Good Riddance to Cultural Christianity

There’s lots of hand-wringing these days in conservative Christian circles: According to recent polls, “Nones” have overtaken the number of Evangelicals, and more recently even Catholics in the United States. The trend toward nones is even more heightened among young adults. There’s also the rise of the Christian Left in the public eye and in politics. And, of course, the clergy scandal—both in Catholic and Evangelical circles. All have been taken to point to the eclipse of the Christian Right.

The thing is, this has been coming for a long time. While the rise of the Religious Right among Evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s was taken as a resurgent movement of conservative Christians, it actually betokened the weakness of the Evangelical Church in the U.S.

The story of the rise of the Religious Right is told by all sides as a story of moral reaction to the 1960s and 1970s. That misses a critical part of the story. A morally lax culture does not threaten the Church. The Church has survived for centuries as integral communities in larger cultures that do not share her distinctive moral practices.

The 1960s and 1970s provoked the rise of the Religious Right not because those decades saw the rise of a moral threat to Christianity in America—as if—but because the changes heralded by those decades posed an ecclesial threat to the American Churches.

This threat resulted from a unique interplay between Church and culture in the U.S.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, even while ebbing and flowing throughout the nation’s history, the broad cultural consensus around Christianity in the U.S.—particularly Protestant Christianity—seemed a source of strength for Christianity in the nation.

But it also facilitated ecclesial weakness, adding to the problems created by cultural individualism and ecclesiastical competition in the U.S. As a result of these forces, churches could, and did, free ride on American culture to transmit and reproduce much of the moral life of Christianity for their members. Or, perhaps more accurately, churches relied on culture to produce a simulacrum of that moral life.

In overthrowing the cultural consensus around Christian morality, the 1960s and 1970s called the Church’s bluff. American culture would no longer supply the moral cues and the moral backbone to American Christianity.

Theologically-liberal churches caved immediately. Of course, they had conceded whatever internal spiritual resources they may once have had at least half a century earlier. They simply accommodated the new consensus as they hemorrhaged members.

Conservative Christians responded in several different ways. But having neither the tradition nor the leadership to do so, they did not respond ecclesially.

First, conservative Christians responded with a renewed emphasis on individual pietism. Hence the whole “born again” movement rising in the 1970s. Individual piety was really individualistic piety, with a neo-platonic gloss on “going to heaven when you die.” (Neo-platonic because eternity is flitting about heaven like a bodiless angel, instead of a new physical heaven and earth and resurrected bodies.)

Combining with this individualistic, pietistic thrust was the continued self-understanding of American churches as “voluntary organizations.” Basically religious clubs of like-minded people who share socioeconomic class and demographic traits. The oft repeated inclusion of churches as among America’s “voluntary organizations”—an inclusion that the vast number of Christians would readily accept, even boast of—reflects the deep ecclesial poverty of American churches. The self-understanding of the Church as the initial instantiation of the Kingdom of God, with authority to bind and to loose in this age, is almost unheard of outside of its theoretical invocation in the odd (and increasingly rare) catechism class.

The fact that non-Christians may consider this self-understanding as nonsense is just fine. That most Christians are not even familiar with the idea is ruinous for a Church responding to the cultural upheaval of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Without ecclesial resources to draw on, Christians naturally looked to the world of politics in reaction to these changes. Hence the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s and the 1980s.

This reaction, however, only enhanced the impotence of the Church. While the Church certainly has a political witness, and Christians can and should serve and participate in civil society and politics, the Church’s true and unique power lies only in the transforming power of the Gospel.

To be sure, Jesus’s response to Pilate—“You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above”—is nonsense to those who are not Christians. Nonetheless, there simply is no Church without this self-understanding, which is Jesus’s understanding, that spiritual power trumps temporal power, no matter what it looks like to temporal authority. The problem with the Christian Right is not that it’s too Christian, but rather that it’s not Christian enough. It looks to temporal means to sustain what was at best an impoverished ecclesial life to begin with.

Developing real ecclesial life in American churches does not mean withdrawal from society. Quite the opposite. But it does mean that American Christians need to stop thinking of their churches as “voluntary organizations.”

It also means American Christians need to cross lines they studiously avoided crossing in the past.

Those “hard sayings” of Jesus, for example. As when he draws the lines of the true family around himself. Which is why Christians call each other “brother” and “sister.” Or when Jesus redraws national identification around himself as “King.” This does not mean Christians repudiate their temporal identification. But as St. Peter writes, Christians also identify as a nation. So, too, in his epistles, the apostle Paul uses variants of the word “polis” to describe the community of the Church: the church as city and commonwealth.

This is bracing language. It is an understanding that contrasts sharply with traditional American conceptions of Christianity and the “voluntary organization” they call their churches. Instead this: The Church is my family. The Church is my city. The Church is my nation.

Reader Discussion

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on April 19, 2019 at 12:50:50 pm

This is an essay in search of an idea. It's boring to accuse Christians of hypocrisy; non-Christians love to do that. The author doesn't actually explain what the church is. Likening it to the "nation" and the Kingdom of God doesn't help. Define it or give up telling everyone they are doing it wrong.

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John Smith
on April 19, 2019 at 13:47:45 pm

The polls are missing a growing movement of small nondenominational churches modeled on the early Christian church described in Acts, where the primary focus is on small missional groups that come together on Sundays but otherwise spend the rest of the week living life as bothers and sisters.

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on April 19, 2019 at 13:51:05 pm

This is a great essay. I'm only sorry that you didn't go into the understanding of what it means to be a believer that is behind our country's guaranteeing everyone religious freedom. As a Catholic, I find even that understanding problematic, but it does have an important and seemingly lost element: that professing a religion obliges people to follow it. The Founding Fathers saw religion as something that people accept as true, and then are obliged to obey. Hence the First Amendment: Government cannot make laws that oblige people to disregard their duties to God, because duties to God come first. Today people seem to think that there are no duties to God, but if you think there are, you could easily "go join another church" that doesn't think so and therefore it's YOUR problem if your religious beliefs conflict with any law they want passed.

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Gail Finke
on April 19, 2019 at 15:09:11 pm

I'm with John Smith. I can't detect a point in this scree. First, in what respects do these complaints not apply to European Christianity? What is distinctly American here? Possibly the Constitutional requirement that Church and State remain separated, with the concept of separation having evolved over the very decades cited by Rogers to mean invisibility (of Christians, anyway). Thinking Christianity is fine (actually, for the Left, it most certainly is not, as Rogers well knows), but intruding Christian speech, symbols or presence visibly or audibly into any public space is considered a breach of the "separation of Church and State" according to the vulgar understanding.

Christianity is a confessional religion, and the issue of free will (voluntas) has been at the center of Christian debate since Pelagius: is man free to accept or decline God's grace? The Calvinists were incensed by the very thought. But without it logic leads to predestination which is equally offensive to others. It doesn't seem Rogers is thinking along these lines.

Rather, he seems to suggest that to be a Christian one cannot but understand oneself as a compulsory member of "the Church." The diversification of the unified body of Christians into separate sects and instituted churches is equally neither a recent phenomenon nor a uniquely American one. A church (small-c) exists "wherever two or three are gathered together in my name."

Or is Rogers arguing that real Christianity is only the (quasi mythical) Christianity of the First Century, when there was only "Christianity" and the faithful had not yet differentiated along separate doctrinal lines?

Anyway I can't detect the point. What, exactly, would be the pragmatic result of American Christians thinking themselves members of a city or nation (assuming that is not how they in fact think now)?

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on April 19, 2019 at 18:33:41 pm

James R. Rogers seems here to address the fact that Christians are no longer comfortably "at home" in a culture offering support for the moral teachings of the Old and New Testaments. These "instructions", those "laws and rules" were once common currency. Ordinary discourse between ordinary people could include Biblical references without need for explanation. In many towns and villages, the steeple with a cross at the top, was at the center. None had yet become nightclubs or condominium residences.

We have come very far from those times. In certain places Christian references can evoke condescension and, even at times, contempt and/or hostility. Very lightly veiled.

Christians are now actually called to be "Defenders of the Faith". Informed, educated, dedicated, faithful defenders of the Faith. We will have to actually re-A learn the classical and theological Virtues. We will have to live them whatever the cost or fail in our purpose.

As Rabbi Sacks once wrote about the Jewish Sabbath: There are things that must be lived in order to be understood. So also, the teachings of the Christian faith "ancient yet ever new".

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on April 19, 2019 at 22:43:20 pm

Rogers wonderfully touches on major issues and, with a different perspective, outlines the possibility that this is the best of times for Christians who happen to be fellow citizens in the U.S. Christians as well as other fellow citizens may adopt the U.S. preamble’s proposition, which is not offered in other countries.
The U.S. is distinguished by some willing citizens collaborating to provide freedom-from oppression so that living individuals and future citizens may encourage human liberty to pursue the happiness each perceives rather than the dictates of someone else. Many civic citizens live this way, but few would articulate it; I call it civic integrity. Dissident citizens are not aware of a U.S. citizens’ contract that offers responsible human liberty.
The preamble to the U.S. constitution, in my paraphrase, states: Willing fellow citizens civically, civilly, and legally collaborate to provide integrity, justice, peace, defense, and prosperity so that living individuals and future citizens may pursue human liberty. (My daughter, Holly, and I agreed this morning that in future, my work will promote “responsible human liberty” more than the U.S. preamble’s proposition. The thought emerged in a quora.com discussion with Greg Bailey; https://www.quora.com/Has-America-gone-from-a-God-fearing-society-at-its-founding-to-a-Godless-society-now. Incidentally, my daughter Rebekah first called this work “civic collaboration.” No one is asked to cooperate or subjugate---only collaborate.)
For two decades, I have advocated amending the First Amendment to delete the two religion clauses, never realizing as I do now that the U.S. preamble does not invoke religion at all. Gail Fink wrote, “Hence the First Amendment: Government cannot make laws that oblige people to disregard their duties to God, because duties to God come first.” Perhaps she shares that opinion with James Madison’s legacy. However, Fink fails to address Whatever-God-Is: Rogers’ touched on two Gods in “eternity is flitting about heaven like a bodiless angel, instead of a new physical heaven and earth and resurrected bodies.”
More importantly, I now propose: The First Amendment should relegate religion and spirituality to individual privacy (drop both phrases) and encourage individual civic integrity.
An important element in a civic culture is a proposition to collaborate for human equity under written law with continual improvement toward statutory justice. In this country the U.S. preamble’s proposition is offered to each fellow citizen. That includes elected and appointed officers in local, state, and federal governments and clergypersons. People who consider themselves above the U.S. preamble’s proposition are dissidents against justice.
In human equity, every religious or spiritual association flourishes, provided any institution the believers develop conforms to the proposition for statutory justice. Human equity is evaluated using the-objective-truth. The-objective-truth exists and can be discovered but cannot be constructed by human reason, revelation, mysticism, or any other human construct.

The very articulation of these ideas offers an achievable better future if civic collaboration leads to a super majority of citizens who want mutual, comprehensive safety and security; individual happiness with civic integrity.
I write to learn and would appreciate comments. I learned much from Greg Bailey over a couple days.

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on April 19, 2019 at 22:52:07 pm

Sorry. I omitted a difficult issue I had researched: "hate" in the Old Testament.

In my eighth decade, having spent five decades pursuing two Christianities, Mom and Dad's So. Baptism and my family's Louisiana French Catholicism, I have a strong aversion to the use of the word "hate" in all forms. I learned this aversion from Agathon's speech in Plato's "Symposium."

I often use a search engine for "Jesus+hate" or "Old Testament+hate." I reject the author's thougths in every case, and do not suppose that Jesus uttered the word, admitting to myself I could be wrong. However, not one of the search resluts included John 15:18-24. I reject the arguement John makes.

I wonder if Rogers would apply John 15:18-24 to me, a non-Christian.

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on April 22, 2019 at 09:32:08 am

Re: "First, conservative Christians responded with a renewed emphasis on individual pietism. Hence the whole “born again” movement rising in the 1970s. Individual piety was really individualistic piety, with a neo-platonic gloss on “going to heaven when you die.” (Neo-platonic because eternity is flitting about heaven like a bodiless angel, instead of a new physical heaven and earth and resurrected bodies.)"

Rogers' article is sociologically ignorant by not understanding what "born again" means to Evangelical Christians. It is not necessarily a pietistic movement. What Evangelicalism is, is a very modern, religious movement that puts an emphasis on "choice"; not on being born into a religion, a tribe, ethnicity or even a national culture. Evangelicalism is modern because modern society means choice of goods, choice of prices of goods, choice of marriage partner and choice of one's religion. Being born again means one has to make a choice of faith and not merely be born into a certain family or religion. And look how Evangelical Christians embrace President Trump: not because Trump is "pious" but because he is a sinner like them.

Yes, to those men both in America and in South America who embrace Charismatic Christianity, husbands become less "macho" and stop beating their wives. Marriage become a little more democratic when a wife goes to church with her husband, unlike Islam where wives don't go to the temple. I guess you could call this "pietism" and hieraricalism because many Christians believe in the man as head of family. But in practice women are accorded leadership roles in churches. And in Charismatic churches, women are often the ministers or pastors.

Rogers' also fails to recognize that "conservative Christians" are not necessarily Evangelical Christians. Evangelicals put an emphasis on being "born again" (choosing one's faith), where conservative Christians do not. Evangelicals believe in the Great Commission to evangelize (meaning they go out into the secular world). So Evangelicals tend to get secular educations (doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc.) where conservative Christians do not. That is why Trump's cabinet is chocked full of Evangelicals (DeVos, Carson, Perry, Pompeo, Sessions, etc.) because Evangelicals are not "pietistic" and not content to remain in insular "pietistic" churches. Evangelicals "compartmentalize" their faith between the secular and religious worlds where conservative Christians do not. Conservative Christians go to Bible colleges; Evangelicals tend to go to secular colleges to become doctors, lawyers, geologists, etc.

Which is all a polite way to say that Rogers got it all wrong.

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Wayne Lusvardi
on April 22, 2019 at 11:53:54 am

The decline in the dominance of "Cultural Christianity", as Rogers mentions, has been going on for decades. This is due to the freedom of the marketplace of ideas. The 1960s and 1970s saw an explosion of questions about "traditional values", especially any based on gender, race, superiority of a particular religion, and, gradually sexual orientation, that stifled individual growth or were used to justify discrimination. Intolerance to people based on their religion, race and sexual orientation has become thankfully more and more frowned, and people are respected more as individuals. We're not perfect, but people today are much less held back socially and economically because of gender and race than they were in the 1950s. Today, thanks to the internet, people have access to information that questions the foundations of religions. The result has been the rise in the number of "nones."

Religious conservatives, however, have rarely been open to new ideas. They tend to yearn for the "good old days" of the 1950s, when LGBT individuals stayed in the closet and non-Christians just kept quit while some Christians (but not all) used government to spread their religious. In the 1970s and 1980s, they also preached about the "traditional" role of women in the home rather than in the workplace. Conservatives have been at their loudest when laws and practices there were used to enforce their version of "Cultural Christianity" were declared unconstitutional, such as mandatory prayers and bible readings in public schools as well as anti-sodomy laws. Today, they portray themselves as victims because their intolerance to LGBT individuals and to non-Christians is being frowned upon. Religious conservatives almost never debate issues. Instead, they demonize their opponents, and try to use governments to suppress "subversive" ideas and practices. Meanwhile, they're losing ground on LGBT matters with the corporate world and even with younger generations of evangelicals. What's their response as to businesses that celebrate individual diversity? Boycott Disney.

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on April 22, 2019 at 15:43:46 pm

If Jesus wasn't viewed as a threat to Rome, would he have been crucified? I worked full-time in the pro-life movement for several years. Most pastors are conflict avoiders in a major way on abortion, no matter what the denomination. Being filled with the spirt means living a life of courage, no matter what the situation. Avoiding something because it's labelled "political" is just a weak cop out.

God is in control. He puts you in situations to advance the kingdom, whether in a public or private way. Forceful men and women advance it.

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Michael Schaefer
on April 22, 2019 at 15:49:19 pm

This comment seems to express LGBT the victor over victimization by Christians such that Christians are now on the run. I think it is a misguided way of thinking.

One of the contenders in Plato's "Symposium" claimed that the best eroticism is with a young boy and that the adult must provide for the boy for life. It's a 2400 year-old expression of trust-in and commitment-to another human being.

Human equity is the subject of written law, and its object may be statutory justice rather than bargains that justify subjugation. I doubt that 2019 thinking would approve of a life-long contract with a person too-young to comprehend the consequences of the obligation.

I prefer Agathon's speech, which I interpret as: Human equity requires that a person neither initiate nor tolerate offense to or from any human or Whatever-God-Is.

Whatever-God-Is controls both the consequences of all action and each individual's expectations respecting the unknowns. As an adolescent, I was offered LGBT fun but turned it down because I thought it could alter my future desires and fulfillment. Additionally, a couple girls offered me sex, but I had the same notion: My future realization seemed threatened.

After a quarter century and a few rejections of my interest in intimacy I thought a person could dedicate himself or herself to another person's life, and by being faithful for life, create mutual happiness. A couple years later, I met a serene, confident woman. We anticipate our sixth decade of marriage with three children.

Today, I think the key to personal happiness is fidelity to the-objective-truth. If single life is happiness, fine. If intimacy is wanted, fidelity is key to personal success. Mutual fidelity is essential.

When we were courting, I wanted to hold hands, but my date felt some people in public might be intimidated by our expression of mutual interest. I began then to collaborate with her, and nearly two decades later realized her Christian hope for Whatever-God-Is differed from mine. Thereby, I discovered the path toward developing the real Phil Beaver. I knew then how fortunate I was that I had never risked casual intimacy.

The point of my story is that the human individual is not alone and that wayward connections may effect early termination of the hope for self-discovery or perhaps self-realization. Some seemingly innocent errors lead to early death.

Scripture is an early effort to express the need for fidelity to-the-objective-truth. The ancient writers made mistakes, and the reader has the human, individual power, energy, and authority (HIPEA) to benefit from the good ideas and reject the errors. When a human begin reaches an understanding of a given scripture that empowers him or her to develop fidelity to the-objective-truth despite the errors of the writers, his or her connections will be good, and there is no excuse for objections by other parties. In other words, believers who collaborate for mutual, comprehensive safety and security may appreciate non-believers who collaborate with believers.

When scripture warns against intimacy that can lead to infidelity, it may be making some errors in detail, and the reader may note the errors yet take advantage of the overall message. Infidelity speaks for itself, and it is up to the actor to take advantage of the signals. I am not talking here of "conscience" but rather of HIPEA.

One other comment. The minority groups such as LGBT that today make so much of their victimization by Christianity or any other have religion have no corner on the market. In the cultures that have developed, children, adolescents, and adults are taught to develop dependency. I do not know of a culture that approves-of and encourages HIPEA rather than higher power: Whatever-God-Is, government, or a tyrant. If there is such a civilization, let's go there. Meanwhile, I think it is offered by the U.S. preamble's proposition, and that is what I work to express.

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Phillip Beaver
on April 22, 2019 at 16:04:27 pm

"He puts you in situations to advance the kingdom, whether in a public or private way. Forceful men and women advance it."

This claim is uncivic, uncivil, and illegal according to the U.S. preamble's proposition. I ask, "Mr. Schaefer what civic, civil, and legal agreement authorizes your view 'Forceful . . .'" Civic, civil, and legal persons collaborate for equity under the rule of law. In equity, each individual has his or her Whatever-God-Is or none.

My interpretation of the U. S. preamble is: We a civic people of the united states, in order to encourage individual responsibility for integrity, justice, peace, defense, and prosperity so as to secure human liberty for now and for the future, pursue statutory justice in the USA.

What's your interpretation of the U.S. preamble?

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Phillip Beaver
on May 01, 2019 at 01:02:21 am

[…] John Burger at Aleteia Catholics dialoguing people into Hell – Connecticut Catholic Corner Good Riddance to Cultural Christianity – James R. Rogers, Ph.D., at Law & Liberty Bermuda, Bahama. . . Come On Pretty Mama! […]

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on May 01, 2019 at 10:49:12 am

No, they are not missing them. If there's one constant in American life, it's that small groups are always springing up and declaring them to be "modeled on the early Christian church described in Acts," regardless of how wacky their beliefs actually are. That's how we got Mormonism, that's how we got the Jehovah's Witnesses, and that's how we got Christian Science. More often these groups are mostly innocuous, however ridiculous it might be to see the leader of a tiny storefront church declaring himself not only to be an Apostle, but actually the "Chief Apostle".

I was raised in a church not unlike that: Overstreet Bible Church. After bumping along for years with a weekly attendance of not more than 20 -- usually closer to 12 -- it finally dissolved a few years ago. Other small churches that cannot afford a full-time pastor are finding it difficult to find someone willing to take on the responsibilities on a part-time basis. Add to this the inevitable doctrinal squabbles and purely human personal conflicts, and however often churches like this may be quick to form, they are also quick to fold. Gamaliel would probably have had something to say about that.

So no, the polls are not missing these churches; they just don't budge the numbers.

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on June 13, 2019 at 17:03:31 pm

The point of the article seemed rather obvious to me, and has nothing to do with anything you wrote:

1. The American nation used to uphold moral and cultural norms that were compatible with Christianity. The churches grew to rely on this fact and did not engage in counter-cultural spiritual formation and discipleship because the dominant culture was not offensive to Christian sensibilities, hence no need to be counter-cultural.

2. That changed, and the culture no longer helps spread and uphold Christian morals.

3. Churches therefore needed to resume that role, but had grown weak in this respect and did not know how to undertake the paradigm shift to being counter-cultural, so the conservative Christians thought the solution was to win in politics and restore Christian morality to national culture. Besides the low likelihood of succeeding, this approach still leaves the church in a weakened state, unable to guide the moral formation of its own members.

4. The author says good riddance to the era of depending on the culture for moral formation; time for the church to do its job directly, not through politics.

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Clark Coleman
on June 26, 2019 at 06:08:19 am

“ It is not necessarily a pietistic movement. What Evangelicalism is, is a very modern, religious movement that puts an emphasis on “choice”; not on being born into a religion, a tribe, ethnicity or even a national culture. Evangelicalism is modern because modern society means choice of goods, choice of prices of goods, choice of marriage partner and choice of one’s religion.

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Gaudencia Masingu

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