renaissance. Schaeffer cited various immoral behaviors of the young humanists, and cited the evidence of depression among Renaissance artists as the inevitable fruits of a human-centered world. Depression was also found, of course, among Christians, as was immorality sizable enough to drive efforts towards reforming the Church. Not a small amount of vernacular humanistic writing during the Renaissance, by men like Petrarch, Boccaccio, Erasmus and even Dante, included caricatures of the widespread immorality and corruption of the Christian Church at every level: Priests, nuns, prelates, bishops, and popes. Schaeffer does mention some of this in passing, but assigns his version of Christianity no responsibility for any of it.

3. The Reformation. The 2nd best-seller during the 16th century after the Bible was Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, which skewered the Church on many grounds, particularly corruption. Luther’s famous 95 Theses which started it all off did not address theological issues such as salvation without priestly intercession, but primarily addressed corruption in the Church.

-Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, part XIII  
Schaeffer referred to Luther’s publishing of his Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, in which he exhorted the German Princes to show no mercy, to kill the peasants under revolt, brushing it aside in a single sentence: "Luther’s unbalanced position in regard to the peasant wars." (page 84) The author was completely silent on Luther’s vocal and vicious anti-Semitic rantings such as his notorious On the Jews and their Lies, which have been called out in multiple Holocaust histories as significant antecedents to the Holocaust. For example, Christopher Probst’s recent book Demonizing the Jews discusses the extensive role the German Protestant Church played in supporting Nazi anti-Semitic policies, including their regular use of Luther’s writings to justify the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht, among other Nazi measures against the Jews.

Schaeffer argued that the Reformation was the main influence on modern individual freedoms. Bertrand Russell, like Gombrich, also emphasized the negative aspects of that influence: "The results of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, in the intellectual sphere, were at first wholly bad, but ultimately beneficial. The Thirty Year's War persuaded everybody that neither Protestants nor Catholics could be completely victorious; it became necessary to abandon the medieval hope of doctrinal unity, and this increased men's freedom to think for themselves, even about fundamentals. ... Disgust with theological warfare turned the attention of able men increasingly to secular learning, especially mathematics and science."(Bertrand Russell A History of Western Philosophy (page 483) 

Regarding other influences on the development of individual freedoms, the author briefly acknowledged but minimized the Greek city-states and their partial citizenship model (unlike typical histories). He left out the long history of Germanic tribal freemen councils, die Thinge and the Witanagemot, which heavily influenced the development of individual liberties in England, Germany and the Nordic countries, and the development of Common Law in England. (See part three of this review for more discussion.)

Schaeffer chose to emphasize the influences of Protestantism on the development of individual freedoms in modern Westerns societies. Larry Siedentop’s recent book, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, plows similar ground, postulating that individual freedoms arose predominantly from Medieval Catholic theology. Siedentop’s book suffers from similar gaps in its historical treatment; historians David Abulalfia and Samuel Moyn detail Siedentop’s approach and its problems in their reviews.

4. Os Guinness, a prominent Evangelical apologist, who was one of Schaeffer’s early acolytes at l’Abri, said recently in his Global Public Square:

The Global Public Square, by Os. Guinness

While this is a welcome acknowledgement by a Christian evangelical writer of some of the things Schaeffer ignored in his book, it also contains the same evasions of Christian responsibility: ‘those who call themselves Christians’ did the bad stuff. This is typical of Schaeffer, also: Bad acts by Christians are treated as evidence that those Christians aren’t really Christians, or that it wasn’t the Christian ideology, but ‘sin-nature’ that produced such bad acts! Wow! All the easier to claim all the good parts of Christendom as evidence that Christianity – no, wait, Protestantism – no, wait, Reformed Protestantism – is better for society than any other alternatives. This well-worn posturing would be more interesting if the same formula were applied by Schaeffer and Guinness when they evaluated the ideologies they disapprove of – history is after all a record of human behavior good and bad. In any event, falling back on over-arched idealism when the application of an ideology falls short of that very idealism is not limited to hard-nosed Christian evangelicals.

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