I recently read a review by Chris Smart on the Solas blog of the book, Strange Rites, by Tara Isabella Burton, published by Public Affairs, New York 2020. My thoughts come third hand, but I found enough meat to chew on (hopefully) in the review to warrant some attention.
The author of the book is an American, though she establishes some objective distance through her Oxford education in the UK. Only about five percent (5%) of people in the UK attend church on Sundays, and the trend in the US is moving in that same direction.
Into the vacuum that is growing with nones in the US are rushing other objects of our religious impulses. This seems to be the focus of the book, analyzing the places religious impulses are taking modern Americans as they drift away from Christianity.
If Protestantism that has dominated the religious landscape in the US in the past is a religion of the printed book, the new spiritual movements in the US are “religions of the Internet”. That remark certainly doesn’t surprise me, though I had not thought of it that way.
The Internet is larger than life in our world. It has replaced encyclopedias and asking our parents (or even your doctors) for information. It eats up our spare time more completely than the television did in my youth and the radio did in my father’s youth.
The Internet is everywhere. It never leaves our sides. We turn to it feverishly at all hours of the day and night. We can’t wait to communicate with it, and we constantly check it for validation through its communication with us.
Chris Smart, summarizing Burton’s observations, describes our preoccupation with the Internet as a search for transcendence in which people are “looking to create meaning, purpose and community through new rituals”. Those “modern rituals” are exploited and perpetuated by big business.
Some of the largest big businesses are the purveyors of community and connectivity on the Internet. They help to lead people with the breadcrumbs of their own preferences to tribes that are personally tailored for them. Our new temples are the echo chambers of our own inclinations and the tribes to which they tend to lead.
Thompson recalls those enlightened 19th century pundits who predicted the death of God and advances in “scientific discovery and modernity” that would lead to widespread atheism. Thompson is a skeptic, himself. While Europe has largely gone the way the pundits predicted, The United States has resisted that prognostication – at least until recently.
Thompson blames “America’s unique synthesis of wealth and worship” and “stubbornly pious Americans” for the United States not going with the flow of the Enlightenment ascent of man from the superstitious dark ages into the light of science and reason.
While the rest of the western world has been drifting away from religious affiliation, and religion altogether, the United States seemed impervious to those forces working on the rest of the western world – until recently. Things began to change in the United States in the 1990’s, and that trend continues.
The article borrows heavily from Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, for figures and figurings of the reasons why. The shift is clear, though, and the statistics bear it out, that religious affiliation and interest in religion in the United States is waning and going the way of the rest of the western world.
“According to Smith, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” Smith goes on to provide some explanation for how these “events” have triggered the change. He says,
“The marriage between the religious and political right …. disgusted liberal Democrats, especially those with weak connections to the Church. It also shocked the conscience of moderates, who preferred a wide berth between their faith and their politics.”
Thompson’s article got me thinking. He is right about the trend away from religion in the United States. We don’t need data to tell us that. The “nones” are increasing while the committed believers are decreasing. That these observations come from “outside the camp” doesn’t make them false.
Thompson’s explanations for the reasons why this is may be more of a mixed bag. He (naturally) views the changes through a naturalistic lens. He may be right about some of the cause and effect, but he (naturally) isn’t likely to see the more spiritual side of those things.
I “grew up” spiritually during the mid to late 80’s when the marriage between religion and the political right was consummated. I fell out of step with it, and lost track of it, when I went to law school in 1988. Apparently the honeymoon went well.
I count myself (even today) as an evangelical (though I search for a different label). My spiritual upbringing included the experience of the courting of the religious right of the Republican Party. (Or was it the other way around?)
Law school, however, challenged even my most sacrosanct connections, and the cares and concerns of fatherhood and providing for a growing family distracted me from other relationships. It was all I could do to hold onto God during this time, and the truth is that He mostly held onto me.
Perhaps, that was a blessing in disguise, as I didn’t grow into the religio-politico affiliation that seems to characterize a large segment of the evangelical church today. I am a more distant observer of that relationship today, so I think I have some objectivity left.
I agree (partially) with Thompson’s assessment that the congruence of the religious right and the political right changed the political landscape. It also changed the religious landscape. Perhaps, more than we might care to acknowledge.
I read Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion, about a year ago, and I have written about it a few times. Many Christians would not think to read a history about Western Civilization by a self-described secular humanist (once atheist, perhaps now agnostic) historian.
Most non-Christians are likely to be uncomfortable with the chronicle Holland describes of the radically influential role that Christianity played in the development of Western Civilization, providing the foundation, in fact, for secular humanist ideals. When Holland dug down to the bedrock of modern, western values, he was surprised himself to find them anchored on a Christian foundation.
Holland did not set out to write a Christian apologetic, and he seems to remain somewhat uncertain how to process what he “discovered”. What he found, though, changed his mind about Christianity. He gives a brief explanation in the following clip:
Though Holland has had a turnabout on his view of Christianity, he finds himself caught in an odd position wrought by the unexpected discovery that his lifelong, secular humanist values flow from the radical catalyst of Christian influence and remain embedded ubiquitously in its very fabric. The awkwardness of his current position is evident in his interviews and discussions about the book.
Christians and secular thinkers, alike, wrestle with his book. Holland doesn’t hide any warts, and he doesn’t pull any punches. Neither does he obfuscate the thoroughly paradigmatic shift in Western thinking that Christianity worked into a society that once proudly and unashamedly championed strength and privilege over the poor, the weak, and the lowly.
Holland exposes the metanarrative developed during the Enlightenment and thereafter that belies the foundation on which the Enlightenment structure was built. Far from advancing the progression of human values, the Enlightenment threatened to undo the distinctly Christian concern for the poor, weak, and lowly while attempting to wrest western civilization from the hold of the Divine. Humanism saved the Christian ethic, albeit divorced from Christ.
Consider the full title of Darwin’s great tome which staked out the ground of a scientific (and social) revolution free from God’s interference:
“The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”
The title of Darwin’s book championing the evolutionary paradigm, harkens back to the Greco-Roman value system that despised the poor, the weak and the lowly. That value system did not just turn a callous eye at wanton and discriminate cruelty, it cheered on the strong while they snuffed out the weak. It was national sport!
The very reason the full title never “stuck” (I now believe) is due to a fundamental, pervasive, and thoroughly entrenched counter-value of the intrinsic worth of human life that is uniquely Christian in its source.
The intrinsic value of all human life, from the greatest to the least, from the wisest and strongest to the weakest and most imbecilic, from the fittest to the most infirm, is traceable to the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God. That the survival of the fittest did not take hold as a western social or ethical value is attributable to the deeply ingrained Christian ethic that survived yet, despite the efforts to eradicate its God from modern equations.
Modern humanists may attempt to recast Darwin into a humanistic mold, but the idea of “social Darwinism” bears his name through no model of random, unguided selection. According to John G. West, Charles Darwin, himself, set in motion the inertia for eugenics, among other things, that were associated with social Darwinism:
Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory.
While the defense of Darwin against the charge of social Darwinism has largely succeeded in popular and polite company, the very title of the Origin of Species (by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) belies the success of that effort. The fact that the full title is merely a parenthetical today is evidence only of a concerted rescue campaign.
Christian values survived despite the Enlightenment coupe, not because of it. Humanism today assumes the evolutionary paradigm for its science alongside the uniquely Christian paradigm of intrinsic human value. That the two assumptions do not fit well together seems to be lost on modern minds.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) has caused quite a stir in Christian (and conservative) circles, while racial tensions remain inflamed in the United States after a summer of COVID fear and racial unrest. While we are currently in a period of relative calm, it seems like the volcanic activity continues churning under the surface, and it’s only a matter of time before another event leads to an eruption.
Since last summer, I have focused often on issues of race in my writing, and race continues to occupy my mind. Thus, when a friend recommended some episodes of Theology in the Raw on the subject of CRT and race, generally, I followed up to listen to them. I was thrilled to find the discussions civil, intelligent and enlightening.
I have listened to several episodes now, but the one I am writing about today is episode #844. I am going to summarize parts of it with some of my own comments, but I highly suggest listening to the whole discussion if you have the time and inclination.
In this podcast, Preston Sprinkle’s guest, “Pastor T”, explains some of the frustrations that black people have with white people (conservative and progressive) in the national conversation about race. Pastor T explains that the black Church is more aligned with conservatives on theological lines, but they tend toward progressives on political lines because of silence a lack of engagement with the black plight in America by white evangelicals.
Take a moment to listen to Pastor T explain (listen approximately 24 minutes):
I will pick up the conversation in the context of the reasons why Christians oppose CRT. Pastor T identifies at least areas of expressed Christians concern: 1) it leads people away from the Gospel and causes people to deconvert; 2) it is a false religion that threatens Christianity; and 3) it is a progressive ideology that threatens conservative values and the country.
The first group of people oppose CRT because they see CRT drawing people away from the church, away from Christianity and away from the Gospel. They see people “deconstructing” and leaving their faith. They believe that CRT is partially to blame.
A slightly different reason that people oppose CRT is a concern that CRT is a false gospel that is advocated with religious zeal. This is a worldview concern – a battle against a competing worldview.
This view sees CRT as racializing the world because CRT divides the world into oppressor groups and oppressed groups. It posits that people in the oppressor group can never be justified; and the people in the oppressed group are justified simply by virtue of their grievances. These are secular constructs, not biblical ones.
The third group of people might use the language of theology, but their focus is more political. They would say that CRT is not good for society or the country. They view the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement to defund the police and other policy positions as unwise, unhelpful, destructive and contrary to the Bible.
Pastor T began the discussion by acknowledging the legitimacy of these concerns. He affirms that we should be concerned about rival claims to salvation and eternal life and the basic teaching of the Gospel.
Pastor T is a conservative Christian, as many black Christians are in their theology. His observations suggest that we are separated more by race than by theology in the American Church. Perhaps, the disconnect between the black Church and the white Church over CRT in America has more to do with racial experience and perspective than the Gospel.
I have been writing about and trying to convey a certain perspective on racial tensions in the United States and the response of the American Church to those tensions, but I fear I haven’t done the subject justice. An article I read today on the Resurrecting Orthodoxy blog[i] clarifies some of my thoughts and prompts this article. The author’s subject is the book by Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: An African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. (I have the book and intend to read it myself.)
To be clear, when I speak of the “American Church”, I am really thinking of my own tribe – the evangelical church in the United States. My tribe are the people who the political pundits label “white evangelicals”. I don’t like the label, but these are “my people”.
That doesn’t mean that “we” don’t have African Americans, Mexicans and Latin Americans, and other ethnicities in our churches. We do. We are predominantly white, though, in the evangelical circles in which I have grown up as a Christian since my college days.
Regardless of the pews where people sit on Sundays and who sits next to them, political pollsters separate “white evangelicals” from their black counterparts. This distinction has bothered me because it suggests a false dichotomy.
Theologically, we agree on primary beliefs. The article on Reading While Black describes those beliefs as follows:
“(1) The importance of a ‘born again’ experience, (2) The demonstration of the Gospel in missionary and social reform efforts, (3) The upholding the authority of Scripture, and (4) The stress on the sacrificial death of Jesus as what makes redemption possible.”
On this point, Joel Edmund Anderson, the author of the article says:
“… I couldn’t help thinking as I read the book that the book’s title is actually misleading, for I didn’t see McCaulley’s black ecclesial interpretation of the Bible to really be a black interpretation at all. It was a faithful Christian interpretation.” (Emphasis in the original)
This observation underscores the main point of my article today: white Christians and black Christians agree many things at the heart of faith. We agree on the necessity of being born again, the missionary nature of the Gospel, the authority of Scripture, and the redemption from sin through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.
We don’t agree, though, on politics, and we vote very differently. Polls clearly show that white evangelicals voted about 80% in favor of Donald Trump, while black “evangelicals” voted just the opposite – about 80% against Donald Trump.
It’s tempting to try to explain that difference away on the basis of conservative and progressive/liberal ideologies and miss the clear common ground in our biblical beliefs. It’s also tempting to blame this difference on race alone. Race surely is a key distinctive. But why?