The Memory Of America
Denny Burk is having a melancholy Memorial Day. After reading the Gettysburg Address, he reflected:
I read this speech with heaviness of heart this year. It seems like the nation that Lincoln describes is slipping away. It seems less a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” than it is a people of the government, by the government, for the government. As the people decrease, the state increases. And the people have decreased in virtue, historical awareness, and commitment to ordered liberty “under God.”
The 2016 race for the presidency is a direct reflection of our current malaise. As a nation, we seem to have embarked on a Commodus-like decline. Out of all the people who campaigned for president this year, the two major parties have selected candidates that are not qualified for the office they seek. Both of them have disqualified themselves on moral grounds. As such, neither of them represents the best of our traditions, but they do seem to reflect what the nation has become. And this is much more distressing than the candidates themselves.
It is the conceit of great nations to think that things will always be as they have been–that national greatness is automatic and assured. But this is alas only a conceit.
Burk, a friend and a Southern Baptist pastor and theologian, adds:
Perhaps we are in the twilight of a great Republic, but perhaps not yet. But if it is, I won’t let it go without a fight. I hope and pray you won’t either.
Man, that gets to me, this short piece of his. It’s sobering, and captures my own sadness. What does it mean to be a patriot when the country is going mad? I wrote a while back about the words of UVA political scientist John Owen IV, from 2004. Denny’s piece sent me back to them. Owen wrote back then that 9/11 served to bring a fracturing America back together to some extent. But he added:
September 11 has clarified matters. Though American society may deploy many corrupting influences against the Church and its members, the American state, by the grace of God, mostly continues to allow the Church to do its thing. The state, being the supreme coercive power in any country, is capable in theory of forcing the Church (and other communities) to change their practices or suffer punishment. America’s religious toleration is a reason why America not only deserves our loyalty, but also merits our continuing involvement. [Emphasis mine — RD] In a democracy the state is in principle responsible to the society it governs. Were Christians to cease being Americans in any meaningful sense, to withdraw completely from society, the state would be less responsible to us, and maybe less hospitable. God may use state persecution to purify His Church, but it is a perverse and unbiblical ethics that teaches that the Church should try to force God’s hand by enabling the state to become more oppressive.
When I cited Owen’s 2004 essay, I also cited the highly controversial 1996 First Things symposium, “The End of Democracy,” which speculated on whether or not judicial oligarchy had fatally compromised US democracy. I wrote:
Nearly twenty years on, concern about the judicial usurpation of politics remain, but the situation has become more radical. What happens when democratic politics itself produces results that orthodox Christians find not simply morally disagreeable (as happens all the time), but morally unacceptable? If memory serves, Father Neuhaus concluded in the End of Democracy symposium by saying that as long as we retain the capacity to work effectively for change within the regime, we must give it our moral assent, however grudgingly.
I wonder what Neuhaus would say today, though, if he were here. Is it possible for orthodox Christians to work meaningfully for change when the demos has become so post-Christian? After all, it won’t do to blame five unelected judges for imposing same-sex marriage on America. It’s true, but it’s also true that had the Court ruled the other way, we would have had same-sex marriage from coast to coast within 20 years, via democratic vote. The situation is far more radical than Neuhaus and his First Things cohort faced in 1996.
I don’t know what the definitive answers are. But I know it is time for serious orthodox Christians to start asking ourselves these questions. Both the Iraq War debacle and Obergefell — in their particulars, and in what they symbolize — are game-changers for Christian conservatives.
At the conference I was at this past weekend, law professor Bruce Frohnen touched the third rail of the Benedict Option: if the Ben Op critique is correct, does that require us Americans to abandon belief in liberal democracy? I think this, in the end, is why the idea of the Ben Op unsettles so many conservatives. And it really is unsettling. I don’t like where the logic of all this is taking me, and I confess that I’m resisting it. But the structures of our secular liberal democracy are such that given the tectonic cultural change now under way, and the abandonment of traditional Christianity by the masses (not just the liberal elites, as conservative mythology holds), means that the constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, may soon be used to oppress Christians in substantial ways.
If it were just that — just something affecting my own tribe — that would be horrible, but tolerable, if there were some hope of reform. I think of the loyalty black Americans had to this country when its laws in many places still oppressed them terribly. They had faith that America would live up to the promises of its founding and its Constitution — and because America was still a Christian nation in the sense of Christian teaching having authority, however attenuated, in the public square, the Civil Rights movement used the rhetoric of the Bible to press their case.
Now, America is post-Christian. Even Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, concedes this in an NPR interview:
“Conservative Christians in America are undergoing a huge shift in the way we see ourselves in the world,” Mohler says. “We are on the losing side of a massive change that’s not going to be reversed, in all likelihood, in our lifetimes.”
It’s not a case of “now that we’re not in charge, we’re going to take our football and go home.” It’s far deeper and more serious than that. It has to do with John Adams’s statement that our Constitution can only work for a religious and moral people. By this he meant that people must have inner order to live in the liberty our Constitution grants them. There’s no question that Christians will have less and less influence on the social order from here on out. The greater question — a question that involves every American — is whether John Adams was right: can liberal democracy be sustained without religion?
In any case: May God bless our beloved war dead. May their memory be eternal.