It was Thursday, February 15, and we were touring Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington, NZ. It’s no longer used for regular worship, but remains a popular attraction partly for the magnificence of its wooden architecture. The New St. Paul’s Cathedral some blocks away has replaced it. A docent telling the story of its history was interrupted by an American who wanted to know about the decline in church attendance, especially among Anglicans, and whether New Zealand had become another secular society (of unbelievers). They were fair questions, but asked in an accusatory tone that left the docent searching for an answer that was not overly defensive.
Later that day we heard news of the Ash Wednesday-Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida. It unleashed a torrent of in person and online comments, many centering blame on an increasingly godless society in which there is no longer respect for right behavior, as there once was. One friend, a strong supporter of the right to own guns without restriction, believed the problem lay in the fifty year decay of American social and political values emphasized by lack of respect, laziness and greed combined with a decline in personal responsibility in favor of someone else (the government) to take care of everything. In a sense, his argument, firmly believed by many, is that we were once not a fallen nation, but now are. There is no doubt some truth in that, but probably not in the way he would agree with.
A theologian’s response must begin with the caution that, yes, we are a fallen people, but we have always been so. If nothing else, holy scripture tells the story of our universal human fallenness, creatures determined to be our own gods, the measures of our own goodness, and the masters of our own destinies. Blaming others and shirking responsibility are human traits scripture assigns to every time and every place. To think that we have somehow become more fallen than we were fifty years ago defies everything we know about human nature, and ignores unpleasant historical fact. More particularly, as a society we have not become lazier, greedier and less responsible than we have ever been, which may be faint praise, but it’s the best I can do.
However, things have changed about which much has been written by many, including me in previous articles on this site. There were a few decades following WWII in which a socially acceptable civil religion in the form of generic Protestantism was understood to set the standard for what it meant to be “One nation under God,” a phrase added to the national lexicon in 1954 to make the point that we were not godless Soviet or Chinese Communists. They were years of sustained economic growth (with periodic recessions), rising blue collar wages, international hegemony challenged only by the USSR, and the unchallenged assumption that the white middle class was the proper vessel of all things truly American, with white men as America’s natural and proper leaders.
It could not endure, and it didn’t. The Vietnam war began the erosion of American global hegemony. First blacks, and then women began to demand their rightful place in society, and it wasn’t under white or male domination. The Nixon era, more than any other, threw into doubt the validity and reliability of established institutions of political and economic power. All that began around fifty years ago. The process of painfully redefining what it means to be America has continued, and there is no doubt that to many it looks like decay. Moreover, it could be, but not in the way my interlocutors imagine.
Some conservative evangelicals demur. David Brody, host of the “Faith Nation” broadcast on CBN wrote in a February 24 New York Times op. ed. piece that Trump is the answer to evangelical prayer. Yes, he may be morally challenged, but the bible is filled with such leaders called by God to do God’s work. Moreover, he has a private side, known only to them, that is filled with faithfulness (Brody has written a book about it so you can know it too). What God has called Trump to do, and what he is doing, is restoring the moral equilibrium of fifty or sixty years ago that they equate with godliness. I equate it with the accepted (white) social values of the time draped in pharisaic religious vestments Jesus would have a hard time with.
For them to recover what they believe to be the social stability and predictability of the post war era, they have no choice but to impose legal restrictions on anyone who opposes them. Freedoms they cherish for themselves cannot be shared with others except through strict control over how, what, where and when. Freedoms others cherish can have no standing. Genuine libertarians must shudder at that if they give it much thought, but libertarians seem to have fallen into bed with conservative evangelicals who, in their libertarian defense of the freedom of the individual against the power of the state, are willing to subject all others to that power, not recognizing until it was too late, that they too would lose all. It’s a scene played over innumerable times in small measure and large.
The Puritans and Pilgrims wanted nothing more than the freedom to worship as they desired in a moral God fearing society. With the best of intentions, and deep commitment to God’s word, they produced for themselves an inflexible, freedom denying dictatorship of enforced morality. On a larger, more secular scale, fascist and communist idealism quickly turned to Stalinism, Naziism, and Maoism. America even flirted with Naziism in the late 1930s for both secular and religious reasons. It doesn’t take a deep look to recognize that the current tea party inspired movements have the heartbeat of modern day fascism.
Maybe we haven’t experienced moral decay. Maybe we are experiencing the eruption of an abscess that has been hiding just below the surface for decades. Decay or abscess, it can happen in the best of democracies. It can trigger reform, or it can stampede down a path to totalitarianism. Which it will be for us is yet to be determined, and we’re not even sure what mechanisms will lead one way or the other.
One of the weaknesses in our chaotic effort to redefine what America has been is the incessant complaint by each generation that the younger generations have become lazy, disrespectful, unmotivated, lacking a work ethic, etc. It’s been ever thus. Ever since Adam and Eve, the younger generation has never lived up to the expectations of the older. It’s comical except when it isn’t, and it isn’t right now. There seems to be a critical mass among both right and left wingers sewing enough disrespect for teens and young adults to make it difficult for them to become prepared to assume leadership roles as they mature. They will, of course, as they always do, but in the meantime being held accountable for the decay of society is a heavy and unfair burden to bear. I’m heartened by the outpouring of responsible adult behavior from Parkland teens, and their counterparts all over the country. I’m heartened by what I see from teens and young adults in our own community. I’m heartened by the example of my own grandchildren, who are among the most privileged of youth, yet are hard working, morally responsible, and understand that their privilege is an undeserved gift not to be taken for granted.
With that said, let’s return to the question of religion, and the accusatory question of the guy in Wellington that merely echoed dozens more expressed online. While I don’t believe the civil religion of generic Protestantism that once dominated the American scene was ever anything other than a religious smoke screen, I also believe that mainline Churches, including Catholics, have done a miserable job of making disciples out of those who still go to church. The children, who overflowed Sunday schools during the ‘50s and ‘60s, left the church as soon as they could because what they were taught was cheap pablum lacking in any worthwhile nutrition. They never bothered to send their own children except when social demands required. Those children grew up and quit going altogether. And why not? On the other hand, conservative evangelical and fundamentalist denominations seemed to flourish, but what they offered was a mix of right wing politics and1950s social values muddled with religious teachings that cannot stand up to close examination. They too are beginning to lose membership, and for good reason.
So several of those on both sides in this long conversation are right. The Christian Church has failed to contribute to the moral leadership this country needs. In fact, it has failed in every Western country where it once dominated social and political life. It’s not that the Church has failed to provide strong moral leaders. It has. Sometimes, like King, they have inspired great movements of moral progress. More often they have inspired generations of theologians and pastors, which is good, but it didn’t reach a broader constituency. As for the popularity and influence of a large herd of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, they may proclaim Christ as loud as they wish; as far as I can tell they seldom follow him. For the most part, they have been agents of social repression and oppression in the name of morality, and of all things scientific or intellectual, in the name of literal biblicalism.
Two things keep me hopeful. One is the resiliency of the American people. We’ve been down paths like this before, and recovered. We can do it again. The other is my Christian faith. This is God’s world, and God’s word will prevail, no matter how hard we try to get in God’s way. My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, has called for a renewed commitment to spiritual and moral revival in the land. It’s much needed, not only in the land, but even more in the Church. Go for it.