Christianity In Public Life OK Again
Gosh, it seems like just yesterday that the dogma was living loud within orthodox, conservative Christians, which made them a threat to American public life. Now, though, the media tells us that public Christianity is good again, because liberal Catholic Joe Biden is in the White House.
Mr. Biden, perhaps the most religiously observant commander in chief in half a century, regularly attends Mass and speaks of how his Catholic faith grounds his life and his policies.
And with Mr. Biden, a different, more liberal Christianity is ascendant: less focused on sexual politics and more on combating poverty, climate change and racial inequality.
Mr. Biden’s leadership is a repudiation of the claim by many conservative leaders that Democrats are inherently anti-Christian.
His rise comes as fewer registered Democrats identify as Christian. Nearly half are religiously unaffiliated or believers of other faiths, a share that has grown significantly in recent years, according to the Pew Research Center; about 80 percent of registered Republicans are Christian.
Well, hold on. Democrats are not anti-Christian when the Christianity does not challenge their political and cultural priorities. Joe Biden is pro-choice and a maximalist on LGBT rights. He even (civilly) married a gay couple in his office when he was vice president. Biden is no opponent of the Sexual Revolution; in fact, his purpose, as we see in stories like this one, is to institutionalize it, both in fact and in cultural perception.
There is no way small-o orthodox, biblical Christianity can be reconciled with abortion rights or with the redefinition of the family, and the negation of male and female. Liberal Christians disagree; I believe they are wrong. Many liberal Christians are also willing to see orthodox Christians and their institutions persecuted by the state for standing on orthodoxy.
If Biden were to advocate for immigrants, poverty relief, and other priorities of the Religious Left, and also advocate for the other side of Catholic social teaching (on family, on the right to life, against gender ideology), there would be some religious conservatives who opposed him, but I think he would be pretty much in the political center of American life. Personally, I would happily take a Democratic president who followed the full spectrum of Catholic social teaching, not just the parts that make the Left happy. But that’s not what’s on offer.
I suspect there is a thrill running up the leg of mainstream media journalists, thinking that finally a Religious Left guy is in the White House, and that’s going to turn things around. Note well that the Democratic Party is rapidly secularizing. It makes room for religious people whose religious views do not threaten the Sexual Revolution.
Of course, Biden faces harsh opposition, not least from other Catholics. The morning of the Inauguration, as Biden went to St. Matthew the Apostle, the Catholic cathedral in the capital, for a Mass attended by Speaker Pelosi and other government figures, the Catholic bishops released a long missive by their conference president, Archbishop Jose Gomez, of Los Angeles, expressing an eagerness to work with the new President, but upbraiding him for holding positions “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender” that “would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity,” and implying that Biden’s approach to Catholicism posed a threat to religious freedom. The same Catholic traditionalists who detest Pope Francis detest the new President, and spiteful right-wing resistance may block any progressive initiative from Biden, as it has blocked those of Francis in Rome.
In this moment, it’s strange to think of Joe Biden, for so long a workhorse legislator in a blue blazer, as a redemptive figure. It’s strange that progressives, who are generally leery of Vatican authority, are frankly hoping that American politics will be inspired by the Pope—and hoping that a Pope might move a Democratic President further to the left. It’s strange that a Church whose followers have been harmed and angered by decades of negligence on clerical sexual abuse can still be seen as a source of civic healing. And yet the second Catholic President can hardly afford not to draw on his religion; with the country wracked by a pandemic, a recession, and political violence, he is going to need every source of reconciliation and moral authority available to him.
It’s strange, because Biden’s version of Catholicism really does pose a threat to religious freedom, when it clashes with LGBT rights. Biden’s party famously holds “religious liberty” to be a dog whistle for gay hatred — this, even though staunch gay rights advocate Chai Feldblum, a Georgetown law professor, conceded in this 2006 interview with Maggie Gallagher that there is an irreconcilable conflict between religious liberty and gay rights (Feldblum thinks in these cases, gay rights should prevail). Archbishop Gomez is factually correct.
It’s also strange, because it’s all about projection. Elie writes, “The hope is that the Biden Administration will invigorate American Catholicism, and vice versa.” Well, let me ask: did the Trump administration invigorate American Christianity, and vice versa? I am grateful for the good things Trump did to protect unborn life and religious liberty — and note well that Trump, who is barely a Christian, did these things, while churchgoing Biden is reversing them — but it would be hard for anybody to say honestly that Christianity is in a better position in America in 2021 than it was in 2017, when Trump took office.
Some of that is Trump’s fault, but mostly it’s because there are deep secularizing trends in American culture that are more powerful than any president of either party. Left-wing Catholics and other Christians who put their religious hopes in a political figure are going to be sorely disappointed — as anybody could have told right-wing Christians regarding Trump.
Religion is rapidly declining in the United States, across the board. But the decline is much stronger among people who identify as Democrats, according to Pew data:
The religious profile of white Democrats is very different from the religious profile of racial and ethnic minorities within the Democratic Party. Today, fewer than half of white Democrats describe themselves as Christians, and just three-in-ten say they regularly attend religious services. More than four-in-ten white Democrats are religious “nones,” and fully seven-in-ten white Democrats say they attend religious services no more than a few times a year. Black and Hispanic Democrats are far more likely than white Democrats to describe themselves as Christians and to say they attend religious services regularly, though all three groups are becoming less Christian.
Joe Biden is an outlier in his own party. I wonder how many of Biden’s grandchildren go to mass regularly. I don’t say that to be mean, but to ask how Grampa Joe’s “devout Catholicism,” as his press secretary called it, has been passed down to the next generations in the Biden family. That’s the story — a story that I believe is reflected in this other observation from a different Pew study:
Catholicism has experienced a greater net loss due to religious switching than has any other religious tradition in the U.S. Overall, 13% of all U.S. adults are former Catholics – people who say they were raised in the faith, but now identify as religious “nones,” as Protestants, or with another religion. By contrast, 2% of U.S. adults are converts to Catholicism – people who now identify as Catholic after having been raised in another religion (or no religion). This means that there are 6.5 former Catholics in the U.S. for every convert to the faith. No other religious group analyzed in the 2014 Religious Landscape Study has experienced anything close to this ratio of losses to gains via religious switching.
What sense does it make for Catholics of either political side to look to a secular figure to reverse their religious fortunes? American Catholicism is doing a poor job of keeping its children in the faith, period — though the numbers indicate that the loss among liberal Catholics is much greater. That’s not much for conservative Catholics to crow about, mind you, but it tells you something about the kind of people who remain religiously devout in this era of de-Christianization. Again, it tells us very little about Catholicism’s future in America to look to a 78-year-old liberal Catholic. Look to the 18-29 year old Catholics — of whom there are many fewer than one would like.
This is not hard to understand, at least not in principle. Religions that make demands on their followers will be more resilient than religions that do not. Why go to church if all your church asks of you is to conform to whatever is popular in secular culture? And, drawing on the research of sociologist of religion Christian Smith and his teams of scholars over the years — he’s the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism guy — we know that the overwhelming majority of Americans under 40 have no strong religious beliefs. I wrote about this in The Benedict Option. Excerpt:
Even more troubling, many of the churches that do stay open will have been hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism to the point where the “Christianity” taught there is devoid of power and life. It has already happened in most of them. In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton examined the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers from a wide variety of backgrounds. What they found was that in most cases, teenagers adhered to a mushy pseudoreligion the researchers deemed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).
MTD has five basic tenets:
• A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
• God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
• The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
• God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
• Good people go to heaven when they die.
This creed, they found, is especially prominent among Catholic and Mainline Protestant teenagers. Evangelical teenagers fared measurably better but were still far from historic biblical orthodoxy. Smith and Denton claimed that MTD is colonizing existing Christian churches, destroying biblical Christianity from within, and replacing it with a pseudo-Christianity that is “only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.”
MTD is not entirely wrong. After all, God does exist, and He does want us to be good. The problem with MTD, in both its progressive and its conservative versions, is that it’s mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness and getting along well with others. It has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering—the Way of the Cross—as the pathway to God. Though superficially Christian, MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort.
As bleak as Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians surveyed said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.
An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”
These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed—or rather, failed to form—their consciences and their imaginations.
MTD is the de facto religion not simply of American teenagers but also of American adults. To a remarkable degree, teenagers have adopted the religious attitudes of their parents. We have been an MTD nation for some time now, though that may have been disguised.
“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”
The data from Smith and other researchers make clear what so many of us are desperate to deny: the flood is rising to the rafters in the American church. Every single congregation in America must ask itself if it has compromised so much with the world that it has been compromised in its faithfulness. Is the Christianity we have been living out in our families, congregations, and communities a means of deeper conversion, or does it function as a vaccination against taking faith with the seriousness the Gospel demands?
Nobody but the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right believes that this cultural revolution can be turned back. The wave cannot be stopped, only ridden. With a few exceptions, conservative Christian political activists are as ineffective as White Russian exiles, drinking tea from samovars in their Paris drawing rooms, plotting the restoration of the monarchy.
These same liberal Catholics looked for a “Francis effect” — for the accession of a progressive Catholic pope to invigorate liberal Catholicism by attracting more people, especially the young. Didn’t happen, and it’s not going to happen. But conservative Catholics had better not make the mistake of thinking that a more politicized Catholicism, to the Right, is going to do them any good. I get e-mails from faithful orthodox Catholics who are driven to despair by the fact that their parishes are more interested in the emanations from the Trumposphere, and the latest pronouncements of Archbishop Vigano, than they are about the basics of the faith. That’s a dead end too. Struggling to transform the Catholic Church into the Democratic Party at Prayer, or Team Trump at Prayer, will at best distract Catholics from doing the real work of shoring up the church for the hard times coming.
Calling a form of religion “liberal” can mean two different things: On the one hand, a theological liberalism, which seeks an evolution in doctrine to adapt to modern needs; on the other, support for policies and parties of the center-left. In practice, though, the two tend to be conjoined: The American Catholic Church as an institution is caught between the two political coalitions, but most prominent Catholic Democrats are liberals in theology and politics alike.
But more than a set of ideas, liberal Catholicism is a culture, recognizable in its institutions and tropes, its iconography and allusions — to Pope John XXIII and Jesuit universities, to the “seamless garment” of Catholic teaching and the “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council, to the works of Thomas Merton and hymns like “On Eagle’s Wings” (which Biden quoted in his victory speech).
And, of course, invocations of Pope Francis. A decade ago it was a commonplace to regard liberal Catholicism as a tradition in decline. Its period of maximal influence, the late 1960s and 1970s, had been an era of institutional crisis for the church, which gave way to the conservative pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Conservative Catholics felt that liberal ideas had been tried and failed, liberal Catholics felt that they had been suppressed.
But then Francis gave the liberal tendency new life, reopening controversies that conservatives assumed were closed and tilting the Vatican toward cooperation with the liberal establishment and away from associations with conservatism.
Here’s something interesting: in their teachings on economic and environmental matters, Popes John Paul II and Benedict were unquestionably more on the Left, at least on the US political spectrum. The media tagged them as conservatives because those popes held the line on matters pertaining to the Sexual Revolution. That is the thing that matters above all to most Democratic partisans and their allies in the media.
On the other hand, liberal Catholicism sometimes achieves its feeling of universality by simply claiming for itself the whole Catholic-influenced world — sure, he’s no longer a practicing Catholic, but did you know that Dr. Anthony Fauci was educated by Jesuits? — without regard to whether that influence actually amounts to much more than a vague spirituality, a generic humanitarianism.
Which means that the liberal Catholic worldview is constantly in danger of simply being subsumed into political liberalism, with all religious distinctives shorn away — as Joe Biden’s past pro-life positions have now been entirely subsumed, for instance, by his party’s orthodoxy on abortion. Or alternatively, it’s in danger of being effectively taken over from within by rival forms of faith, like the new progressive orthodoxies that are likely to set our Catholic president’s agenda on the social questions of the day.
This is a struggle that is going to take place — and is likely already taking place — within nearly all American churches. White Evangelicalism, especially at the institutional level, is at the moment being shaken by Critical Race Theory, a conflict fueled in part by anger over the Trump legacy within Evangelical culture. There will also be arguments over sexuality and race in other churches, including the Orthodox churches. On Saturday, I am giving a prominent lecture via Zoom, under the auspices of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. I will talk about Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and the challenges facing Orthodox Christians in the post-Christian era.
I will speak as an Orthodox, to an Orthodox audience, but believe me, the things I will talk about are universal within American Christianity. Some prominent progressive Orthodox Christians went all-out to try to get my talk cancelled — these are the same people who gas on about the importance of “dialogue” — but SVOTS held firm. My lecture will be at 2pm Eastern on Saturday, via Zoom. You have to register in advance, though, and space is limited.
To conclude, my advice is that the eye-rolling celebrations in the media of Biden’s Christianity should neither surprise us nor distract us. Again, the media are happy to celebrate forms of Christianity, and prominent Christians, who conform to progressive beliefs. Of course they’re hypocrites, but this is not news. What we theological and moral conservatives should not do is allow ourselves to get distracted by political fighting. I’m not at all saying to be quietist about politics, but I am saying to give politics its proper place. The extraordinary challenges facing Christianity in this de-Christianizing era cannot be met adequately with politics alone. If you are a Christian who is more passionate about Joe Biden or Donald Trump than you are about whether or not you and your family are living the faith in ways that run counter to our consumerist, relativist, online-dominated culture, your priorities are wrong.
What good does it do a Christian to have his favorite politician win the White House, but to lose his children or grandchildren to the faith? I think that so many US Christians — liberals and conservatives alike — focus so intensely on politics because it offers a measure of success. You either win or you lose elections. We like to believe that our religious faction has won when we get a president we like, because it gives us a boost. If I were a liberal Catholic, I would be happy that one of my tribe is now POTUS, but I hope I would have the sense to understand that this is not going to do much of anything to stanch the hemorrhaging out of young people, both from the Catholic Church and the Mainline Protestant churches, which have heavily bought in on religious progressivism. This alarming fact will be covered by what Douthat sees as the strategy of claiming that anybody who identifies in any way as Catholic is Catholic, though it doesn’t actually mean much in the real world. (For example, my parents’ generation is filled with Christians who call themselves devout, but who weren’t big churchgoers, and who didn’t perceive the threat from de-Christianization. You can see the effects of this in their children’s and grandchildren’s generation.)
The kind of Christians who will still be Christian in fifty years are those who have been prepared to suffer for the faith, in ways both small and big. They will be the kind of Christians who see in their religion truth claims that can withstand rejection by popular culture, and even persecution. They will be the kind of Christians who attend churches that demand something of them. They will be the kind of Christians who don’t compartmentalize their faith, taking religion out only for Sundays and holidays, but rather incorporate it into their daily lives.
I don’t believe that what we call “progressive Christianity” today will make it, because the distortions of Scripture and Tradition that progressives have to make in order to affirm the Sexual Revolution are so great that you’re left wondering what, if anything, is binding about a religion whose doctrines and disciplines are nothing but Silly Putty. But a conservative Christianity that does nothing but find ways to sanctify what Republicans or Trumpists believe is not going to have the strength to endure either.