According to Genesis 1, in four days, God made the heavens, the earth and all the vegetation upon it. But four days after Anthony Scaramucci’s filthy tirade went public, Team Trump’s evangelical all-stars — pastors and prominent laity who hustle noisily around the Oval Office trying to find an amen corner — still had not figured out what to say.
Fortunately, the White House relieved them of that onerous task by firing Mr. Scaramucci — not, please note, on the president’s initiative, but rather at the request of John Kelly, the new chief of staff. Meanwhile, the Christian Broadcasting Network ran a puff piece proclaiming that a “spiritual awakening is underway at the White House,” thanks to a Bible study with what “has been called the most evangelical cabinet in history.” That ought to still any skepticism emerging among the true believers for a while.
Is there anything Donald Trump can do to alienate evangelicals and other conservative Christians who support him? By now, it’s hard to think of what that might be. These are people who would never let men with the morals and the mouths of Mr. Trump and Mr. Scaramucci date their own daughters. And yet, Team Trump has no more slavishly loyal constituency.
This is not only wrong, but tragically so. The most pressing problem Christianity faces is not in politics. It’s in parishes. It’s with the pastors. Most of all, it’s among an increasingly faithless people.
Regular readers know what comes next: research data showing steady generational decline in Christian belief, both in terms of numbers and in terms of the historical orthodoxy of that belief (i.e., the rise of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). More:
There’s little reason to be optimistic, but every reason to be hopeful. Christian hope does not expect worldly success but believes that even suffering and defeat can work mysteriously for the greater glory of God. St. Benedict did not set out to save Western civilization. He only wanted to serve God in a time of unprecedented trouble, and lead others to do the same.
Today, we in the West owe an incalculable debt to the saint and his early medieval followers, whose visionary, disciplined faith bore spectacular fruit long after their deaths. This experience shows Christians that we have to think not in election cycles but in centuries.
In 1981, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, observing the continuing cultural fragmentation of the West, said that we await “a new — and doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” If we Christians don’t quit looking for a political white knight to save us and open our eyes to the stark reality of Christianity’s exile status in our American Babylon, we will not see this new St. Benedict when he comes.
What would he say to the church, standing bedraggled on the beach of a culture-war Dunkirk? We have been routed, and are surrounded on all sides by a powerful enemy who holds the high ground and the initiative. If we are going to live to fight another day, we have to get on those little arks, sail toward safer harbor, then regroup, replenish and rebuild.
This morning I met an Evangelical pastor who read The Benedict Option and stopped me to tell me how much it meant to him. He told me that he pastors a church in a small town in this area, and that the book gave him insight into this crisis of the church.
“I had been seeing a lot of these things, and wondering how they all fit together,” he told me. “When I read the book, it all made sense.”
“A lot of people think these things are only happening in big cities, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not true,” he went on, then told me some of the challenges he’s dealing with in his ministry.
There is no way to escape these challenges. There are safer places from which to mount the resistance, but no entirely safe place. Christian engagement in politics may be necessary (in the same sense that the RAF had to engage the Luftwaffe to keep Britain safe as it re-armed), but it is not remotely sufficient.
UPDATE: Reading some of the commentary on Twitter, let me say for the ten-thousandth time, I do not advocate complete Christian withdrawal from the public sphere. This should be clear from the Times column. I am speaking to conservative Christians who are unaware, or insufficiently aware, of the true nature of the threats we’re having to deal with, and where the most important battle lines are. It is hard for conservative Christians who live in a bubble of intellectually engaged, serious Christians with strong local communities to understand how hard it is elsewhere. So many good Christians are under the impression that the problem is primarily one of politics, or cultural politics. These are only part of the problem. It profits the church nothing to gain the House, the Senate, the White House, and all the governorships in America, but to lose its soul.
Besides, throwing yourself into working at the local level is still politics. I spoke recently to the headmaster at a classical Christian school who told me that he feels powerless to affect change at the national level, but not locally, where he has redoubled his effort to build up his school and strengthen the community where he lives. That’s politics too, you know.