“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; to him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”
Revelation 2:7 (The King James Version of the Bible)
Citing the yet published work of Robert Putnam and David Campbell (American Grace: How Religion is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives), former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson made the following observations about religion and civic life in a May 9th op-ed published on line at Real Clear Politics:
“The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: “If this is religion, I'm not interested.” The social views of this younger cohort are not entirely predictable -- both the pro-life and the homosexual-rights movement have made gains.”
“The result of the shock and aftershocks is polarization. The general level of religiosity in America hasn't changed much over the years. But, as Putnam says, “more people are very religious and many are not at all.” And these beliefs have become “correlated with partisan politics.” “There are fewer liberals in the pews and fewer unchurched conservatives.”
I’ve given thought to these ideas over the past few days, asking myself whether or not the notion that religious belief/faith has been increasingly politicized by the religious right and that the result has been polarization. I’ve also considered whether or not religious beliefs in America are increasingly being identified with “partisan politics.” In seeking answers to those questions, a far more important question has risen. “If American religious faith is indeed increasingly political in its expression, increasingly partisan, and increasingly polarizing, what do such conclusions mean for the Church in America?
The questions I’m asking myself are a natural outgrowth of my (so far) cursory reading of the work of Robert Higgs, some of which I outlined in last week’s post. While I can’t say I agree with everything I’ve read to this point, I am almost certain that Higgs is correct in his assertion that American government over time is becoming more and more powerful, more and more intrusive, and more and more collectivist. Could this then mean that the bases of social power have shifted from institutions like the Church and been supplanted by organs of government power? Could this be one of the reasons for the focus leaders like Jerry Falwell and other Evangelicals placed on gaining political power a generation or so ago? Could it be that they felt the Christian faith was becoming endangered and that the only avenue of social power available to them was politics?
If this shift has been true, or even close to being true, the paradigm shift from then to now has been enormous, far more so than any of us who were close to the movement could see while the wheel was still in spin during the heyday of the Moral Majority. The shift may have been so dramatic that the Church inadvertently reaped the whirlwind in exchange for gaining more and more political power. Time will tell whether or not that’s true, but I believe one thing is certain – current trends are not encouraging for the Church?
One of the signposts of the Church has been the slow abandonment of its societal mission in favor of government intervention in that mission. Ask most Americans, particularly those affiliated with the Church, what they mean when they insist that “someone must do something” about the societal crumbling they see all around them, they will inevitably talk of government programs or legislation to fix the problems. The “someone” they see solving our problems is government. That’s true whether one is conservative or liberal in their belief. One group wants more and more power to legislate morality. The other wants more power to craft programs that will cure social ills.
What happens when people of faith abandon their natural base of power for one seen as more tangible, like politics? The answer is obvious. The traditional basis for power is seen as less and less important, less viable, and less powerful. In essence, politics and ideology, whether left or right, replaces faith as the foundation for the life of the believer. The shift is subtle. The language of faith may remain the same for both groups, but the outworking of faith in society is seen as the task of government, not the Church.
As I’ve thought about this I’ve come to a tentative conclusion. The real root of the Church’s problem is a fear of loss, manifested in many ways. There’s a fear that if we don’t solve the nation’s morality problems politically, society will disintegrate. There’s the fear that we’ll lose our place at the table of power. There’s the fear that if we lose power we’ll lose the trappings that go with power – the prestige, the privilege, the fame, the wealth. While we wouldn’t admit to such fears, I believe they are real drivers for America’s contemporary faith communities.
In addition, politics is the venue of the concrete, the here and now. Religion is increasingly seen as the domain of the bye and bye. Why would one wrestle with the esoteric principles outlined in the Sermon on the Mount when the promise of a legislative solution from a politician will bring almost immediate results?
One of the great anthems of the civil rights movement was “We Shall Overcome.” Pete Seeger’s simple words found their way into the hearts of millions and shook conscience of the nation to its core. “We shall overcome.” “We are not afraid.” “We’ll walk hand in hand.” The words spoke of a firm belief, grounded in brotherhood. They were religious, prophetic in tone. The words went far beyond the promise of legislation, although legislation was one expected output.
As I listen to the words today I find myself thinking that the Church needs a fresh infusion of those hopeful words. In an increasingly chaotic world it ought to be comforting to know that there is room for the overcomer in the Almighty’s plan. Unfortunately, I think that’s becoming less and less true. Faith seems to be waning, replaced by a temporal belief that the real gauge of our security and comfort lie in political power and the possessions we hold.
Could it be that the time for overcoming is at hand? Could it be that the time for returning to our natural roots has come?
I believe it may well be!