Do Christians in America require a Christian America?
From time to time I get e-mail responses from people I don’t know who have encountered my writing online. These letters are often sensitive and thorough engagements of the issues I’ve raised in my own work—and they often push me to look at those issues in ways I probably would not have otherwise. These responses are one of the truly enjoyable things about doing the kind of writing I’ve done over the past few years.
Case in point: I got an e-mail from someone in Wisconsin a few days ago, engaging me about a United Methodist Reporter article (and accompanying blog post) I wrote back in 2009. The article and blog post were written in reaction to a rather silly and sensationalistic article that then-editor Jon Meacham published in Newsweek about the “decline of Christian America.”
My commentary on Meacham’s article took issue with the idea that there ever had been a Christian America, argued that attempts to “Christianize” a large secular society were doomed to failure anyway, and suggested that the church ought rightly to be focusing on forming faithful discipleship and manifesting a robust ecclesial life as a witness to the wider society. This is what some have called ‘culture making,’ and it is likely the best way to influence secular politics and social norms in any event.
In other words, I was arguing against what I’d call a Constantinian view of society by casting a church/world distinction in bold relief. (In the UM Reporter article, I did so with the help of theologian John Howard Yoder.)
The gentleman who responded by e-mail a few days ago challenged the either/or standpoint I had taken. (I’ll allow him to remain anonymous, as I have not asked his permission before writing this post.) His view is well-stated, and I want to offer it here as a good example of the kind of thoughtful engagement with serious theological and ecclesial issues that, in my experience, laypeople do very often (and which stands in stark contrast to the kind of shrill and superficial arguing that goes on in a lot of social media). Here’s an edited version of what he wrote:
Dear Andrew –
Came across your 2009 article and blog post yesterday as I was looking out to see how other faith communities are reacting to discussions of “Post-Christian America.” We’re about to start a series on this topic in our adult education program. So, even though I’m four years late to your party, thought I’d share a few thoughts and invite you to reply.
Up front, I appreciate your comments about fidelity to the gospel. I agree the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is God’s primary agent in the world today to reach the lost and suffering with His love.
I also agree that for many centuries Christianity was equated with Western culture, and to spread the gospel in that era often meant imposing Western culture in non-Western lands, often through the power of the state … I believe we’re in a very different era today. I’m not aware of any significant efforts to spread the gospel by the power of the state or the sword. Evangelism and Christian Formation require personal experiences with the Lord. And the people I know working in evangelism are much more appreciative of indigenous cultures than the crusaders of Christendom past.
Having said that, here’s the part where the discussion of a Christian America or Post-Christian America remains relevant.
I believe there was a time when basic tenets of Christian faith and practice were accepted as fundamental tenets of American civil society. Not everyone believed or practiced them individually, but we as a culture accepted them and in our imperfect ways attempted to apply them to family life, law, medicine, education, ethics, etc. This acceptance and application of Biblical principles in civil society is how I understand the term Christian America. Historically, we enjoyed much personal liberty, freedom, justice and prosperity as a result.
I believe we have crossed over into post-Christian America. The result of this transition, as evidenced by any number of cultural indicators, is more despair, more desperation, more broken families, more unwanted children, less regard for life, etc. If this trend continues, law and justice will become more and more arbitrary, and freedom and prosperity (which funds a lot of gospel outreach) will continue to decline.
Does Christ ultimately win? Of course. That’s a certainty. But how people experience that victory could look very different depending on how effectively we engage the culture and civil society. I have two daughters in college. I’d like them to grow old in a country that has rediscovered the importance of applying Biblical faith and practice to civil society. As believers, they are Heaven bound either way. As their father, I’d rather see them enjoy the great temporal blessings of Christian America and support evangelistic outreach than have them become a marginalized and persecuted minority in post-Christian America just trying to survive.
I was trained at Duke Divinity School, where the kind of postliberal position I take in the blog post and column referenced above are standard fare. I tend to think they make for the most coherent approach to how we can possibly be faithful in the way Jesus Christ calls us to be, both as individual disciples and as a church. But as I mentioned in my response to the author who sent me this e-mail, I recently had a conversation with a noted Methodist theologian who challenged the notion that real Christian fidelity (in the church) and advocacy for a Christian-themed civil religion (in the society) constitute an either/or proposition. This scholar argued that a civil religion that is positively inclined (or at least neutral) toward the Christian faith provides the proper cultural context in which a more robust Christian life in the church can take place in a liberal democratic society. Lose the civil religion, and we create a perpetual uphill battle for the church—whether it be because Christian views are directly persecuted, or whether the larger culture simply becomes more and more corrupt due to the waning influence of Christian beliefs and moral norms. I think my respondent is expressing a version of this same view in the e-mail above. I find it challenging.
There is a flip side to the argument, of course. It is that overlaying a Christian veneer onto the civil religion of the nation gives the nation’s government license to do all kinds of things in the name of “God and country” that are directly at odds with the actual norms of Christian belief and practice. Taken to an extreme, this kind of thing can lead to a kind of patriotic zeal that identifies the actions of the state as the expression of God’s will. (This is a view of which my respondent is quite aware, as seen in the third paragraph above; he does indicate that he believes this era is in the historical rearview mirror.)
What both my respondent here and my Methodist theologian friend are pressing me on is a subject worthy of serious consideration: Do we really think the church would be better off in a culture decidedly hostile to Christianity? And do we really want to raise our children in a society whose moral context doesn’t bear at least a passing resemblance to cultural Christianity? If not, do we not need to put some effort into articulating a public theology that seeks to influence the social and political views of the body politic?