Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"A Nation of Heretics"

I had an interesting and oddly humorous conversation yesterday. An old business acquaintance (about 25 years my senior) stopped by my office. We have not visited on a regular basis in a number of years. The man--whom I will call Harvey--is a retired banker who has made a ton of money speculating in real estate and stocks. He is generally good-natured, but with a reputation of being tight with a dollar, a fact brought home to me a few years ago. I purchased a small office condo from him about 13 years ago, and he carried the note. In those days, Harvey was in an out of our office on a daily basis--it was convenient, and we always had the coffee pot on. Anyway, my payments to him were due the first of the month. There were times when "first of the month" was too loosely-interpreted on my part, I suppose. But it was not a big deal--he knew where to find me, and it was not as if he actually lived off these payments. Anyway, after a number of years, I refinanced, bundling this property with the building where I officed into one note. When it came time to determine his pay-off, he stopped by my office with his copy of the amortization schedule--where he had very meticulously figured the extra interest amount due on each and every month when I was late. I took offence at the time, but now I laugh about it. And I thought of Uriah Pert, the old skinflint (and only interesting character) in the Gasoline Alley comic strip.

Harvey, however, wanted to talk about politics and religion, rather than money. The conversation took an odd turn when he asked me the following question:

"Where do you think our President went to church on Sunday?" (Meaning, of course, that he probably didn't)

"I hadn't given it a thought," was my response.

Harvey then went on to bemoan the fact that for the first time in our history, we didn't have a President who was a Christian. For a time, I just looked at him, and then decided that I would take the bait. I now know that he is not a particularly perceptive man when it comes to anything outside of his worldview. Harvey would find it inconceivable that someone of my age, in business, working in the smug and snooty city that I do, would have a differing take on things. If he had taken time to look around at a few items on my shelves and on the wall, he might just realize that he had wandered far from the local Republican party headquarters. Anyway, I did not let this pass.

"Are you saying that the President is not a Christian?" (nervous laughter on his part.)

I said, "He's Christian like most of this country is Christian. You've heard the old line about American Christianity being 3,000 miles wide and 3 inches deep, haven't you? The President is no different than most Americans today--they say they are 'spiritual' but not religious." (more nervous laughter.)

"Now, are you saying that the Mormon Romney is more 'Christian' than the President?"

He did answer no to that, at least.

I then delivered the deepest cut of all:

"You know, Ronald Reagan didn't go to church, either."

By this time, Harvey was ready to leave--but I was not through. It just so happens that I had cut out Ross Douthat's column from the Sunday NYTimes and had it handy. I found the clipping and read aloud the following selection:

Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum all identify as Christians, but their theological traditions and personal experiences of faith diverge more starkly than any group of presidential contenders in recent memory. These divergences reflect America as it actually is: We’re neither traditionally Christian nor straightforwardly secular. Instead, we’re a nation of heretics in which most people still associate themselves with Christianity but revise its doctrines as they see fit, and nobody can agree on even the most basic definitions of what Christian faith should mean.

The old Christian establishment — which by the 1950s encompassed Kennedy’s Roman Catholic Church as well as the major Protestant denominations — could be exclusivist, snobbish and intolerant. But the existence of a Christian center also helped bind a vast and teeming nation together. It was the hierarchy, discipline and institutional continuity of mainline Protestantism and later Catholicism that built hospitals and schools, orphanages and universities, and assimilated generations of immigrants...[and] provided a kind of invisible mortar for our culture and a framework for our great debates. Today, that religious common ground has all but disappeared. And the inescapability of religious polarization — whether it pits evangelicals against Mormons, the White House against the Catholic Church, or Rick Santorum against the secular press — during an election year that was expected to be all about the economy is a sign of what happens to a deeply religious country when its theological center cannot hold.

Douthat's article is a good one. Check it out.

(I had a great-aunt who loved to relate her "telling-off" of someone. She would always end with a cock of her head and saying, "and I told him!" I hope this anecdote does not come across that way.)


Richard Barrett said...

I posted this on Facebook after reading Douthat's article, but it hasn't generated much discussion:

I have a working hypothesis. The United States is an experiment in being culturally Christian without being officially Christian. One might argue that by default, the US's "official" religion is in fact "nominal pew-sitting" in which religion has a social function but the moral and ethical principles have been largely abstracted away from a religious context. The trouble with the arguments about whether the US was founded as a "Christian nation" or not is that both are right; it just depends on what exactly you mean.

The rub is that the without the "official" status, the end result has been a pluralism that's morphs with the culture rather than being shaped by the culture, and the ostensibly "Christian" culture, minus the backing of the state, increasingly sees no particular utility in preserving the Christian elements of the culture. If it's no longer socially unacceptable to not go to church, then why bother with the pretense of nominal pew-sitting?

One could argue whether or not the impulse towards pluralism and/or "free exercise of religion" (whatever the founding fathers actually meant by that phrase) are virtuous, good, whatever. The practical question is, can religions that by nature and doctrine are monotheistic, proselytizing, and historically tending towards mutually exclusive sectarianism, actually find a way to adapt and survive in a marketplace of ideas that seems to now offer total opting-out as the most practical solution? Or will the various parties simply continue to drift farther and farther away from each other as "cultural Christianity" fails and the culture itself fragments? Are people who weren't raised anything in particular simply going to increasingly perceive religion as a solution looking for a problem? As my atheist dad always says, "Why in the hell does somebody who can't think of something good to do on a Sunday morning want to live forever?"

To the extent that this analysis holds up, is it fair to call Europe an opposite case, where there is official Christianity but cultural secularism? How is that any better or worse?

Curious to hear thoughts.

Samn! said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Samn! said...

Richard, do you think that the US's being in your terms culturally but not officially Christian is analogous in some way to its being culturally but not officially English-speaking?

Richard Barrett said...

That's an interesting thought, Samn!. Could be. What would the implications of that be to you?

Terry (John) said...

Good questions, Richard. My instinct is that the declension has more to do with the very nature of our broad Christianity that has been normative for much of American history, rather than whether it was official or not. In other words, the public religion carried within itself the seeds of its own demise. As even this fades from our culture, I believe the drift will become more pronounced, as more and more see no point in it all.

Reader John said...

Volume 111 of Mars Hill Audio Journal was just released, and has interviews with Douthat and historian John Fea "on the history of the idea of America as a Christian nation and on how the Founders were—as statesmen—less interested in the truth of religion than in its political utility."

Then, as now (with talk of "traditional" or "Judeo-Christian" values), the utile religion was not identifiably Christian: no Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology or eschatology.

And, for what it's worth, the 19th century promoters were liberal protestants like Lyman Beecher. They would have been comfortable with the fatuous little unitarian ditties that passed for school "prayer" in the Protestant hegemony of my childhood. (The 19th century "conservatives" were too busy burning over the Burnt-Over District and holding early "Prophesy Conferences.")

I suggest, way more than half seriously, that the proper Orthodox Christian response to civil Krustianity (HT Jason Peters at Front Porch Republic), a tool of social control (and, yes, in a sense "the opiate of the people), is the one that landed the Three Holy Youth in a fiery furnace. And I'm quite uncertain that, as an Orthodox Christian, I'd be welcome in any kind of more robustly "Christian America" considering the motley crew of competing robust Christianities in America. I sympathize now with religious minorities who shudder at the prospect.

Samn! said...


I'm not sure what the implications are... but it is interesting that the parts of American identity that are dearest to some (arguably a plurality of our society, if America is one society) are unwritten-- arguably because they were so obvious that they didn't need to be codified. The kind of angry reaction to changes threatening an identity that was until recently was unquestioned can be seen in both English-as-offical language movements as well as in politicized American Christianity..... Not sure where that gets us, though (I'm personally disturbed by both groups, but then I also don't really see the US as a 'people' or a 'nation').

Terry (John) said...

Thanks for the tip about the Douthat interview. I will check that out when I have time. And I am in general agreement with your views on the future course of Orthodoxy in America. I have sometimes been accused of being contrarian for the sake of contrariness, but it seems to me that being culturally accomodationist puts us on the wrong track. If that means we are always perceived as something foreign, then so be it.

Terry (John) said...

Your last sentence interests me. I don't see us as a 'people' or 'nation' either--at least not yet. We are told that our nation is built around an idea--that of liberty and democracy, or worse-the "American Dream," whatever that is. This is weak tea indeed when compared to the idea of being French, or Russian, or Persian, for example. Obviously, some of it works for us, but I believe we have a very immature historical consciousness--not only about ourselves, but about the rest of the world as well. This is not to say that it couldn't gel for us, given enough time. But it doesn't have to happen. Very little in history is inevitable.