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.