22 May 2012

Civil Religion and Lack of Faith

What does it mean for Christianity that the emphasis of the Church is now on political impact rather than spiritual impact? Or that political and spiritual impact are increasingly being conflated by the people who are leading American Christianity?

I've talked before about how curious, frustrating, and occasionally frightening I find the linkage between Christianity and capitalism that occurs within American society generally, and in concentrated form within the Republican party:

About a week ago, when I quoted Richard Gray's book "Southern Aberrations" -
One historian has complained that, "in the name of traditional virtue," Ronald Reagan's political agenda was in fact giving a "free hand to business practices that destroy neighborhoods, separate families, promote hedonism, encourage mobility, and plan obsolescence." That, perhaps, is to privilege the traditionalist side of the equation. A more neutral way of putting it might be to say that there is a latent tension in any program that aims both to deregulate the economy and to draw a protective circle, to build an insulated wall around the family.
 Back in January, when I quoted a New York Times article on fair political argument -
In particular, there is a basic tension between the two main elements of the conservative view: Christian ethical values and the free enterprise system. Christian morality is a matter of love for others and self-sacrifice on their behalf. A market economy assumes that all agents (employers, workers, buyers, sellers) act in their own selfish interests. The problem is evident in the New Testament’s unease with the wealthy and sympathy for the poor; see, for example, Matthew 13: 22, Mark 10: 23-25 and James 5: 1-3.
And back in September, when I quoted from an article on former GOP activist Mike Lofgren -
On the one hand, Rand's tough guy, every-man-for-himself posturing is a natural fit because it puts a philosophical gloss on the latent sociopathy so prevalent among the hard right. On the other, Rand exclaimed at every opportunity that she was a militant atheist who felt nothing but contempt for Christianity. Apparently, the ignorance of most fundamentalist "values voters" means that GOP candidates who enthuse over Rand at the same time they thump their Bibles never have to explain this stark contradiction.
Today, though, I found (via Rachel Held Evans) a post by Jonathan Martin, a pastor from Charlotte, NC, that points out one of the major theological implications of this marriage. I use that term advisedly.

In the context of a rumination on Mitt Romney's commencement speech at Liberty University, Martin offers a contention that makes tremendous sense to me, and that I'd never heard before:
It’s no surprise then that evangelical leaders are now going a step further than simply saying a candidate is the lesser of two evils, or this candidate better represents these particular concerns–to now signaling that regardless of theology, this candidate is “one of us.”  Because we know “us” (the Church”) from the world by where they fall on our conservative-liberal continuum.  We don’t care what anybody believes about the trinity, because we don’t believe what a person believes about the trinity makes a difference in real life.  More potently, we don’t believe the trinity can change the world.  Who cares whether or not a person partakes of the eucharist, because the body and blood of Jesus is of course trite in comparison to our political platforms–that is where the power is.

We don’t care about theology anymore because we are no longer concerned about being Christians in any particular sort of way.  Jesus is unable to save the world, thus the best hope we have now is to embrace across theological lines in service of the true god of conservative civil religion.  The stakes are too high to be concerned about doctrine when there are far more pressing matters at hand.
Catch that?

The wedding of the church to politics is the abandonment of faith. It's the abandonment of belief that the "power in the blood of the Lamb" that we sang about when we were younger actually has the ability to do anything in the world.

That's a major issue.

If the dominant manifestations of the Church are despair rather than faith, bitterness rather than joy, hatred rather than love, is it any wonder that the Church is floundering? That young people are leaving? That the cultural tide is turning further and further away from Christianity?

I left the Church a long time ago, and I don't plan on going back. Large portions of my generation have left, and are leaving, with me. Really, why would we stay? We can get our fix of negativity, faithlessness, and emptiness anywhere - we don't have to sit in pews for it. If the Church isn't going to offer a way of engaging the world that has some promise of changing it, we're not going to join.

Hell, we might not join even then. But at least Christianity would be in some way distinguishable from just another political organization. At least then the races we'd be trying to run well would be for souls, rather than for senate seats.

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