Your Own Personal Jesus
Maybe it’s the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition that churches instill. Maybe religion builds habits and networks that help people better weather national traumas, and thus retain their faith that the system works. For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.
For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.
The final words of an interesting article (courtesy of rustypickup) that finds a correlation between church membership and civil/political life. I'm not sure the basis is religious so much as ecclesiological, a narrower sphere of influence. I am sure that the idea of being part of something more than yourself, of being important in the community rather than in your own accomplishments, is the reason "secularization isn't easing political conflict." That conflict used to be the simple disagreement on how to get things done (well, it seems simple now). The conflict now is whether to do anything at all, and for whom.
“We don’t have universal ― the only way to have universal care, if you stop to think about it, is to force people to buy it under penalty of law,” [White House Budget Director Mick] Mulvaney said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”The alternative is to force people to die in a ditch; or to force ER's to care for people without insurance, passing the costs on to those of us who have insurance. There is always force in the system; it's a matter of who it's applied to. The ACA applied the force of law to the wealthy, taxes Paul Ryan is desperate to repeal. So we will once again force people without insurance to forego healthcare until they have to go to the ER, or die. And even after they get to the ER, we will expel them from there as soon as it is clear they won't die immediately after leaving.
Mr. Mulvaney also thinks we can't take money from people in West Virginia under penalty of law, and use it to pay for Meals on Wheels. The people he is talking about probably benefit from Meals on Wheels, and probably don't pay federal taxes, aside from Medicare and Social Security taxes. Again, the people who are "forced" to pay for Meals on Wheels are the rich, not the poor. As the old adage had it about banks, that's where the money is. "Forcing" them to give it up is like "forcing" me to pay school taxes for schools I'll never use again. But nobody seems to think that's a problem we must solve with a tax repeal (no, they'll take my tax money which is "forced" from me and give it to some rich person to subsidize their child's private school education through vouchers, a use of force that doesn't bother the Trump Administration). The people Mr. Mulvaney is worried about are the rich; and all he is worried about is their money. People are too damned expensive, is Mr. Mulvaney's guiding philosophy; especially poor people. But rather than offer a modest proposal that recognizes at least their humanity, as Dr. Swift's narrator did over 200 years ago, Mr. Mulvaney simply wants the country to collectively turn its back on the poor. After all, in America, there but for the grace of God or the Dow Jones go I; better to eliminate them from view, in order to relieve the anxiety they create in us who fear the grace of God, or of the market, may be summarily withdrawn.
This conflict is not the follow-on to the "culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960's and '70's. That war never faded. The battle was simply taken up by new combatants, the ones who felt the victories of the '60's and '70's were wrong and must be vanquished. I know those people. I grew up with them. Some of them were from my parent's generation, some from my generation; some are much younger than me. And, of course, the problem is with the concept of conflict in the first place. This is where Dr. King succeeded; and it is where we continue to fail.
Will Arnett, the voice of Batman/Bruce Wayne in "The LEGO Batman Movie," pointed out in an interview that the very idea of Batman solving problems like crime through violence is a kid's idea; it's not something an adult would think sensible. But we remain children, wedded to the idea that violence works so long as it is used against people other enough to us that we can treat them like comic-book villains: to be vanquished until they return again, but always amenable to only one thing: physical force. So we go to war, or unleash police officers, or accept violence in our name on our streets or in foreign countries, because we imagine it works on "them." When Trump proposes to gut the State Department but increase the monies flowing to the Defense Department, he is appealing to this childish idea of how adults behave. And there is something in that that explains why our secular solutions are leading us away from the very idea of control.
People used to go to church out of social obligation or moral obligation or perhaps even religious obligation. Du muss gehen was the phrase my congregation members remembered from the old days of the German E&R: 'you must go!' Wherever the obligation sprang from, there it was: you had an obligation to others, or even just to God (though I think that one's always been a bit too abstract for most of us), to go to church, to support the church, to do some of the work of the church. The best communities I've ever been in have been church communities; and the worst, too. But in the case of the latter, it was either a poisonous atmosphere as old as the congregation's history, or because too many members were "unchurched," meaning they simply didn't understand the idea, the purpose, the point, of church. All they understood was that it was their chance to be in charge, to boss someone (preferably the pastor) around. I've known churches that didn't understand church that way, and churches that only understood church that way. It's possible in churches where the family members have ancestors buried in the church yard from 100 years ago, and possible in churches where almost all the "power" members are newcomers. The mainspring of the problem is: I am not for community, community is for me.
If the Baby Boomers are the "Me Generation," then the Millenials are truly our heirs and children. That is, if they are rejecting church because it asks too much of them, and they don't want to give that. I'm not sure that's it, though. I watch too many contemporary shows, movies and Netflix-TV shows, where the characters want to change the world, or at least make an important and good difference in the world. Our hearts haven't changed, but our venues for seeking change, have. Church has been, since the time of Constantine, a pillar of the society, a place seeking stability more than the revolutionary churn of the basiliea tou theou. It has been revolutionary in places, but has always settled into some kind of peaceful coexistence with a world it can't really fundamentally alter, populated by people who don't really want to fundamentally alter themselves. Has that changed so much since the Millenials were born?
No, I don't think so. In 1906, church affiliation was claimed by only 41% of the population. In seminary they showed us the numbers, and it turns out only a minority of the population, despite New England Puritans, attended church regularly, or felt themselves affiliated with a church. Read Bradford's history of Plymouth Plantation, and you realize the whole thing fell apart quickly, that the rigid control of religion over the populace faded as soon as enough people had immigrated to make life easier out from under the Puritan yoke. People stayed with Plymouth because survival outside was precarious at best. When that condition ended, so did Plymouth. The control of the church over the populace is wildly exaggerated in the popular mind. If you read Cotton' Mather's accounts of the so-called Salem Witch Trials, it's clear Mather is not in control of the trials, and that many of the trials are not the result of mass hysteria, but of carefully planted lies from people looking to take advantage of widows and single women. The very class of people, in other words, that the Mosaic Law recognized as deserving of special protection because of their vulnerabilities. The more things change, the more they remain the same, and one can argue religion was abused for non-religious purposes, rather than being the promoter of non-religious purposes.
We have never been that religious a country, so much as we like what religion can sometimes do for us.
World War II, seminary taught me, changed all that. Coming home from the war people sought stability and security and tradition, and the church, Catholic or Protestant, offered that. It certainly didn't get in the way of suburbia and racism and even, later, white flight. Church boomed because people wanted it that way, much the same way as interest in Biblical studies prompted a boom in mail-order Greek lessons in the early 20th century. Those same Biblical studies, coming out of Germany and Europe in general, also prompted the writing of "The Fundamentals," and gave rise to religious fundamentalism. So it goes.
That wave begun 70 years ago is finally cresting. The generations affected by World War II (I grew up on Bugs Bunny wartime cartoons, and the Hollywood-John Wayne version of that war. I knew it better than I knew Vietnam or, certainly, Korea.) are passing. My father was one of the last people alive who could have had any involvement in combat in that war (he was too young, really, to go to war, and by the time his training was through, so was the war). He died last year, and I'm in my 60's now. WWII is no touchstone for my daughter at all, not like it was for me, and I wasn't born until 10 years after that war ended. It can be said that WWII created America as a nation; until Pearl Harbor, we saw no connection to the war in Europe, and not all that much connection as a nation. After Pearl Harbor, we were from Texas and Brooklyn (the favorite types of the movies) and Appalachia and California, and we were joined to something bigger than ourselves: we were Americans. We were in it together. Our parents passed that on to us, and we used that sense of commonality to protest Vietnam and promote civil rights, and then those movements ended, we became yuppies and cared only about the money we had disdained when we were students in college.
So it goes. And maybe that's where the root really lies, because we had no experience like our parents had, and too few of us chose the non-violent path of Dr. King, and when he died non-violence died with him; at least non-violence as a way to change society. Non-violence requires all of us together, and without a leader we simply fell apart. We gave up on society and took care of ourselves, so we could live in grand houses big enough to hold our college friends for one last great weekend, warming ourselves against The Big Chill.
It may be, then, that the "religious society" is just the crest of a wave, and now that wave is ebbing again. Harvey Cox wrote about 'The Secular City" more than 50 years ago. This thinking about religion and society is not new, and it is certainly not unique to Millenials. The argument of the article at Atlantic is this:
Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.The real argument of the article, however, is economic. The religiously unaffiliated, the article says, voted for Trump because:
we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful.Withdrawn from the community of a congregation:
they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. Trump is both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.
So one system of classification replaces another, and the driver of despair is money, or the lack of it. As sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox is quoted:
“Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.”But Eliot described this over 100 years ago:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? ...
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.
--"The Waste Land ('The Fire Sermon')"
"What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,
And no community that is not lived in praise of God.
Even the anchorite who meditates alone,
For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of God,
Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars.
Familiar with the roads and settled nowehre.
Nor does the family even move about together,
But every sone would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.
--"Choruses from 'The Rock'"
There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun. But is the problem entirely economics? Is the problem solely that we have whittled away the middle class, ignored the poor or nearly poor at our peril? Is it money that matters?
Secularization is transforming the left, too. In 1990, according to PRRI, slightly more than half of white liberals seldom or never attended religious services. Today the proportion is 73 percent. And if conservative nonattenders fueled Trump’s revolt inside the GOP, liberal nonattenders fueled Bernie Sanders’s insurgency against Hillary Clinton: While white Democrats who went to religious services at least once a week backed Clinton by 26 points, according to an April 2016 PRRI survey, white Democrats who rarely attended services backed Sanders by 13 points.Sanders campaign was economic, not moral or even ethical in basis. Which is not to say he was unethical, but his arguments were about money, his positions about government spending. His appeal, to his supporters, was economic. There is nothing wrong with that, especially in politics; but is money what makes the amelioration of religion possible? Or is religion supposed to ameliorate the lack of money, and it no longer serves as that kind of social lubricant?
Eliot's point was not about money, it was about human connection. LBJ's thrust in establishing the Great Society was to do the humane thing, not the economic thing. Yes, the basis was economics, in that poverty destroys people and undermines the society that tolerates it. But LBJ's appeal was to our common humanity, not to our money-driven anxieties. Bernie Sanders pushed for free college, to allay the concerns of students with massive debts. He wasn't urging his followers to build a better world, but to get out from under their economic burdens. The difference between Sanders and LBJ is important, and has nothing to do with religious affiliation. Indeed, I would argue the shift in society outlined in the Atlantic article is correlated to the shift in church attendance and religious affiliation; but correlation is not causation.
Something deeper and darker is at play here; something as deep and as dark as the hidden wound of American history: the commerce and trafficking in human beings as property and chattel, the elevation of money and gain above all. It is almost a peculiarly American trait, yet it was brought here from Europe, with the discovery of America by Columbus, who started enslaving the native peoples and looking for wealth almost as soon as he landed. Europe taught us to treat the Americas as the solution to an economic problem; but it is a spiritual problem that still assails us.
The basic issue, to drag this out even further, but to reconnect it to something positive with regard to Christianity, if not the amorphous "religion" in general, is the idea of the covenant:
Our expected future, which God has promised in the Bible, has many points of commonality with the best of civil religion and with the substance of the American dream. But the texture of this future is expressed in the staggering inversions of a life which contains not only gifts, but also harsh judgments against those who resist the vision or seek to have a piece of it on their own terms. The future held for us by the Bible is not a blissful blur. It is a promise of an historical future in which human dignity and human joy are valued and human worth is celebrated. This vision seriously challenges present arrangements for the sake of what is promised.This idea was the underpinning of the notion of America as a country chosen by God. Good riddance to that arrogant notion, sez I; but the idea of a covenant is central to the Biblical understanding of Christianity (it is not an idea promoted by either Joel Osteen's prosperity gospel on one extreme, or Bible-beating fundamentalists on the other). Covenant is not something imposed upon humanity by a jealous God anxious to be worshipped and angered when not; covenant is a binding agreement, one entered into but, rather akin to the union of the United States, not an agreement one can back out of.
Moreover, this future, which staggers us by envisioning what we think not possible, offers the dynamic of a Promise-Maker and a Promise-Keeper, God himself. That is what is covenantal about this tradition. We are not in covenant with a good idea which is simply there or with our best intentions which depend on us. We are in covenant with an active, caring intervening God who keeps his promise.
The vision of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures is summed up in Isaiah's holy mountain, where all the nations (i.e., peoples) of the world are drawn because of the peace and prosperity and happiness of Israel, living in accordance with the covenant of Abraham, a covenant that survives even the Exile. That covenant is for the children of Abraham, not for all humankind. Likewise the covenant of Christianity is one of choice, but again not one you can unchoose. Walter Brueggemann is right: the end of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew is judgment, with the sheep welcomed into everlasting life, and the goats shuttled off to eternal punishment. But those sheep and goats recognize God at the end, even if they didn't in their lifetimes. To universalize that is to invoke the paradox of the Inuit told about God and Jesus by the missionary, who asks: If I didn't know this, would I be damned? No, the missionary replies. Then why did you tell me?, he is asked. If the covenant is not a matter of choice, then it is a matter only of cruelty. But the brunt of the covenant is not damnation, it is salvation. It is the source of life into the ages. The point of the parable is not that damnation awaits all those who don't live like Christians; the point of the parable is to lay out the responsibilities of choosing to live like a Christian. "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all." But it is only responsibility if if is freely, and knowingly, chosen.
So are Americans rejecting religion? No; that doesn't seem to be the case. They are rejecting creeds that seem outworn, models that seem unreal, efforts that don't seem to be part of their lives. Perhaps it's them. Perhaps it's the church. Perhaps it's time to resurrect that prayer of the German E&R church:
Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.Because the church is the light in the world, the city set on a hill; or it is just a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal. And as pessimistic as I can be about the church, I know it isn't the latter, even when in some places that's all it is.
HEAR OUR PRAYER, O LORD.