American Christianity is losing its grip on political power — and that's good news for Christians
Could it lead to a truer, more vital form of the faith?
As secular and liberal America prepares to celebrate the probable triumph of same-sex marriage at the Supreme Court in June, let’s take a moment to note how differently some of our fellow citizens view the same development. These are not simple-minded (or pseudo-philosophical) bigots. They are thoughtful, devout Christians trying to make sense of a cultural revolution they feel powerless to reverse or control — and which they fear will sweep them, much that they cherish, and a good part of what’s most valuable in the historically Christian civilization of the West into the gutter.
The stakes, as far as these dissenters are concerned, are enormous.
The best, most thought-provoking statement of this view can be found in three articles published in the February 2015 issue of First Things magazine. I don’t agree with the positions staked out in these essays. Yet the concerns of the magazine and its leading contributors deserve a hearing, even if, as I think, their anxieties are ultimately overstated and misguided.
In the lead essay, Michael Hanby of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America explains that in our time “liberalism” has become something far more sweeping than a philosophy of limited government. It has become “an all-encompassing absolutism” that would drive out all competing forms of life, visions of the highest good, and notions of human nature. This absolutist dynamic is clearest in the sexual revolution, which in the name of liberating the individual from all received constraints summarily overthrows the anthropology presupposed by the entirety of Christian civilization.
This anthropology treated gender (male and female) as fixed and complementary, and marriage as an institution in which two individuals — one from each gender — come together to form a one-flesh union, the highest purpose of which is procreation, with the resulting family forming the ideal setting for rearing children.
The sexual revolution’s consequences for Christianity could not be more significant, since it culminates in the widespread acceptance of gay marriage and the use of the coercive powers of liberal state to enforce that acceptance in the public square — a development that “effectively brings the civic project of American Christianity to an end.”
What Hanby means is that Christianity’s role in setting the agenda and tenor of public debate in the United States — which stretched from the Puritans all the way down to the interdenominational religious right of the past quarter-century — is finally over. From now on, Christianity understood as a comprehensive way of life will be consigned entirely to the private sphere and cordoned off there, with the liberal state increasingly penetrating even this last stronghold as it seeks to eliminate any and all remaining obstacles to the thoroughgoing bureaucratization of American life in the name of efficiently providing individuals with an ever-lengthening list of government benefits.
The America of the future will be a homogeneously secular place — and for devout Christians there will be no place to hide.
George Weigel, the second author included in the First Things series, is the only participant who was closely allied with the magazine’s founder, Richard John Neuhaus — a man who remained up until his death in early 2009 an optimist about the prospects for synthesizing American culture and politics with the rigorous moral teachings of Roman Catholic Christianity. It is thus all the more striking that Weigel sounds nearly as bleak as Hanby, railing against the pervasive “dictatorship of relativism” in American culture, defensively emphasizing the importance of religious freedom, and warning Christians ominously about “a real possibility of a season of persecution.”
The concluding essay in the series, by The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, contains numerous passages that sound equally pessimistic. Repeating sentiments expressed by both Hanby and Weigel, Dreher writes that “our prospects for living and acting in the public square as Christians are now quite limited.” In response, Dreher argues that Christians should opt for a “Benedict Option” inspired by the example of St. Benedict, who founded monasticism as the Roman Empire crumbled around him. This amounts to a withdrawal on the part of devout Christians from mainstream American culture to form insular communities in which they “live amidst the ruins...of Christian civilization” and act to preserve “the living faith through the coming Dark Ages.”
The first thing to be said about these essays is that their gloominess seems unwarranted. Yes, the stern and stringent form of faith the authors prefer no longer dominates American public life like it once did. Yes, the sexual revolution has changed many aspects of American culture, mores, and public opinion. And yes, some of those changes are morally disorienting (even to those of us less firmly committed to traditional Christian strictures than regular readers of First Things).
Yet the inviolability of the private sphere remains largely intact. Michael Hanby holds a post at a respected university. George Weigel enjoys a perch at an established Washington think tank. Rod Dreher is a prominent blogger with a large following and a several successful books under his belt. There’s no secret police battering down the doors of the First Things offices, searching for incriminating evidence of homophobic Thought Crime. Traditionalist religious believers are perfectly free to teach their children whatever they wish about gender, sexuality, and God — just as they’re free to homeschool their children to more fully insulate them from supposedly corruptive modern trends.
Sure, anti-Christian bigots will sometimes act like intolerant thugs, demanding that a Brendan Eich be fired, or calling for a conservative Christian college to conform to ideological liberalism in every respect. But when that happens, critics (like me) will denounce the bigots, drawing on resources from within the liberal tradition to defend the principle of tolerance for every American, secular and devout, against the illiberal do-gooders who prefer moral purity (as they define it) to freedom.
But that’s not good enough for Hanby, Weigel, and Dreher. They are in mourning for Christianity’s loss of cultural hegemony in the United States.
I’d like to suggest that they should get over it — that, rightly understood, Christianity can be most fully itself when it relinquishes political and cultural rule, when it ceases to identify itself so closely with any particular political order.
Consider the passage in Rod Dreher’s essay where he laments that “given the dynamics of our rapidly changing culture...it will be increasingly difficult to be a good Christian and a good American.” To which the properly Christian response is: Why on Earth would a Christian at any moment of history expect anything other than difficulty at combining faith and citizenship?
It is a perennial Christian temptation — one growing out of that most distinctively Christian doctrine, the bodily incarnation of God — to sanctify (and to see God embodied in) the political order that prevails at any given moment of history. In the American version of this temptation, the Puritans undertook an “errand in the wilderness” to found a New Israel in the new world. The religious right — especially in the mode of High Theological Seriousness favored by First Things — descends directly from this incarnational American tradition, viewing the Declaration of Independence as an expression of medieval political theology and the Republican Party’s eagerness to wage righteous wars and willingness to defend the sanctity of unborn life as evidence of America’s quasi-divine mission.
Whether in the Middle Ages or the contemporary United States, it is a betrayal of Christian ideals to give in to the incarnational temptation. In mistaking one particular political community for the city of God that always lies beyond any earthly city, it makes eventual disappointment inevitable.
That disappointment can take two forms — one negative, one positive.
When Rod Dreher talks of civilizational ruins and living through a new Dark Ages, he flirts with an irresponsible rhetoric of political and cultural reaction. That's one particularly pernicious way in which profound theological-political disappointment can manifest itself.
But when he takes up and develops the idea of the Benedict Option, that’s evidence of disappointment issuing in authentic Christian wisdom. A Christian’s natural condition, as it were, should be that of an itinerant pilgrim, never fully at home in the world or in any nation, no matter how decent. In this sense, it might be a good thing that the “civic project of American Christianity” has come to an end, since the idea of a “civic Christianity” may be best understood, everywhere and always, as an oxymoron.
To the extent that millions of American Christians have denied this and believed that their faith and their devotion to country could be easily and comfortingly harmonized, they have been led astray. And in that sense at least, they should perhaps view the seemingly less hospitable circumstances of the American present and future as an opportunity to practice a richer, truer, more vital form of faith.