Thursday, April 09, 2009

"I've lost my harmonica, Albert!"

ARIS is making Albert Mohler's tower of Jell-O tremble:

There it was, an old term with new urgency: post-Christian. This is not to say that the Christian God is dead, but that he is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory. To the surprise of liberals who fear the advent of an evangelical theocracy and to the dismay of religious conservatives who long to see their faith more fully expressed in public life, Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population.
I don't have the statistics readily at hand, largely because it's something I was taught in seminary; but the percentage of persons who regularly attended church (the usual metric for quantifying the number of "believers" or "faithful" in a population) was low in America from the colonial period (surprise!) up until World War II. "Low," that is, by comparison with post-war church attendance. Something about the aftermath of that war (probably because in that war we went from identifying ourselves as a republic based in states, to identifying ourselves as a nation, organized in states but centered in Washington, D.C. We all had to begin to act as one nation, and surely if we were united, we were all church goers. It wasn't long after that war we became "One nation, under God." Except for Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, nobody had bothered to use that phrase for us until the post-war period.) Being a largely ahistorical people, of course, we decided that church attendance had always been that high, especially considering the culture of tent revivals and the impact of religion on American life, what with Prohibition and "Inherit the Wind" and the battle over abortion today. Surely, we reasoned, we'd always been "one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all." Well, for all white male landowners, at least, and a few other groups later, and begrudgingly; but "one nation, under God," to be sure.

Except, of course, we weren't. We weren't "one nation, under God" until 1954, even though Lincoln coined the phrase in his Gettysburg Address. We also didn't put "In God We Trust" on our coins until 1956, when it became our national motto. Starting to see a pattern here? Oh, and the Scopes Monkey trial was far less about religion v. science than it was about Social Darwinism v. democratic America. The reporters who covered it at the time saw it as a battle between religious fundamentalists and religious modernists. An ecclesiastical battle, in other words, not a secular v. religionists battle. Sad to say, at least in the battle for control of the public megaphone, the former won. The much later play was meant to be about demogaugery in the McCarthy era, but true to the fashion of fundamentalists and others who don't study scripture but just look for what they want to find in it, the play has become the symbol of the current battle between science and religion, a battle that is far more modern than ancient. But we are an ahistorical people, and we prefer our history come from a movie screen (thus World War II, an international slaughthouse, became "The 'Good' War," won single-handedly by John Wayne and other tough, virtuous Americans). Meacham may be right, that:

Evangelical Christians have long believed that the United States should be a nation whose political life is based upon and governed by their interpretation of biblical and theological principles
.But evangelical Christians haven't sought to shape the political life of the country until very recently, and even then their efforts are largely a throw-back to the 1950's. Fundamentalist Christians didn't even exist until the 1920's, so this is hardly an American movement with deep roots in American culture or history. So pace Christopher Hitchens, this really doesn’t mean anything.

As I've mentioned before:
1) Church attendance was never very high in American history. I don't have the statistics readily at hand, but at the time of the American Revolution I think roughly 20% of the colonists attended a church regularly, and the number never really went up much beyond that. The cantankerous, non-church going father of "Spencer's Mountain" (by the same guy who wrote "The Waltons") was a typical, not a-typical, American.

2) World War II changed all that. Literally. Sociologists and church leaders agree that church attendance spiked after World War II, for a complex series of reasons. Baby boomers like your host grew up in that "boom," and took it for the norm. It wasn't; it was the aberration.
In brief: we've been here before, and this is not a return to gone away, but a return to status quo. Do we have great swathes of Americans losing out on their chance for salvation? Same as it ever was, and the last time we tried to impose Christian virtues on the populace, it made a rich man out of Al Capone and a slaughterhouse out of the streets of Chicago; not to mention law-breakers out of a sizeable portion of the populace. Delve into the article, though, and authority is precisely what Mohler fears is being lost:

"The post-Christian narrative is radically different; it offers spirituality, however defined, without binding authority," he told me. "It is based on an understanding of history that presumes a less tolerant past and a more tolerant future, with the present as an important transitional step." The present, in this sense, is less about the death of God and more about the birth of many gods. The rising numbers of religiously unaffiliated Americans are people more apt to call themselves "spiritual" rather than "religious." (In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, 30 percent describe themselves this way, up from 24 percent in 2005.)
We aren’t, of course, “post-Christian” at all. What Mohler sees waning is the brief and fitful hope of institutional authority he thought was about to be handed to him and those who think like him. The historic irony there is rich, because Mohler’s Baptist ancestors came to America precisely to escape that kind of religious authority, especially represented by the religious arm of the state, the Church of England. Protestantism in America came over from Europe and brought European culture with it, a culture that supported Protestantism as it always had (Calvin ran Geneva; Luther was protected from the Pope by German princes; the Presbyterians controlled daily life in Scotland, driving out all but the remnants of Gaelic spirituality with Andrew Carmichael managed to save before they disappeared, crushed under the pastor's bootheel). But Protestantism also resented state authority: not just the Baptists but the Pilgrims (my spiritual and eccelesiastical ancestors), and many other Christian groups, came to this country precisely to escape state censure and religious authority allied with governmental power. Jefferson’s ideas did not spring up sui generis; he was merely their most eloquent spokesman.

Protestantism has always been prickly in its insistence on the importance of the individual against the authority of the institution. It’s the primary reason there are still so many Protestant groups, some of them large enough to be considered “Mainline denominations,” some of them so tiny they consist of only a few churches, or are entirely “non-denominational.” Not all of the latter, by any stretch, are “mega-churches.” And just as the culture that upheld Protestantism has faded in Europe, it is now clearly fading in America. Part of the reason for that is spiritual and intellectual; and part of it if the role of charity. As the state stepped in to take over the traditional ameloriative role of the church in European society (the very loss of position which both the church and many public intellectuals feared in the 19th century), the church has withered to a very private enterprise indeed. That change is occurring more slowly in the U.S., but it is occurring nonetheless. What Mohler misses is the weight of the kind of peer pressure to be in church that was at its historic height after World War II, and that has been waning ever since. Now that it seems to be gone altogether, and any hope of reimposing it through politics, or through a centralized denominational authority (the battles in the Southern Baptist Convention were fierce and largely over this very issue) is gone as well. Some, like Mohler, simply suddenly know what they’ve got when it’s gone, and it’s: nothing. Nothing at all.

But that project has failed, at least for now. In Texas, authorities have decided to side with science, not theology, in a dispute over the teaching of evolution. The terrible economic times have not led to an increase in church attendance. In Iowa last Friday, the state Supreme Court ruled against a ban on same-sex marriage, a defeat for religious conservatives. Such evidence is what has believers fretting about the possibility of an age dominated by a newly muscular secularism. "The moral teachings of Christianity have exerted an incalculable influence on Western civilization," Mohler says. "As those moral teachings fade into cultural memory, a secularized morality takes their place. Once Christianity is abandoned by a significant portion of the population, the moral landscape necessarily changes. For the better part of the 20th century, the nations of Western Europe led the way in the abandonment of Christian commitments. Christian moral reflexes and moral principles gave way to the loosening grip of a Christian memory. Now even that Christian memory is absent from the lives of millions."
That Texas dispute, in fact, ended with the reversing of a 20-year old position that insisted evolution and "other explanations" be taught in classrooms. That’s more than a failure of Mohler’s “project,” it’s a repudiation. Mohler’s defense of American morality is based on the same American exceptionalism that appalled Charles Dickens. He is as ignorant of European society and culture as his ancestors were who so disgusted Mr. Dickens. I'm not sure what "Christian commitments" Europe or America lead the world in, given 19th century history, or 20th century history (the greatest slaughters in human history happened under European guidance in both those centures, and we continue to suffer from the sins of those particular fathers). I know a lot of students now for whom that "Christian memory" is wholly non-existent; but they don't make me fear for the future of this country. At least, not because of their morality.

What Mr. Mohler laments, then, is a loss of control; but it's a control he, nor his religion, never really had. Or,for that matter, that it ever should have. It’s one they imagined they would have, in a rosy future. But that future has been snatched from them, and now it seems that loss is not only political, it’s social. It’s cultural. It’s irreversible.

And this is a good thing:

So what we are seeing is not the return of the "Dark Ages" (a misnomer anyway, but that's another complaint, idn't it?), but the last flush on the cheek of a dying age. Church in America is actually becoming increasingly irrelevant as it either disappears into a gathering of grey heads, or as a place where you are told how wonderful you are and the 7 steps or keys or what-have-you for how much better God wants to make you be (I was looking at Joel Osteen's latest book, and comparing it to his first book. This one offers "Seven keys to living with joy and peace." His first was "7 steps for living at your full potential." Clearly it's all about 7; which is so much easier than 12, I'm guessing.) There's everything modern American about that, and very little which is Christian (a friend tells me she's watched Osteen's sermons, and he gives the same one over and over again. Well, it's made him rich....). I've said before this is primarily a good thing, as it will ultimately strengthen a church which needs to cut its ties to the society it finds itself in; but that, too, is another matter for another time.
As I was just saying, in fact:

What's happened now is that church membership is no longer a social obligation. As the culture changes, the interest in Protestantism changes, and that change means a decline in members of Protestant churches. This may be news to the laity, but it is hardly news to the clergy.
Obviously, it’s quite a shock to Mr. Mohler; but not to those of us who’ve been paying attention.

The Newsweek article points out the rift between one generation of evangelicals and the younger generation, whose focus has shifted to making the world a better place, rather than a more moral place. This highlight the unacknowledged problem for Mohler and those who fear what he fears: it’s a problem of identity, and it's two-fold. Part of it comes from their soteriology: its basis is that Christians are responsible for the salvation of non-Christians. The "Great Commission" of Matthew ("Go, thou, and make disciples of all nations") is read as an imperative command to save the world from hell; at least, save those who will listen. But of course, if they have no chance to listen because you didn't witness to them, then the responsibility is on your head. So there are two prongs to this problem for evangelical Christians like Mr. Mohler: a greater need to witness (because so many more are unsaved); and an apparent failure to witness effectively (for, while the success of the witness is up to the Holy Spirit, the witness certainly bears the burden for making the testimony as persuasive as possible.)

The other, deeper, problem, is the problem that fires militant atheists and anti-theists as well as fundamentalists and evangelists of all stripes: the sense that one's identity is permeable and fluid and, to the extent those in the society around you don't share your identity, your identity is called into question. The French saying for self-assurance is someone "comfortable in their own skin." It's a remarkably astute existential observation, since I certainly can't wear your skin, and I shouldn't let you get under mine. I need to be comfortable in my own, which means I need to be comfortable both with me, and with the fact that you are not me. But child psychologists tell us that human development works through stages that begin with learning the difference between self and other, a lesson we never quite wholly absorb. Partly that's because we are social creatures; we naturally identify with the group. It's a strength, but it can become a weakness, leading some of us to insist the group be as large as possible, as homogeneous as possible, and in some cases that other groups be banned or even annihilated.

But generally, we either want other people to think just like us, or to stop representing themselves as being like us. So Christians break into denominations, churches schism and form new denominations, and groups fight over who gets to carry the banner. Both concerns, of course, should be irrelevant to Christians. The kerygma of the gospel is the basileia tou theou. The proclamation is that it is here, now, among us, and as Christians, we are called to live in it. It is in the world, but not of the world, and so are Christians. But the kerygma sets up a central paradox, which is the paradox of hospitality. Christians are called to offer the hospitality of God to all the children of God. But f we offer hospitality, we must have control over some space to which we can be "hosts." But to have that control, we must be children of this world. Therein lies the temptation, the anfechtung, as Kierkegaard would say. And that introduces the mysterium tremendum, the fear and trembling, the sickness unto death. How can we be in this world without being of this world? Yet if we don’t, we cannot truly be Christians.

The anfechtung, the temptation, is to be in the world and control the world, through politics or power or any moral course that makes life better for any faceless group that we define as needing us. Thus our soteriology, which is not rooted in “saving” the world, becomes indistinguishable from the soteriology that puts that burden precisely at its heart. But if we are not in the world, we are not caring for God’s children, who are all, as Christ taught us, the Christ himself, the one we serve by serving the least of all and last of all. But how do we serve them? By politics and social programs and sweeping generalizations that carry them before us, just with better generalizations than Mr. Mohler relies on? Or do we do it by serving our brother and sister who is before us now, the one we can see, touch, feel, hear, help with our two hands and our one heart? The temptation is to seek the power of God, the transcendent power that rains down benison from above. This, too, can be a soteriology, the flip side of the coin from that of the evangelists. Now the salvation comes from the polity, from social justice, from having the right political opinions and enacting the right laws, or enforcing the right social standards. It is the other side of the coin because both soteriologies presume the grace of God is available only through our efforts, that we must be agents of change in the world, rather tha in our hearts.

But the calling is to the powerlessness of God, which is the heart of hospitality: to give over control to the stranger; to let the unknown person have what is most essential to you, as they need it.

So, will the Church fail? No. Will "Christianity" stop being influential in American politics? It never was. It was always the handmaid to power, never the authority on the throne. The prophets may have reminded the King of Israel of the covenant with God, but they only told him what he had done wrong, not how he could improve his standing among the populace. Solomon was an observant Hebrew, but he led the country as a king, not as a religious leader. The calling of the prophets was to the power of powerlessness as well, whether it was Amos, the dresser of sycamore trees, who never aspired to political authority; Jeremiah, who wept for his people even as he denounced the king of Israel; Ezekiel, who suffered bizarre visions and made himself a symbol of Israel's problems, suffering his own torments and the bewilderment of the elders; or Hosea, who married a prostitute and made his children metaphors for Israel's apostasy. They gained nothing for their prophecy; they watched Israel fall, or lived in the aftermath, in a foreign land. And still the children of Abraham did not stop being the children of Abraham.

This week, the descendants of those prophets and Israelites remember the covenant with the Creator. This week, Christians remember the last days, the betrayal, the scourging, the crucifixion, of their Savior. These are the days when anything goes. These are the days of beginnings and endings. This is the way it always is in the affairs of humans. What endures, is the presence of God among us. That presence teaches us humility; that presence teaches us powerlessness. That presence teaches us the true nature of power; and how we should live with one another, as members of a polity, as children of God.

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