Two very important articles within the profile of this blog appeared over the weekend. This seems to always happen when I want a few days off. I am currently in Manhattan trying to enjoy a little sightseeing with my wife prior to having to put in a few days work in the area. Subsequently, this may not get the depth of analysis it needs, but I’ll do what I can.
The biggest piece to appear was Jon Meacham’s new piece in Newsweek,”The End of Christian America.” Typically, the headline grossly overstates Meacham’s thesis. The article is framed by an extended interview with Al Mohler discussing the results of the recent religious identity survey. The thesis is essentially:
While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago.
I personally do not think this is arguable, nor do I necessarily think it is bad. There is no question that religious identity is fading in America. But I think it will be replaced with something important, new and valuable. Shifts in Christian identity are becoming relatively common in the western world. The church split between east and west in 400 AD. The Reformation of the 16th century moved us into an age of Christian pluralism. The great Awakenings that spread through England and American gave rise to Evangelicalism, and now Evangelicalism is about to be replaced by something else. When you look at it historically – it is hardly surprising.
What that replacement will be is what is going to be most interesting. Some say it will be the so-called “emerging church.” I have my own theories about the role the CJCLDS will play in all this, but my theories offend both Evangelical and Mormon alike, so I will keep them to myself – besides they are theological in nature which we do not do here.
Each of these steps has represented an advancement for the greater Christian church, and I see little reason to think that the shifts currently underway will not do the same thing. But they also often mark the end of significant cultural and political eras. The establishment of Constantinople marked the fall of Rome. The rise of Protestantism changed forever the political landscape of Europe and Evangelicalism came out of the same fires as the American Revolution. The bigger question is will America survive as we know it with these cultural and political shifts.
That is really a question for people other than this blog – but where we can look here is at the current political landscape and what is likely to occur in the next few elections. The other important article came from Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post who wonders about a “Political Pullback for the Christian Right.”
Is the Christian right finished as a political entity? Or, more to the point, are principled Christians finished with politics?
These questions have been getting fresh air lately as frustrated conservative Christians question the pragmatism — defined as the compromising of principles — of the old guard. One might gently call the current debate a generational rift.
In some ways Parker’s piece is a bit of fluff. It just does not go very deep, but that said, it does look at something that appears to be very real. For an understanding of the generational aspects of this change, I would strongly recommend this article by a young friend of mine by the name of Matt Anderson. It is not just about “the compromising of principles;” Evangelicalism suffers from a lack of serious thought on any numbers of issues and simply serves as an insufficient platform for cultural engagement for this younger generation. A generation that has never known a nation without abortion on demand, and has been heavily inculcated with the rhetoric of “gay acceptance” and same-sex marriage.
When you couple that with the obvious failures of Evangelicalism as a political force, especially in the last election cycle, then the simple ebb-and-flow of American politics would tend to force the so-called Religious Right to the sidelines. For an example of those failures, we need look no farther than this last weekend either. Saturday, we looked at Kirk Jowers comments on the role religion played in Mitt Romney’s failed campaign last year. In what is becoming an increasingly common occurrence, The Mormon Times came in on our heels and published a story on similar lines. Well, the Mormon Times does have a somewhat larger readership than this blog, so their piece attracted some attention – some of it not necessarily wanted. Sunday, some blog called Sunlit Uplands, reprinted a rant from our old friend Gary Glenn vociferously denying that it was Romney’s religion -stating it was the “flip-flops.” I will not belabor this in detail,we have danced this dance with Glenn, but it is a prime example of the kind of ham-fisted politics that have cost those of the Religious Right way more political capital than they can afford.
What is really happening is that religiously-motivated political activists are retrenching and rethinking and in the end will be re-engaging in a smarter, better way. Matthew Millner recently published an essay at First Things on the value of christian culture, something that Catholics (First Things is a publication with a decidedly Catholic bent) have a much more implicit and deeper understanding of than the average Evangelical. For Evangelicals, making something “Christian” is something highly akin to the marketing phenomena known as “branding.” Hang the “Christian” label on it and it simply is therefore Christian. So, a small figure of a vaguely European child in muted colors, but this time with an inpirational message printed on it somewhere, is no longer a “Hummel” – it’s a bit of “Christian-inspired home art.”
What is a “Christian culture?” My own understanding of the term is borrowed from C.S. Lewis, who in turn borrows it, after a fashion, from Plato. Lewis cites his Platonic sources in The Last Battle, the final book of the Narnia series, in which one of the characters says something about “it is all in Plato.” (Forgive me for not giving a more accurate and full citation here, please remember the whole vacation thing I have going on). The most read of Lewis’ non-fiction books is Mere Christianity is actually a reprinting of four series of radio talks Lewis gave during World War II. In the first of these series Lewis discusses what he calls “pre-evangelism.” This is one simple idea that Lewis contends is built into the world, into creation if you will. That idea is the existence of an objective morality, that what is good and what is evil is a very part of reality, and is not defined by us, or arbitrarily defined by the will of God. In other words something is not good because God said it is good, but rather it is good because it conforms to the goodness that exists objectively. (To get Biblical for a moment – God looked at creation and saw that it was good – He did not simply define it as such.)
Please note that this is very, very different than the typical Evangelical approach to morality and the political codification of same of the last decades wherein we have tried to make a good thing happen because God said it should happen. Lewis argues (echoing the first chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, again getting Biblical briefly) that this idea of an objective morality is that which calls us to the God of Christianity – hence his labeling it as “pre-evangelism,” and the Platonic parallels since Plato argued this reality was a mere reflection of a higher one.
Lewis, completely absent reliance on Christian doctrine as a source, looks at the ramifications of the abandonment of of the idea of objective morality in a short book called The Abolition of Man. One need look no further than the title to know what Lewis argues will happen if this idea is abandoned. Thus we have an argument for a “Christian culture” without direct appeal to divine mandate or holy writ of any sort.
Herein lies the future of religiously motivated political engagement. So Meacham is right when he opines that culture and politics are no longer so heavily influenced by explicit Christian concerns. And Parker is probably right that the days of the “God said so” politics of the Religious Right are drawing to a close. But that does not mean we are necessarily going to be see huge and radical shifts in our culture, morality, or day-to-day religious lives. It just means, I believe, that we are getting smarter about such things. We can and will learn to argue for our political/moral stances on non-religious terms. We will engage in the pre-evangelical. We will leave the explicitly evangelical for the house of worship and private conversation.
We may actually become a better nation and better Christians for it.