Christians must choose between faith or worldly relevance

 By D.G. Hart | March 15, 2012

For much of human history, religion achieved prominence through the support of the prince, emperor, or state. It helped elevate the importance of religion further if the emperor himself were divine. Christianity never had an emperor cult, but between Constantine’s rule in the 300s and the revolutions of the late 18th century, churches held a prominent rank in their societies largely thanks to civil government’s patronage. Religion was honored in the public square—and incorporated into politics.

The loss of religion’s formerly privileged place has led believers to confront a difficult choice. Now that we can no longer count on the state to promote and subsidize religion, we either need to convince government to take it seriously once more and act again as its patron, or we must find a new way, free from the state’s blessing, to understand the significance of faith.

Over the last 30 years, born-again Protestants have overwhelmingly backed Republican candidates in the belief that for religion to matter, it must influence not only what people do when they gather for worship but also what they do every other day of the week. Faith must reach beyond the walls and fellowships of churches into the halls of power. From secularists and liberals who fear a return to theocracy—as if even Old Testament Israel was run by the Aaronic priesthood—to the Religious Right, which thrives on complaints about a “naked public square,” arguments for taking religion seriously in politics have coincided with the resurgence of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan.

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Consequently, to propose that a truly conservative position is to contend for faith’s own inherent merits, quite apart from any benediction from the civil government, is to risk sounding liberal—or even worse, secular.

So thoroughly have conservatives identified with arguments for the worldly relevance of faith, even to the point of driving away libertarians, that calling attention to the doctrine of the Trinity’s insignificance for public-school voucher programs or charter schools is to bear the mark of infidelity. And this is precisely the problem. The idea that faith is important to the degree that it shapes public life—especially the workings of government—although asserted with the most laudable of motives, is in fact the greatest impediment to taking religion seriously.

The ideas and standards that inform most faith-based politics do not arise from religion’s own ideals but from the shifting demands of policy, legislation, and re-election. “Religion” is a sloppy and imprecise word—not only does no such thing as generic religion exist, but actual religious traditions do not share a common set of ideals or practices that we may reduce to a single religious impulse. Any effort to give due weight to a spiritual or divine aspect of human experience will inevitably lead to the recognition of profound differences not only among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but also within the various churches of Western Christianity that have molded religious life in the United States. The political urge is to blend religions together—to sort them as “conservative” or “liberal” rather than according to their own doctrines. But being true to faith does not allow that.

Important reasons exist for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, for example, not to admit Roman Catholics into membership or to receive by transfer the ministerial credentials of Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors. By America’s public standards of tolerance and freedom of expression, such reservations appear sectarian, dogmatic, even uncharitable. But if we want to take seriously the theological and liturgical convictions of Orthodox Presbyterians—which would be a form of taking religion seriously—then we need to be prepared for the kind of disagreement and balkanization that come with the most devout of faiths.

Americans have not been well prepared for this kind of religious antagonism. The largest and most influential religious bodies have not only failed to explain such disagreements, they have actually established the dynamics that undermine faith’s importance. Let me illustrate by drawing attention to a central dynamic of 19th-century American Christianity that is still operative today. What is important to notice is that the form of devotion—let’s call it “republican Christianity”that has been most eager to assert the relevance of faith for the affairs of this world was also the one most responsible for secularizing Protestantism, while the other form of piety—designated here “Augustinian Christianity”—which objected least to the apparent secularization of American life, was the one that took faith in all its details most seriously. The lesson is, don’t let appearances deceive: the Americans who are the most devout may be the ones least likely to talk about their faith openly.

The roots of religious conservatism’s current predicament go back to the so-called Second Great Awakening. From roughly 1820 to the Civil War, a series of revivals enlarged Protestant denominations numerically and geographically. They also inspired a range of voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville regarded as one of the more salutary aspects of democratic society. The net effect of this movement was to establish the standard for genuine faith—conversion—and set the goal of a Christian society. Not only did many Americans “get religion,” but converts and churches supported organizations designed to rid the United States of wickedness and usher in the kingdom of God. This combination of revival and reform became the norm for republican Christianity, a faith intended to serve and strengthen the republic.

Augustinian Christians were not inclined to call this Awakening “great.” Some Christians—from Lutherans and Reformed Protestants to Roman Catholics—followed a different religious model. For them the institutional church stood at the center of religious identity. Weekly attendance at worship services, reliance upon sacraments, and instruction by pastors and priests were crucial to sustaining members through a lifelong pilgrimage. Augustinian Christians had less incentive to participate in the Awakening’s voluntary organizations because, for one, the idea of establishing a righteous society was utopian. For another, the identification of the nation with the kingdom of God denied the historic distinction between the spiritual and temporal realms, with the church and state possessing distinct divinely ordained duties.

A couple of examples from 19th-century Protestantism might make these seemingly abstract distinctions concrete. One comes from the history of Lutherans in the United States, when a wing of the church that wanted Lutherans to Americanize argued for relaxing the church’s attachment to its historic teaching and worship. Opposite them, a body of conservatives insisted that to alter the church’s teaching or worship was to depart from Lutheranism altogether.

The dominant figure of 19th-century Lutheranism was Samuel Simon Schmucker (1799-1873), a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton Theological Seminary. Much of his effort, especially from his perch at Gettysburg Seminary, went toward leading American Lutherans out of their provincialism and into the mainstream of American Protestantism. To that end, his 1855 book, The Definite Synodical Platform, cited five areas in need of revision within the church’s theological standard, the Augsburg Confession. Schmucker denied Lutheran teaching on baptismal regeneration and the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. He advocated a Puritan view of the Sabbath and its observance. He also believed Lutherans needed to prove their anti-Catholic bona fides by condemning Roman Catholic practices of the mass and private confession. This was not simply a strategy for mainstreaming Lutheranism; it was also a way for all Protestants to cooperate in a righteous society.

Not all American Lutherans were happy with Schmucker’s proposal, especially the ones coming from strict church settings in the Old World. The most forceful critic was William Julius Mann (1819-1893), an emigrant to the United States in 1845 and minister in Philadelphia. In response to Schmucker’s Platform, Mann wrote A Plea for the Augsburg Confession (1856). He took up each of Schmucker’s five areas of revision and defended historic Lutheran teaching. Ultimately, Mann’s defense of traditional Lutheranism was more than an effort to prevent Americanizers like Schmucker from prevailing. It was also a struggle for the very identity of Lutheranism. If Lutherans followed Schmucker they might achieve more influence in public life, but they would cease to be Lutheran. Mann was informing his co-religionists that being generically American Protestant would involve not being specifically Lutheran.

Another instance of the divide between republican and Augustinian Christians was the split within the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in 1837, which resulted in Old School and New School denominations for the better part of three decades. Presbyterians had more structure and stronger institutions than the Lutherans, thus making possible that theological differences could lead to organizational fissures. The leading figures within these two wings of Presbyterians were Albert Barnes, a New Schooler who followed the trail of republican Christianity, and his theological nemesis Charles Hodge, professor of theology at Princeton Seminary and a leader of the Old School Presbyterians.

As in the case of Lutherans, theological innovation among American Presbyterians was bound up with a revised understanding of the church’s service to the nation. Barnes, the theological innovator, questioned the Presbyterian understanding of original sin and had to endure numerous ecclesiastical trials for his wondering. Failure to convict him stoked frustrations that led to the break between the New School and Old School churches. Hodge, who defended traditional Calvinism, employed the word “semi-Pelagian” to describe Barnes’s position.

These were not simply doctrinal skirmishes. They related directly to the social and humanitarian reforms that republican Christians promoted. The link between theological revision and activism made sense: if people really were totally depraved, then the idea of establishing the kingdom of God in the United States would seem impossible. On the other side, if American church leaders were to have a hand in shaping a righteous society, they needed a theology that could appeal to persons capable of moral renovation. Barnes not only revised a doctrinal staple of Presbyterianism but also reconceived the mission of the church. It was no longer to be an institution preparing weary souls for the better life to come. It was instead to be an agency at the forefront of social and moral advance.

In contrast, Hodge regarded not the United States but the church as the true instantiation of the kingdom of God. Consequently, when the anti-slavery campaign in 1861 pushed the sectional crisis over the brink and one activist minister called upon Presbyterians to endorse the federal government in the emerging Civil War, Hodge replied that for the church to take a side in debates over federal and state sovereignty was akin to singing the Star-Spangled Banner at the Lord’s Supper.

These examples reveal how demands for a faith accessible to public life end up distorting the very convictions that allegedly make faith important. The republican Protestants demonstrate how a desire for a relevant faith redirects Christianity from convictions about the supremacy of eternal realities to the demands of the present. In the hands of republican Christianity, faith ceases to be otherworldly. Instead, it uses cultural health or social order as leading indicators of the world to come. In effect, republican Christianity immanentizes the eschaton.

For republican Christians, inspired by the prospects for ushering in the kingdom of God, social uniformity and political centralization became the means for creating a godly nation. In fact, the social program of the activist Protestants who supported the Second Great Awakening found its natural outlet in the Whig and then the Republican parties, which favored standardization in politics, economics, and cultural life. Augustinian Christians, in contrast, looked to the decentralized and localist policies of the Democratic Party as the best option for maintaining a way of life that did not conform to norms established by low-church Anglo-American Protestants or East Coast business interests.

For Augustinian believers, a modest republic free from continental, let alone global, ambitions was a worthwhile endeavor because the church, not the nation, was the only vehicle for real and lasting greatness. The logic behind this Augustinian concession was that the truths and practices of a church did in fact matter irrespective of liberty, democracy, and free markets, while republican Christians too often gave the impression that their faith only mattered if it could be shown to advance the cause of political independence, republican government, and the creation of wealth.

Despite the obvious revision of Christian faith and practice that comes with making religion relevant, the constant lament of republican Christians has been that the otherworldly faith nurtured by their Augustinian peers fails to demonstrate the truth and power of religion in the affairs of this world. Surely, if religion is going to make a difference, faith needs to do more than make claims about the eternal destinies of persons or the earthly rites and ceremonies that prepare them for the world to come?

A version of this logic is one that many conservative academics encounter in American higher education. For an undergraduate education to justify its exorbitant tuition, it must produce graduates who make a difference—a belief that plays to the strength of engineering, business, and nursing programs and militates against new appointments or increased funding for classics, philosophy, or foreign languages. But if a humanistic education is capable of making a difference in less visible ways, such as by creating wise graduates, then republican Christians who know the value of a liberal education may also be persuaded that the significance of faith should not be judged according to crime statistics, stock market prices, public policy, or even the character of public officials. Instead, religion’s import may lie precisely in realms of human existence hidden from public awareness.

Yet the tension persists. Republican Christianity still has its expressions. A modern example is the Manhattan Declaration, a document co-written by Princeton law professor Robert P. George, Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George (no relation), and evangelical activist Chuck Colson to unite Christians from Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox backgrounds in the “defense of the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty.” The Declaration itself begins, “Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word, seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering.” The preamble concludes:

We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.

Many have remarked on the remarkable consensus shown by believers from diverse ecclesiastical traditions working together to prompt the United States to take the Gospel seriously. That, at least, is the republican Christian reaction. But Augustinian Christians are scratching their heads wondering not only about the wisdom of turning public policy in so explicitly a Christian direction—why not also include Jews and Muslims on these issues?—but also about which Gospel exactly these Christians were affirming. Were the claims of Pius IX or the Westminster Shorter Catechism no longer legitimate for keeping Roman Catholics and Presbyterians from such cooperation?

A recent example of an alternative to republican Christianity, meanwhile, comes from the autobiographical reflections of Kenneth Woodward, longtime religion reporter at Newsweek. His recollections of his Roman Catholic upbringing in suburban Cleveland evoke the quiet and sober ways in which Augustianian Christianity influences the world.

To be a Catholic child in the fifties was to imagine yourself at the center of concentric circles of belonging. They included not only the other Catholics that we knew, not only, even, all the Catholics we saw at other parish churches when traveling, but all Catholics who ever were or would be on the face of the earth … plus quite a few saints we knew by name who were now, we believed, with God in heaven but still close enough to talk to because they were always watching over us like grandparents looking down from high front porches.

In other words, the religious identity we acquired in childhood was a primal identity that absorbed and conditioned all the others. This communal formation began, almost imperceptibly, with the transformation of the seasons.

This was a faith that was less about having American society conform to Roman Catholic morality than it was a form of devotion designed to pass on the entire body of Roman Catholic faith to the next generation, through dedicated priests, nuns, and parents. If other citizens wanted the goods or virtues that Roman Catholics offered, they could always join the Roman Catholic Church. These pre-Vatican II Augustinian Christians were not going to sacrifice their liturgical or educational norms for the sake of civil religious morality.

The difference between the republican and Augustinian Christian ways of taking religion seriously may have been best summarized by H.L. Mencken, the bad boy of Baltimore who had uncanny insights about the religion of the republic. In 1936 he wrote an obituary of his fellow Baltimorean J. Gresham Machen, the Presbyterian fundamentalist who as an Augustinian Christian was trying to prevent republican Christians from taking over the northern Presbyterian Church. According to Mencken, Machen:

fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works. … It is my belief, as a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters, that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony.

Modernists, Mencken continued,

have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again—in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mud-upbringing.

The great prospect we have now, and have enjoyed for several centuries, is that such a view of religion is a live option. No public officials are threatening to withhold state funds or to appoint the right ministers should the churches or synagogues take religion too seriously. Instead, the biggest obstacle to taking religion seriously are those well-meaning republican Christians who do not understand the inverse proportions that Mencken did, namely that the more deep-down-diving and mud-upbringing faith is, the less it will need to prove that it matters in national life.

D.G. Hart is the author of From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism.

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