06 July 2011

Christianity – why don’t we get it?

I’ve been reading Economics is for donkeys again, specifically the most recent entry on why America is not a Christian nation (but not for the reasons we on the left generally tend to think). As EIFD often does, it got me to thinking: what is it about Christianity that Americans have historically found so difficult to get? Why is it that heterodoxy (in all its various forms) has so much pull here, going all the way back to the original Deists and New England Unitarians on these shores (who were really just Arians under a different guise) who broke away from their Calvinist forebears? It is said in the Gospel that Jesus speaks to those who have ears to hear… why is it that American ears tend to be more deaf, even if our hearts tend to be more enthusiastic about religion in general than those in other corners of ‘Christendom’?

Actually, perhaps I’m being rather unfair. This is a lack of understanding which affects not just America but a lot of the traditional West (with the notable exception of Latin America, where Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are embraced as forces of social justice). But when your run-of-the-mill NPR commentator begins talking about ‘religion’ or ‘Christianity’, what they mean is not people like me or even people who might disagree with me but still uphold a common structure of orthodoxy, but rather that peculiarly right-wing, peculiarly ultra-nationalist, peculiarly Southern American form of hyper-Calvinist Protestantism of the sort associated with the ‘evangelical voter’. It is a form of religion which is, whether by habit or by design, alien to the exhortations to hospitality for the outsider, to the blessings upon the meek, the poor and the peacemakers, to God-as-man who came not for the sake of the obedient sheep of the flock but for the lost.

Partially I think we’re here in this position because it is in the interests of certain political elements for us to be here. Of course the representatives of this ultra-nationalist hyper-Calvinism (Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Richard Land, James Dobson et al.) enjoy the political prominence and prestige that such an assumption affords them, and will make as much of it as they can! But also, those elements of secular liberalism which are openly hostile to religion – including the nouveau atheists Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris – certainly wouldn’t want to have to deal with those pesky and inconvenient elements of the Christian religion which exhort and inspire people to act in the interests of the common good, so a false setup which privileges a priori a conception of Christianity which is habitually reactionary, violent and self-interested suits them quite nicely. And this leaves plenty of room for us Christians with a sense of historical perspective and irony to complain about having been shut out of the conversation… but this is not the whole picture at all. Indeed, it cannot be (tempting though it is to think so)! The duelling mirror images of militant secularism and militant evangelicalism must have had something to work upon for each of them to have attained to this level of strength and political significance in the first place.

At this point, I feel I must put forward what may be a rather unpopular and certainly un-Mennonite opinion: that it is the iron-cast separation of Church from state which is at least in part responsible for these distortions and misunderstandings. If we think of the state as that which is responsible for securing and enforcing the common good, it stands to reason given the nature of the Gospel that the Church ought to have some interest in that. Jesus was executed not solely as a rebel against the Temple (Caiaphas), but also as a rebel against Rome (Pilate) and against the Herodian state (um, Herod) – all three of which perceived him as a threat to their authority! Jesus’ actions raiding the corners of fields for grain, healing on the Sabbath and driving the moneychangers out of the Temple were not just religious critiques, but political ones as well. He was concerned that the poor did not starve, did not die of disease and did not become outcasts in their own society! Nowadays, such questions fall within the realm of ‘secular’ politics, though as Dr John Milbank reminds us (and he is right), once there was no ‘secular’. It is the duty of people of faith to be involved – as people of faith – in the political process; not to establish for ourselves as people of faith any kind of privileged voice, but rather to bring the state into better alignment with the values of justice for ‘the least of these’, which are informed by the fountainhead of Abraham’s God as embodied incarnate in the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Once you intrude into the life of the society with a hard-and-fast distinction between the public ‘secular’ and the private ‘religious’ (or, worse, conflate the two altogether!), you end up contorting both public life and private religion in ways previously unthinkable. All of this is personal for me, since I went through this process myself – I wore one masque as a student, one masque as a public citizen, one masque as a youth questioning his faith and his purpose in life (and seldom the three did meet!). To me, it often felt like cheating. Existentialism and neo-orthodoxy appealed to me immensely because they offered me a resolution which my otherwise Kantian-trained mind could not have otherwise imagined, but even as Kierkegaard set to work as my Socratic daemon, he was already deconstructing himself.

Yes, I am an individual who bears the full weight of and full responsibility for my own reality, and part of that weight is the contingency of being in a reality which involves the other. That religious realisation having been made, though, there can be no staying ‘in the wilderness’, in the state of anxiety that consists of the sum total of all my personal fears and insecurities and inadequacies and sins. It is not healthy to sit howling at the culture from without; rather, it is healthy to come back into the world, transformed and ready to transform. Existentialism is a powerful tool of orthodoxy – when properly understood. But the danger, pointed out by Ched Myers, is that, improperly understood, it can drive religion into a private, personalist paralysis – it can turn a perfectly well-meaning man or woman into a world-denying Essene.

That’s one of the dangers: secularism has the potential to force religion into the dark corners of the society and of the soul, there to be compartmentalised, policed, rationalised away. Is it any wonder that, so constrained, religion develops within itself, and under its own terms, a rebellious pride of Luciferian proportions? Is it any wonder that, having so developed, it might break free and seek to chain society under its own fetters? Is it any wonder that, society having dismissed religion as a bloodthirsty beast in need of restraint, religion itself adopts that selfsame thirst for blood in a perverse defiance of society’s predictions? Resentment is a powerful and dangerous thing, and well in evidence in the public face of the religious right. Religion is either cowed into world-denial, or else under the torturous weight of the secular it becomes twisted into a reactionary and self-righteous mockery of itself.

The other danger is in what happens to the state without the leaven provided by some kind of religious guidance. If the state decides upon substituting its own religious symbolism in place of faith, the results can be disastrous: nationalism – distilled to its crudest forms – has the dubious distinction of being the most spectacularly destructive and murderous religious ideology in the history of humankind. I am personally loath to trust even milder forms of nationalism (such as American civic religion and American exceptionalism) not to fall into similar patterns of violence. More likely in our day and age, though, the state is likely to prop up the religious demands of global capitalism, though residual Abrahamic considerations will likely urge some consideration of treatment of the poor (resulting in a metastable but ultimately unsatisfactory welfare-state arrangement).

I look to the legacy of my own branch of the Church, and wonder if perhaps Good Queen Bess had the right idea all along: not a theocracy or a laicist state, but an establishment characterised by a Middle Way which is at the same time more radical than either of the alternatives. Church and state, ideally, share a set of institutional ties – not enough to make one wholly dependent on the other, but enough to guarantee that the Church has a public life and a public voice, while the State is not inured enough to avoid listening to it before, say, plunging us into ‘murderous folly’ in the Middle East. (Suffice it to say, this arrangement had long been lost in Britain by the time Tony Blair came to power.) The dangers Kierkegaard warned against, of a soul-devouring cultural Christendom, are still present. However, looking at the alternative pathologies before me under the American model of laicism (namely, the aimless, mindless, unfulfilling keeping-up-with-the-Joneses encouraged by the religion of global capital, or the daemonic martial spectres of Robespierre on the American religious right), I tend to view the pathologies of European establishment churches with no small wistfulness.


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  2. Great post. In my own faith community (Roman Catholicism) I have noticed a trend toward trying to escape from the world through things like homeschooling and even a certain degree of separatism.

    While I am not against building alternative institutions per se, I don’t think individual solutions are adequate for social problems and attempts to escape from the world will always be difficult, especially for laypeople who must work and live outside the umbrella of the Church.

  3. Agreed, John. I think Roman Catholicism does a lot better than many forms of Protestantism, in that they at least try to articulate a consistent social ethic to be practised within the context of 'the world' and her politics. But yes, the entire private schools thing annoys me no end...

    I'm not sure religion was ever really meant to be a solely private matter; I think that's largely a convenient fiction of modernity. Sadly, it's one to which my own Anglican tradition has at times fallen prey (I'm thinking of the standard jokes about how Episcopalians supposedly believe in 'salvation through good taste', et cetera).

    I think largely the solutions will be a matter of context, though. I agree with you that individual solutions are, in our context, often woefully inadequate for the problems we face! (Depending on private charity rather than welfare, for example, in a social environment where people feel no obligation towards poor people, would be disastrous.) I think the strategy will have to incorporate, by turns, both reform and resistance.