Trueman On Christianity For Post-Christian America
At First Things, Carl Trueman weighs in on the recent controversy in which David French endorses the Respect For Marriage Act. Trueman, who opposes the bill, sees the controversy as a bellwether for American Evangelicalism. Trueman seems to be saying that American Protestants have been slow to recognize the post-Christian shift of the United States. But the facts have been mounting. Excerpt:
As Protestants wake up to this fact that they do not own the country, two things will happen.
First, as the terms of membership in society’s officer class change, those who value their social status will likely change too. I anticipate that the standard “personally opposed but publicly supportive” argument that has served Catholic elites so well for so many years will become a standard part of the elite Protestant playbook, replacing the current penchant for specious “third ways.” It will, of course, only be selectively applied when necessary to slough off the practical implications of embarrassing points of orthodoxy—such as those connected to sexuality—which might interfere with club membership. Do not expect its power of absolution ever to be extended to those who voted for Trump or who reject critical race theory.
Second, Protestant leadership will pass very swiftly to a new generation. The older generation who matured in the shadow of the Battle for the Bible assumed that it would be Christian doctrine—belief in the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the miracles—that would be the fault line within the churches and the reason why the outside world would repudiate Christianity. That generation thus lived in a world where such things played no role in actual membership in wider society. They might make Christians look foolish, but they did not make us look evil. And in that world Christians could compensate for their perceived foolishness by combining Christian orthodoxy with a certain cultural savvy and sophistication. But those days are over and that leadership is ill-equipped for what is now happening. Being mocked for believing in miracles is much easier to handle than being hated as a bigot. And it is now obvious the Christian position on the key issues of membership in society today—those of sexual identity, gender, abortion—cannot but implicate one in public debates and will merit the title of bigot. Being literate and urbane, being able to mix a good martini Vesper—such things simply will not compensate for the rejection of whatever identity, act, or right progressive society next decides is non-negotiable. And we now need church leaders and thinkers who understand this and are prepared for the social consequences. If the leaders will not lead with the truth, why should the people take a stand on the truth?
This is an important point, and what Trueman says here is true for all Christians. Funnily enough, I read this having gone to a Thanksgiving dinner last night in Budapest with some friends, one of whom is a sparkling, urbane, and intelligent Hungarian Catholic who takes her faith seriously. We got to talking about the future of Christianity in Europe, and she firmly believes that I am far too pessimistic and defensive with my Benedict Option idea, and my interest, in Live Not By Lies, in small-o orthodox Christians forming Kolakovic groups and networks, to help the churches to survive coming persecution, be it soft or hard. She believes things are going pretty well now, and that Christianity will survive here as it always has. After all, if it came through Communism, what can't it endure? She argues that Christians need to be outgoing and optimistic, and focus on building influence with those in power -- an attractive philosophy in a country like Hungary, whose government is openly Christian.
But the data give little reason for optimism. For example, in this 2017 Pew report, only nine percent of Hungarians go to church weekly. (Hungary is predominantly Catholic, but has a sizable Calvinist minority; among them are the country's Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, and its president, Katalin Novak). The number is higher for monthly attendance (26%), but still, 64% of Hungarians say they seldom or never attend church. Hungary is no outlier in the region. Poland is, but as I've been reporting here, that is dramatically changing for the worse. Fewer than 25 percent of the young in Poland practice their faith today, a staggering decline from the early 1990s, right after Communism fell. As I have been saying here, anecdotally, practicing young Catholics in Poland have been telling me since I first started going there in 2019 that they expect their country to go the way of Ireland, and embrace secularization. Mind you, for most of us, having even Poland's diminished level of religious practice would be a blessing! But the trends are only going one way, all over the West.
Here in Hungary, there is still much more residual cultural Christianity, in the sense that people don't go to church, but still consider themselves to be Christian. On the most important dividing line between US Christian churches -- sexuality -- the Hungarians still hold with traditional views of homosexuality. But this too is changing, and besides, a country where 44 percent of the births are out of wedlock can't be said to be particularly Christian when it comes to sexuality in general. Some years back, when I first started visiting Central and Eastern Europe, I would inevitably be questioned by audiences about "gender ideology" -- transgenderism, mostly. People in this part of the world simply could not believe that Americans were accepting it. I mean, they saw that we plainly were doing so, but they couldn't imagine why. I would tell them that it wasn't so long ago that most Americans would have seen things exactly as they do -- but it changed virtually overnight. Do not be complacent! I would warn.
In our conversation last night, I told my friend that the influence of the Internet, especially social media, is helping to burn away Christian practice and commitment like acid. And I laid out my theory that all Christians in our countries are going to face eventually the choice between professional and social success, and fidelity to Christ. I explained how there are entire professions in the US -- law and medicine, for example -- that are rapidly making it impossible for committed traditional Christians to join. I could tell that she just could not imagine this ever happening in Hungary. Well, I hope she's right, but I wouldn't stake my future on it. Right now, the European Union is withholding immense amounts of money from Hungary -- Covid-relief funds -- in part because the Orban government passed a law blocking LGBT education for minors, and things like Drag Queen Story Hour. Hungary is not a wealthy country, and desperately needs that money. This is a clear example of the kinds of substantial prices that will be paid by those who adhere to Christian orthodoxy. Don't forget that under Communism, people were guaranteed the right to go to church -- a right that was meaningless, given that the only thing they were allowed to do as Christians was to worship. Remember also that Hillary Clinton (to name but one liberal elite) construes "religious liberty" as "the right to worship."
In Live Not By Lies, over and over the Christian dissidents who stayed behind under Communism emphasized the radical importance of being able and willing to suffer for the faith. Those who don't have it aren't going to make it through what's coming to us hard and fast. This is what Trueman is getting at. And, you don't develop that capacity overnight. If you aren't working right now to build that capacity up within yourself, your family, and your church community, you are going to be in a world of trouble when put to the test. We all will. Kamila Bendova, the heroic Czech Catholic who was one of the leaders of the anti-communist movement in Czechoslovakia, told me that most Christians back then did what everybody else did: they kept their heads down and their mouths shut, hoping to avoid trouble. This is going to be you, and me, if we don't practice our faith in a way that is appropriate to living in a country that is no longer "ours," in the way Trueman means.
Carl Trueman writes: "But those days [of Christian cultural domination, or even of peaceful co-existence with secularists] are over and that leadership is ill-equipped for what is now happening. Being mocked for believing in miracles is much easier to handle than being hated as a bigot." True. Many times I've repeated the story here about how megachurch Evangelical leaders in southern California refused to take a stand to defend the existence of Christian colleges in that state from a threat to disallow state educational grants for needy students to be used at "bigot" colleges. According to a friend who was involved in the campaign to rally church support, all of those leaders supported the campaign in theory, but all were afraid to say so publicly, for fear of being called bigots. Only the courage of black Pentecostal leaders in Los Angeles, and the Latino Catholic archbishop of L.A., defeated the threat.
This is the world Carl Trueman is talking about. This is the world that Aaron Renn is talking about, in his Three Worlds of Evangelicalism model. And again: this is not simply a challenge to Evangelical Christians, but to all Christians in post-Christian America (and Europe). Trueman says, "And we now need church leaders and thinkers who understand this and are prepared for the social consequences. If the leaders will not lead with the truth, why should the people take a stand on the truth?" Last weekend in Poland, I heard young Catholic Poles telling me that they are all starving for real leadership from the Catholic clergy, but getting, for the most part, nothing.
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Let me put it like this. Below is a four-minute speech given in the European Parliament by the Polish statesman and philosopher Ryszard Legutko, a Catholic and a political conservative, who rebukes the Parliament for its undemocratic high-handedness towards European peoples -- Hungarians and others -- who do not share the left-wing secular views of the majority. This is not a religious speech, but a political one. The reason I cite it here is because Legutko, speaking as a politician in a lions' den, shows the kind of boldness and courage that Christians in all walks of life are going to need in the near future: