In 1960, John Steinbeck drove across America in a pickup truck, accompanied by his dog, Charley. The book that resulted, Travels with Charley in Search of America, is a touching and melancholy reflection on the state of the nation.
One of the most memorable passages—at least for this Presbyterian—is Steinbeck’s description of a church service in Vermont. What he witnessed was apparently a traditional Protestant service focusing on the fact that the primary problem facing the congregation was that they had offended a holy God. Steinbeck’s comment on the contrast with urban—and urbane—attitudes of his day is striking:
The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good. It had been long since I had heard such an approach. It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control. There was no such nonsense in this church.
Steinbeck was presumably speaking of therapists when he referred to “our psychiatric priesthood,” but the history of modern Christianity in America indicates that real priesthoods, too, muscled in on the therapy act. Norman Vincent Peale, the current president’s spiritual guide, made psychology and the “feel-good factor” foundational to his church’s message, a gospel that continues in the work of prosperity preachers such as Joel Osteen. Therapy has trumped theology many times throughout the years.
Today, the therapeutic has taken on a decidedly political tone. Making the electorate feel good—or at least that part of the electorate upon which a given party depends for its success—is critical to the current political task. In the polarized world of the twenty-first century, this often means silencing those who say things that might make the chosen constituency uncomfortable. This is now often achieved by playing the oppressive/hurtful speech card—as the referendum on gay marriage in Australia is currently demonstrating. Yes, you may vote to oppose gay marriage, but to argue that position in public is vile, because it is hurtful. The therapeutic seeks to starve democracy of the air it needs to survive: free and open exchange of arguments and ideas.
What is striking, though perhaps not surprising, is that the churches have continued to ride the therapeutic bandwagon, even as that bandwagon has gone political. Rainbow flags, “No Place for Hate” signs, and Black Lives Matter posters often seem to do double duty: signaling those vital virtues and indicating the presence of a house of worship. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that the angry voices of the politicized churches are really so different in kind from the soothing tones of the Joel Osteens of this world. Such churches are seeking social justice in a manner that seems to accept the therapeutic assumptions underlying the secular political environment: that identity is psychological, and that victimhood is the only virtue that counts. No wonder the ethics and purpose of sex—pretty straightforward issues in the Bible and in the historic teaching of the church, until the last few decades—have suddenly become so complicated for Christians. Once we allow that psychologized victimhood trumps everything, all other moral imperatives are relativized and then made murky.
This trajectory will not end well for the church. Steinbeck’s account of the Presbyterian worship service is full of irony and sardonic wit. But in the end he acknowledged that there was a timeless seriousness about what he had witnessed that day:
All across the country I went to church on Sundays, a different denomination every week, but nowhere did I find the quality of that Vermont preacher. He forged a religion designed to last, not predigested obsolescence.
For as long as there have been churches, there have been churches that want to do less than that for which the church is intended. Rather than offer people a glorious vision of who God is and who men and women are before him, they have sought to offer the spirit of the age in a religious idiom. For earlier generations, that might have been the polite values of the affluent middle class. Today, it is more likely the therapeutic politics of the liberal middle class. But Steinbeck’s phrase remains a warning to those who would go down that path: “predigested obsolescence.” Let the church be the church. And let’s leave therapy to the therapists—or the politicians.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.