Ross Douthat’s Erasmus lecture, “A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism,” and Carl Trueman’s column, “Is There A Crisis in Conservative Protestantism?” put me in mind to think about the American Church. That said, I’m more of a “not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper” kind of guy, not that I’d contest the sense of crisis that Douthat and Trueman feel.
My own inclination is conservative Protestantism in the U.S.—and we can discuss whether that’s the same thing as Evangelicalism in the U.S. – is, in the main, not in crisis, but instead on a course of sustained erosion. That’s not supposed to be good news relative to being in a crisis. Rather, in an ironic twist, the habits and practices that once reflected strengths for these churches and others, and still do in some ways, now tend to debilitate more than they strengthen.
What do I mean? I have three thoughts. The first follows below. The others will follow in coming days, I trust.
So, first, the continuing erosion of the Church in the U.S. stems in part because the social convulsions of the U.S. over the last 50 years or so created an ecclesiastical threat to U.S. churches
Chesterton once quipped that America is “a nation with the soul of a church.” That traditionally has been viewed as a source of strength to the nation as well as a source of strength for American churches. While American Protestants furiously multiplied denominations and sects almost from the start, the country nonetheless enjoyed a cultural moral consensus centered particularly around the Ten Commandments. This provided a form and level of unity to splintered denominational system.
This, I think, is really what Americans meant when using phrases like “Judeo-Christian Heritage.” They were happy enough to include Jews in the American project, but the real import of the term aimed to articulate a generic moral heritage for the various Christian (Protestant) denominations. And the “Judeo” part was a sly, if implicit, way to make sure we all understood the reference was to the Ten Commandments and not, say, to the more-contested lessons from the Sermon on the Mount.
American churches grew up and developed in a context in which the culture played a significant role in policing moral behavior. Churches could ecclesiastically free-ride on this cultural moral consensus. Churches and congregations did not need to invest heavily in developing and policing their own moral boundaries. The culture did a large part of the moral heavy lifting for them. In parts of the U.S. today one can still hear echoes of this old consensus. “Why of course I’m a Christian. I’m a Texan.”
Because churches could depend on culture to police moral boundaries, they did not develop—because they did not need to develop—ecclesiastical mindsets and practices to inculcate and sustain basic Christian moral expectations. The moral membrane between church and culture was relatively permeable, but that was relatively safe at the time. This is not to say that they were the same. Nonetheless, it was relatively easy for individual churches to gin up the moral heat for their congregation when the starting point was a culture that kept things at least morally lukewarm.
In the 1960s—actually, before that, but manifestly so in the 1960s—this cultural consensus began changing dramatically. Behaviors that the cultural consensus unquestionably understood as positively immoral the year before became tolerated, if not actually celebrated as positively good. This obviously occurred with respect to sexual behavior. Less appreciated today, this change also included consumer behavior in the form of demands to repeal of Sunday blue laws (including liquor sales), the democratization of conspicuous consumption (when was the last time you heard anyone admit they struggled with coveting?), drug use, etc.
The point of rehearsing this is not to suggest the shift constituted a moral threat to the church: the Church has survived, even thrived, in numerous times and cultures that did not share her moral practices.
The point is this transition constituted, and constitutes, an ecclesiastical threat to the Church. In effect, the Church contracted out moral discipleship and church discipline to the culture. American Christians had gotten used to and easy-going, non-threatening permeability of church and culture.
Fast forward to today when we hear about the need for churches to exercise the so-called Benedict Option. Basically, it means little more than churches need actually to reflect the full reality of what they’re supposed to be in the first place. But American churches are out of practice, ironically because of the power they once exercised over American culture.
As a result of developing the last 200 years of a “nation with the soul of a church,” Christians don’t have the ecclesiastical practices and habits that allow them easily and naturally to be fullness of the church.
These habits and practices, or the lack thereof, created all sorts of problems, even ignoring how they obscured the Gospel. Evangelicals naturally, if idolatrously, turned toward politics rather than to ecclesiology for the solution to the moral disorientation they saw in society. The Moral Majority, school prayer, “Take back America for Christ” campaigns, all reflected more of an attempt to reassert ownership of America’s moral public space than to save souls or spread the Kingdom or strengthen the life of the community of disciples in the churches. Recovering a full-orbed ecclesiology for the Church—not for the Church in the abstract, but for the practical lives of Christian layfolk and leaders in the churches—must be in initial imperative for the Church today.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.