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As Goes Christianity, So Goes Society?

A reader in New England passes along this commentary from the International Herald Tribune [1], discussing the ongoing collapse within the Church of England. Excerpt:

That contrast between the congregants’ modesty and the issues of gender and sexuality absorbing church leaders seems to underline a sense that the Anglican elite and the rank-and-file churchgoers have, like the scriptural Magi after visiting with the infant Jesus, left by different routes.

It could be argued that the congregants themselves are in a kind of denial, reciting their prayers by rote in search of redemption and turning away from themes inspired by Britain’s changing society.

But no one should be in denial about the statistics unveiled last month in the 2011 census for England and Wales.

While Christianity remained the dominant faith, the percentage of the 56 million population calling itself Christian fell to 59.3 percent from 71.7 percent over a decade, while other religions, particularly Islam, burgeoned. And the proportion of people professing no religious faith at all increased to 25.1 percent from 14.8 percent.

Millions of people, in other words, dropped out of Christianity and embraced atheism or agnosticism — surely a more ominous trend than the gender or sexuality of any of them.

My correspondent adds:

The last sentence resonated with me as I have been having thoughts lately about why things seem so bleak in our society and what we can do about it.  The thread about black-on-black crime contributed to it, as well as some recent sermons in our church and the fact that I am reading Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic [2].

What if all of the social disintegration we are seeing has nothing to do with poverty, or single motherhood, or the sexual revolution, or the  breakdown of the middle class? What if all of these are symptoms of something much bigger—the wholesale abandonment of Christian practices by western society?  I won’t say belief, because I’m pretty confident that there were just as many agnostics and atheists in the past, but due to social pressure they shuffled off to church semi-regularly and kept their mouths shut about their real beliefs.

Really, what kept all of our bad behavior in check? Could it have been that as long as a critical mass of people tried to follow (imperfectly, but stay with me on this) a set of rules about how to treat others that it mitigated the worst tendencies of people to hurt each other?

Is what we are seeing just a tipping point? If enough people quit ACTING like Christians, then you see the kind of dysfunction that we are seeing today? I realize people have always behaved badly, but in the past there was some social pressure to at least pretend that you were following the rules.  Now nobody cares.

I realize that by historical standards, we have vastly lower rates of violence and brutality, but compared to the postwar era, people do seem to be less concerned about right behavior as defined by traditional western Christian teachings.   There is no longer the consequence of social embarrassment or ostracism to keep behavior in check.  There is no longer general consensus on what constitutes right behavior.  But it seems to me that the reason for that is that we no longer expect people to have even a passing familiarity with the most basic Christian teachings: Do Unto Others, forgiveness, generosity.  Once that is no longer expected, it opens the door for extremely egocentric behavior being seen as OK rather than regrettable or even sinful. It’s like we are a culture of toddlers.  If your neighbor has the block you want to finish building your tower, it is fine to knock him over the head with a truck and take his block.  There’s no society now to step in and admonish the toddler to share or to consider how he would feel if he were the one getting hit over the head.

I think the reader’s distinction between belief and practice is a critically important one.

From my childhood, I recall that only some people were churchgoers. My family certainly did not regularly frequent the church. Yet aside from irregular churchgoing, we lived like Christians without thinking about it. There was no question but that what Christianity taught about how to behave was true, and authoritative. All of us fell short of the Christian standard, and most of us, I think, knew that we did, and how we did. The point is, there was a widely shared standard by which to judge our conduct.

When I was a teenager and suddenly all skeptical and righteous, I used the distance between what we said we believed, and the way we behaved, to challenge my father. He told 17 year old me to go to church on Easter with my mom and my sister. Oh yeah? said I. If it’s so important to go to church on Easter, why are you going turkey hunting instead? 

He went turkey hunting after all, and let me stay home, if I promised to read the Bible. I promised, and I made good on it, but boy, was I satisfied that I had exposed the hypocrisy of the adult world.

No big surprise, then, that encountering Soren Kierkegaard in college lit my brain on fire, and brought me to an adult faith in Christianity. I especially adored his Attack Upon Christendom, which was SK’s vicious broadside against the state Lutheran church in Denmark. His point was that when Christianity is reduced to bourgeois morality, and when we are considered Christians only by virtue of nominal membership in a community, then true Christianity ceases to exist. I thought then that he was correct, and though I have a slightly different take on it now, I think the radical Protestant SK was far, far more right than wrong.

He was right that “Christendom,” in his formulation, can serve as an inoculation against the kind of commitment true Christianity demands. I have known people who rarely bothered to check their own beliefs and behavior against a Gospel standard, because they assumed that because they were baptized and behaved respectably, that they were Christians in good standing. I have been that person. Still am to a great degree, but I’m working on it.

Put aside the theology, and consider the matter sociologically. We have lived through, and are living through, the de-Christianization of the West. It is very far advanced in Europe, and advancing here. An orthodox Kierkegaardian might say that this is a good thing, because though it will result in a widespread falling away from formal adherence to the Christian faith, it will increase the quality of those who do believe, because it will have been a conscious choice — a choice that, in many places, will have been made in full awareness that to be a Christian is to stand outside of one’s own culture, and even against it. I can see why this would appear preferable, from a theological angle, to a Christian culture of lukewarmness and conformity.

From a sociological point of view, though, I think the news is very bad indeed, and for the reasons the New England reader brings up. However imperfect and flawed Christians have been over the cultures and centuries, Christianity has been, in my view, on balance a very good thing for us. The book to read is Paul Among The People [3], by the classics scholar Sarah Ruden. Ruden is a young progressive Quaker who defends St. Paul from his many modern critics. I interviewed Sarah [4] on my old Beliefnet blog, but you might also want to check out this Christianity Today piece [5]. Ruden’s view is that we read St. Paul today and compare him unfavorably to the way we see the world, especially on matters related to feminism and homosexuality. When you read Paul alongside pagan literature of the period, a very, very different image of him emerges. Paul actually comes across as a radical opponent of some extremely ugly normative practices in Roman society and culture. For example, male homosexuality in his day was almost entirely about powerful Roman men enslaving and raping boys — something that was widely accepted. Paul stood against that, Ruden shows. And Paul also defended the dignity of women in a classical world that devalued them. Her main point is that taken in historical context, Paul’s views are actually far more in line with what we believe today than with what was mainstream in the Greco-Roman world. It was the faith Paul preached and did more than anyone else save Jesus Christ to define that gave us most of what is particularly good about Western civilization.

This is not to say that we ever lived in a Golden Age. I was reading just this week a testimony by a close comrade of St. Louis, King of France, in which he recounted in plausible detail the holiness of the king. And he casually mentioned that the great and pious king so hated blasphemy that he would do terrible things to blasphemers. I am very glad indeed that we don’t have monarchs who torture blasphemers today, even as I wish we had monarchs who lived and practiced as St. Louis did in other ways. The point is that Christianity gave us a set of standards around which to measure our conduct, and our progress toward moral goodness, in the same way Islam has done for the Islamic world, and other creeds and schools of thought (e.g., Confucianism) have done for other civilizations.

Back in 1989, in The Atlantic, Glenn Tinder wrote an essay about the political meaning of Christianity, titled, “Can We Be Good Without God?” [6]. His point was that the loss of Christianity was bound to have effects on our civilization that many people only dimly see, if at all. Here’s how it begins:

We are so used to thinking of spirituality as withdrawal from the world and human affairs that it is hard to think of it as political. Spirituality is personal and private, we assume, while politics is public. But such a dichotomy drastically diminishes spirituality construing it as a relationship to God without implications for one’s relationship to the surrounding world. The God of Christian faith (I shall focus on Christianity although the God of the New Testament is also the God of the Old Testament) created the world and is deeply engaged in the affairs of the world. The notion that we can be related to God and not to the world—that we can practice a spirituality that is not political—is in conflict with the Christian understanding of God.

And if spirituality is properly political, the converse also is true, however distant it may be from prevailing assumptions: politics is properly spiritual. The spirituality of politics was affirmed by Plato at the very beginnings of Western political philosophy and was a commonplace of medieval political thought. Only in modern times has it come to be taken for granted that politics is entirely secular. The inevitable result is the demoralization of politics. Politics loses its moral structure and purpose, and turns into an affair of group interest and personal ambition. Government comes to the aid of only the well organized and influential, and it is limited only where it is checked by countervailing forces. Politics ceases to be understood as a pre-eminently human activity and is left to those who find it profitable, pleasurable, or in some other way useful to themselves. Political action thus comes to be carried out purely for the sake of power and privilege.

It will be my purpose in this essay to try to connect the severed realms of the spiritual and the political. In view of the fervent secularism of many Americans today, some will assume this to be the opening salvo of a fundamentalist attack on “pluralism.” Ironically, as I will argue, many of the undoubted virtues of pluralism—respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings, to cite just two—have strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity. The question that secularists have to answer is whether these values can survive without these particular roots. In short, can we be good without God? Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons—values we ordinarily regard as secular—without giving them transcendental backing? Today these values are honored more in the breach than in the observance; Manhattan Island alone, with its extremes of sybaritic wealth on the one hand and Calcuttan poverty on the other, is testimony to how little equality really counts for in contemporary America. To renew these indispensable values, I shall argue, we must rediscover their primal spiritual grounds.

Many will disagree with my argument, and I cannot pretend there are no respectable reasons for doing so. Some may disagree, however, because of misunderstandings. A few words at the outset may help to prevent this. First, although I dwell on Christianity I do not mean thus to slight Judaism or its contribution to Western values. It is arguable that every major value affirmed in Christianity originated with the ancient Hebrews. Jewish sensitivities on this matter are understandable. Christians sometimes speak as though unaware of the elemental facts that Jesus was a Jew, that he died before even the earliest parts of the New Testament were written, and that his scriptural matrix was not Paul’s Letter to the Romans or the Gospel of John but the Old Testament. Christianity diverged from Judaism in answering one question: Who was Jesus? For Christians, he was the anticipated Messiah, whereas for traditional Jews (Paul and the first Christians were of course also Jews), he was not. This divergence has given Christianity its own distinctive character, even though it remains in a sense a Jewish faith.

The most adamant opposition to my argument is likely to come from protagonists of secular reason—a cause represented preeminently by the Enlightenment. Locke and Jefferson, it will be asserted, not Jesus and Paul, created our moral universe. Here I cannot be as disarming as I hope I was in the paragraph above, for underlying my argument is the conviction that Enlightenment rationalism is not nearly so constructive as is often supposed. Granted, it has sometimes played a constructive role. It has translated certain Christian values into secular terms and, in an age becoming increasingly secular, has given them political force. It is doubtful, however, that it could have created those values or that it can provide them with adequate metaphysical foundations. Hence if Christianity declines and dies in coming decades, our moral universe and also the relatively humane political universe that it supports will be in peril. But I recognize that if secular rationalism is far more dependent on Christianity than its protagonists realize, the converse also is in some sense true. The Enlightenment carried into action political ideals that Christians, in contravention of their own basic faith, often shamefully neglected or denied. Further, when I acknowledged that there are respectable grounds for disagreeing with my argument, I had secular rationalism particularly in mind. The foundations of political decency are an issue I wish to raise, not settle.

If you liked that, read the whole thing [6]. I think it goes a long way towards addressing the concerns New England Reader raised.

One more thing about Christianity and society. Yesterday on NPR, I heard a report about the rise of the Nones [7] — people who don’t claim any religious affiliation. Excerpt from the interview with Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam:

ROBERT PUTNAM: I agree that there is this creeping secularization that Greg talked about, but I don’t honestly think that that’s the main reason for the rise in nones. I think there are factors that are really more important.

GREENE: OK. Give them to us.

PUTNAM: One of those is the distancing of this younger generation from community institutions and from institutions in general, actually. That’s the same pattern, actually, that we find in politics. These are the very same people who increasingly describe themselves as independents rather than Republicans or Democrats. And those are the same people also who are not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club or whatever. I don’t mean to be casting that as a critique of them, but this same younger generation is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were.

You can see right there a negative correlation between the loss of religious faith and broader health of the polis. Correlation is not causation, but it is pretty interesting to observe the increasing atomization and individualization of American society, as expressed in a loss of involvement with all institutions, not simply the church.

There’s this too, from NPR’s interview with the Pew Center’s Greg Smith:

GREENE: The first time you’ve ever seen less than half the country identify themselves as Protestant.

SMITH: That’s right. And when you think about the United States historically, you think of it as a Protestant country. But it’s also important to point out that the growth of the nones is really something that we’re seeing across a variety of groups. We’re seeing it among both men and women. We’re seeing it among college graduates as well as among people with less education. We’re seeing it occur in all regions of the country. Race and ethnicity though is one exception to that pattern. The growth of the nones really does seem to be restricted to whites. We haven’t seen much growth in terms of African-Americans or Hispanics who say they’re religiously unaffiliated.

So, racial minorities are sticking with their churches, while it’s the whites that are falling away. This goes along with Robert Putnam’s finding that if it weren’t for the huge influx of Latin American immigrants over the past decade or so, the US Catholic Church would be declining at the same rate as the mainline Protestant churches.

This raises a big question for me: if the black church can claim so much allegiance, why isn’t it making more inroads in turning poor black folks away from sexual behavior that is entirely un-Christian, and so destructive to their communities, economically and otherwise? This is not a question liberal churches have an answer for, inasmuch as they have largely jettisoned Christian sexual ethics. But black churches are still pretty conservative on homosexuality. It’s on heterosexuality that there doesn’t seem to be any real effective teaching or practice.

A white Christian friend who used to live close to a poor black neighborhood in a major Eastern city said she would drive through the bad neighborhood all the time, and see churches everywhere. She wondered why things never seemed to improve for those communities, given the ubiquity of churches. Is there something about black American Christianity that could explain this? I’ve been told that black American Christianity is primarily about emotion and uplift, in part because the slave people who embraced it led lives of such grimness and suffering that they needed the church on Sunday to be a place of rest and relief. Thinking on this description of the black church, it sounds like therapeutic deism, without much moralism. But I don’t know firsthand. Can any of you readers tell me more?




109 Comments (Open | Close)

109 Comments To "As Goes Christianity, So Goes Society?"

#1 Comment By TheWildGoose On January 17, 2013 @ 8:38 am

” She wondered why things never seemed to improve for those communities, given the ubiquity of churches. Is there something about black American Christianity that could explain this?”

Regarding Black churches, Steve Sailer once pointed out how the essentially entrepreneurial nature of many such institutions affects the way they teach on issues of sexual morality. He contrasted it with the rigid top-down structure of the Catholic Church, in trying to explain why once-rambunctious Irish-Americans climbed out of the ghetto but Backs largely have not:

“Irish religion was intensely institutional. Irishmen didn’t start churches to compete with the Roman Catholic faith; they found slots in Rome’s vast hierarchy. African American Christianity has been highly entrepreneurial. Anybody could get “the call” and start preaching and passing the hat at any time. This is an important difference because, in Sowell’s view, primarily what eventually raised Irish-American behavior to acceptable levels was the Catholic Church’s pounding guilt into them. In the black entrepreneurial religious economy, though, there’s not much of a market for guilt, especially over sex.”

If people can “shop around” for the community they want, there’s not much pressure to spend a lot of time on those unpopular teachings that people desperately need drilled into their heads but dislike hearing. Preach constantly against fornication, and those for whom it is a treasured vice will find a pastor who doesn’t mention it as often.

#2 Comment By JonF On January 17, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

Black churches are no more “entrepreneurial” than revivalist Protestant churches in general– which is to say they are all lacking in central discipline and they all tailor themselves to their congregations. And even the Catholic (and Orthodox) Church, in its day, was willing to turn a blind eye to philandering and general wickedness among the people on whom it depended for its own august station in society: kings, and most noblemen, were free to keep a stable of mistresses and treat their lessers like dogs. In which vices of course more than a few high-ranking churchmen also indulged. Nothing new under the sun.

I would however consider the possibility that the people who attend black (or white) revivalist churches are not the same people having six kids by six fathers, wrecking their lives with drugs, or populating jail cells.

#3 Comment By John On January 17, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

If Christian practice did something to preserve strong communities and prevent violence, then medieval Europe would have been a peaceful time of brotherly love. But it was much more violent than contemporary America, not less.

The lowest crime rates we know of were recorded in Europe in the early 20th century; whatever happened between 1500 and 1900 to reduce crime and violence so much, it was not an increase in religious practice.

#4 Comment By Simon94022 On January 18, 2013 @ 8:49 pm

Medieval Europe may have been violent by today’s standards, but it was certainly less so than the pre-Christian world of Antiquity.

Greco-Roman life was filled with everyday, casual violence; the near certainty of becoming a victim of robbery or rape if you ventured outside after dark. It was a world of slavery, with all the violence that entails. And in warfare no distinctions were made between combatants and non-combatants. If your city was captured, your best outcome was to be separated forever from your loved ones and sold into slavery. Quite as likely you’d just be hacked to death.

It wasn’t a world of philosophers in togas.

#5 Comment By Steven Vornov On January 19, 2013 @ 9:34 am

Except for the curious question in the last paragraph, I found this article an excellent contrast to what I heard from Phylis Tickle this week at the Virginia Methodist Minister’s Convocation.

Speaking of black churches, the dysfunctional elements in urban society rarely attend worship. Because recognized religious institutions have historically marginalized blacks, independent churches allow ownership. Poor people are limited to storefronts rather than stone cathedrals for obvious reasons.

As a pastor, allow me to share that white people are no slouches when it comes to sexual immorality.

#6 Comment By Chad Rushing On January 21, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

If the USA ever experiences an event of widespread societal upheaval, I fully expect for the decline of Biblical Christianity and its moral code to be sorely felt. In such a scenario, academic discussions like this one held in relative comfort will seem rather naive. Few things hold a desperate person’s actions in check like a healthy fear of a personal and holy God, a force far stronger than anyone’s individual conscience or support of vague natural laws. It is relatively easy to be civil to your neighbors when your personal needs are met and more, but it is far harder when the social order and the division of labor have broken down.

That being said, it is a gross error to lump all variants of Christianity together when dealing with this topic. Eastern Orthodoxy is very different from Roman Catholicism which is very different from Protestantism. Furthermore, the Reformed/Calvinistic Protestantism of the early American settlers is very different from increasingly heterodox Mainline Protestantism and the Semipelagian/Arminian Evangelicalism so dominant in American churches today. These may seem like distinctions without differences to the non-Christian, but those various theologies have signficant points of disagreement and produce different kinds of societies as a result.

#7 Comment By An Anachronistic Apostle On January 22, 2013 @ 7:32 am

“Judeo Christendom is the most carnal violent civilization in the history of humanity.”

If the identified “dom” has an edge, it’s not by much. We’re all stinkers at heart. I believe the history of humanity establishes that the “most violent carnal civilization” did not invent crucifixion. As a torture, the thing is well conceived and crafted indeed … a splendid fusion of Scythian genius and Roman engineering. And wait ’til you encounter the lighting system of Nero, along the Appian Way!

On the other hand, it is a bit tiresome to see the proponents of Christianity cheerfully burn the likes of Hus (Bohemia) and Barnes (England), all in the grand defense of tiaras and palaces and kingdoms very much of this world; the theology and practices of glory, very much before the long awaited Eschaton. More contemporary Christians, as evidenced by this thread, are more given to wringing their hands instead of the folding them in prayer, in acceptance of what God wills. I’m not sure what’s worse … the inquisitorial fires of the past, or the palpably cold (and unread) hearts of the present. It’s all evidence of a shared gnawing fear and a pervasive self-interest, surely a “conservatism” (of a sorts) which ties the past and the present together.

Ancient Daniel-in-exile foresaw that all would come to a consummation, only once the power of the holy people was toppled (Dan 12:7). Lord Christ Himself mused whether He would find faith on the earth, upon His return to judge all and make right (Lk 18:8). Now there’s a Prophet indeed! How many religious figures of this world have predicted, not leaps and bounds, but a falling-away of their enthusiasts’ number? So you either believe Him, and take the Word at His word … or you raise the alarum and stoke your ecclesial or national armies to bomb and fight for glory and force the world to submit to your mores, as you wring your hands some more.

#8 Comment By Brian On January 22, 2013 @ 10:02 am

That the decline of Christianity leads to a worse society is not something Christians should try to tell non-Christians. It is true, but it is not the reason to support Christianity in the first place. The reason to support Christianity in the first place is because you believe it is true.

The relationship between decadence and secularization should be an internal matter for the Church to consider. Christians, when seeing the decadence, should see it as a reason to lead by example and, possibly, engage in acts of civil disobedience.

We cannot solve decadence on its own terms. The Christian should see his self-reform as the main reaction to societal decadence. This is not an abdication of social duty for two reasons.

First, while we cannot solve societal decline in general through the secular society’s means, the worst abuses of the secular society in particular are abuses we can oppose on the secularists’ own terms. The pro-life case, for example, is based on science and humanitarianism, and plenty of atheists have supported the right to life for this reason. Even traditional marriage is something we can frame on the secularists’ terms: we merely believe that the “gender diversity”, which the secularist encourages in business and government, is something we should encourage in marriage. While gays and straights are equal as individuals, heterosexual marriages have gender diversity. Private institutions which promote such gender diversity are not institutions that government should punish with discrimination lawsuits. While the direction of decline is something we cannot reverse through secular means alone, the worst abuses of secularism always offend logic and reason because they represent not the absence of faith, but the presence of idolatry.

Second, the reason why self-reform is not a self-absorbed reaction to decline: Christianity was born with enemies around the cradle. Jesus, unlike the opportunists of today, did not pick one faction–Pharisee or Sadducee–and stroke their egos. He waged a multi-front mental war on all sides. When Christ told us the gates of hell would not rise against the Church, he freed us from ever having to resort to political extremism in response to our opponents’ political extremism.

Abortion and the assault on traditional marriage can be opposed on the grounds of secular logic, not religion. As for the decline of America itself, the religious response should appear in our personal example and private lives. If we separate State from Religion, Christianity can easily survive, but the pseudo-religion of Political Correctness cannot.

#9 Comment By Paul Emmons On April 19, 2014 @ 1:55 pm

John writes:

>If Christian practice did something to preserve strong communities and prevent violence, then medieval Europe would have been a peaceful time of brotherly love. But it was much more violent than contemporary America, not less.

Yeah, sure. This must be why the rest of the world hates Americans.

Maybe suburbanites from sea to shining sea are relatively safe in their imperial cocoons (although lately an alarming number of young people grab guns and freak out in paroxyms of generalized slaughter). Inner-city children wouldn’t agree. Meanwhile, we export violence and, just to pretend to keep our hands clean, use drones.

>The lowest crime rates we know of were recorded in Europe in the early 20th century.

That little sweet spot between two world wars.