A Way Forward (Part One): Shedding Civil Religion

norman-rockwell--walking-to-church-april-4-1953_i-G-52-5271-9RPZG00ZFirst, thanks to all who read my last post imagining a form of evangelicalism that rises above our current divisive positions and presents a more attractive alternative to this complex, diverse, postmodern culture. I’ve very grateful for those who shared, reposted, and commented. Thanks especially to Zach Hoag, Doug Bursch, and Erik Parker for providing ongoing encouragement.

Based on that encouragement, I want to unpack some possible steps forward for evangelicalism. There are three components to the argument as it exists at the moment and I want to give each their due, so each will get its own post. But the thread of the argument began last year when I was writing for Respectful Conversation  and has developed to where it is now.

I got a glimpse of the end point yesterday and wrote this on my Facebook page: “Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Mainliner are all social constructs that mask the richness of authentic Christian faith.” We spend far too much time defining/defending positions as opposed to those folks over there. I’ll unpack this in the third post.

The second post will be an exploration of a  hypothesis I floated last summer. I argued that we’ve made far too much of the separation between mainline and evangelical churches and that they might be far more similar than our rhetoric would suggest. I wrote about David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw’s Prodigal Christianity last month. Their attempt to rethink some evangelical themes in light of post-Christendom was very helpful. But I’m also wrapping up Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us (2006) which explores mainline congregations with vibrant faith. The parallels between Fitch/Holsclaw and Butler Bass are striking and suggest a possible convergence in how we think about faithful Christianity in postmodern society.

So why don’t we see the potential convergence these two excellent books would suggest? Because we keep getting mired in the issues of civil religion.

Technically, when Robert Bellah wrote about civil religion in the 1960s, he was talking about a symbolic sense in which American nationalism had distinctively religious tones. Not in a Christian sense but in a transcendental faith in destiny and providence. But I want to expand that idea to include the religiousness of certain cultural patterns in society. We operate with certain default assumptions, largely unexamined, but taken as matters of faith. It is when we combine those elements of cultural faith with Christian faith that the messiness starts.

The picture above is Norman Rockwell’s “Walking to Church” published 61 years ago today. I picked the Rockwell because it combines three expressions that I think are connected to our current confusion. First, there is the notion that going to church is something that good people do. It’s kind of a sanctified Kiwanis meeting. Back in Mad Men days, people went to church because you were supposed to go to church. And you were supposed to be seen in your Sunday finest, to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers in town, and to bide your time until the service was over. (To connect to my earlier posts, this is why the Simpsons go to church). In short, this reflects the caricature left behind by 1960s mainline churches.

For some socially active churches, the local congregation was a place to mobilize resources and volunteers to make social change. In Habits of the Heart, Bellah and colleagues interview a mainline activist who could just as easily have worked for a national labor union. Of course, this idea of banding together to create change isn’t something found on the “left” side of some denominational spectrum. The same patterns have been playing out on the “right” side over the past thirty years. It’s why it’s sometimes so hard to separate the religious sentiments from the political sentiments.

There is a second connection to the Rockwell painting. There is a contrast between the church-going family and the surrounding community. Of course, today we’re very unlikely to walk to church and our churches wouldn’t even be in those neighborhoods. We want the church to be a cultural oasis from those messy neighborhoods. We see the church as the place where values are right and pure, unlike the surrounding environment.

Third, the Rockwell painting is set in a particular time period. Civil Religion longs to go back to those early, simpler times. Back then we knew the value of hard work, had traditional marriages, and children knew their place without expecting trophies just for showing up.

But all three of these images are fictions. Things weren’t the way we imagine them. Narcissism is not new. Families weren’t happier. They are helpful to give us meaning but they aren’t necessary for Christian faith. Moreover, they often get in the way of Christian faith, outreach, compassion, and evangelism. We bring the cultural baggage with us and before long it’s intermingled into our religious practice.

One of the interesting things about Bellah’s original conception of civil religion is that we hold on to certain defining values, like freedom and opportunity and justice in spite of what we see around us as ensnarement and disappointment and unfairness. It is the faith in the values that is the heart of civil religious practice.

And it is precisely that blind faith that we have to learn to put on hold. When we find ourselves congratulating ourselves for being “those kind of people” we’ve trapped ourselves. When we isolate from our neighbors, we can be more certain in the purity of our activism but don’t know how to make our points clearly. When we think that we’ve got it all together, we trip over power issues or sex abuse controversies or financial largesse. We have to recognize that our faith demands that we acknowledge that we frequently fail to live up to our own claims and must rely on Grace to see us through.

There’s been an ongoing debate as to whether or not millennials are leaving the church. Those who argue that the concern is overblown say that the research data suggest that it’s not “real Christians” who have left. They were nominal Christians who rarely attended church. That may be a valid claim for the moment. But the data also suggests that the percentage of nominally religious is growing (that’s one interpretation of the “none” data).

This idea of culturally defined religion is why the Pew surveys can claim that large percentages of people created a literal Adam and Eve in current human form. It’s not that respondents really think that. But that’s what good cultural Christians are supposed to believe (similar data on the virgin birth made me want to pull my hair out). One cannot reconcile the level of biblical illiteracy in the society with these general patterns based on any kind of theological framework.

So maybe our first step forward is to admit that we go to church for lots of reasons, not all of them purely spiritual. Maybe it has much more to do with our assumptions about what good people in our culture do. But the surrounding culture isn’t our friend. Syncretism (the fusion of sacred and profane elements) is a temptation for all religious groups. A heightened degree of discernment might allow us to see Christ’s church in fuller form. That’s the point of the next post.

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