Our most recent “Faiths in Conversation” event was on the question of how to maintain one’s communal religious identity in an increasingly secular society. In this highly charged political season, it seems to me that some serious thought needs to be given to this subject by serious Christians. Here’s mine –
There are dates that signal for many of us some of the most defining moments in our history.
December 7, 1941 – The Attack on Pearl Harbor
November 22, 1963 – The Assassination of President Kennedy
September 11, 2001 – The Attacks on the World Trade Towers
Now, I don’t know if June 26, 2015, is going to become one of those dates, but in terms of its impact, it probably should. June 26, 2016, is when the Supreme Court of the United States officially announced its ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, thereby extending equal protection under the law to same sex couples wanting to get married in the United States of America. Peter Wehner of the New York Times and Michael Gerson of the Washington Post call Obergefell “a landmark moment in US history” that “like a boulder thrown into a pond will have public consequences for decades,” and this is true regardless of which side of the issue you’re on.
My gay and lesbian friends regard this ruling as the moment when their outcry for human dignity and their struggle for civil rights finally became part of the moral vision and legal tradition of the United States. In contrast, lots of my religious friends view Obergefell as the tipping point in the moral and spiritual decline of America. Franklin Graham has gone so far as to call it the “nose dive off of the moral diving board into the cesspool of humanity.”
I suspect that at least some of the anger in the tone of the race for President so far in this election year can be traced back to this deep sense of betrayal that some in the conservative religious community are feeling in the aftermath of this court decision. Here they thought that they were the “moral majority” playing their game on their turf in their stadium, and suddenly a referee blew his whistle, and the next thing they knew the ball had been stripped from their hands and they’d gone from being the home team to the away team! Of course, long before the Supreme Court ruled, culture had shifted.
I’m a baby boomer. I was born in 1953, and in my 62 trips around the sun so far I have been an eyewitness to the changes that Obergefell now codifies. Obergefell is just the caboose on a train that left the station long ago, and if you’re my age then you can see the names on the box cars as they roll past – Situation Ethics, the Sexual Revolution, Drop Out and Get High, Abortion on Demand, No Fault Divorce, Living Together before Marriage, out of wedlock births, shifting gender roles and now same sex marriage.
Will Willimon dates the disestablishment of the church from American culture to a Sunday evening in 1963 in Greenville, South Carolina, when “in defiance of the state’s time-honored blue laws, the Fox Theater opened on Sunday” and seven regular attendees of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, including Will himself, went in through the front door of the Buncombe Street Church in order to be seen by the pastor and their parents and then right on out the back door to join John Wayne at the Fox. Will refers to that evening as the “watershed in the history of Christendom” (15).
No longer was culture going to be a prop for the church in America, or at least in South Carolina, he says, and culture wasn’t even going to pretend to share and promote Christian values. If the truth be told, it never did. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, writes –
The problem with American Christianity is that we often assumed that there were more of “us” than there were of “them.” …[But] Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian Gospel… God was always welcome in American culture. He was, after all, the Deity whose job it was to bless America. The God who must be approached through the mediation of the blood of Christ, however, was much more difficult to set to patriotic music or to say “Amen” in a prayer at the Rotary Club. …Mainstream American culture did aspire to at least the ideal of many of the things the Christian church talked about: healthy marriages, stable families, strong communities, bound together in prayer. …[But] now it is increasingly clear that American culture doesn’t just reject the particularities of orthodox Christianity but also rejects key aspects of “traditional values” …from questions of sexuality to drug laws to public expressions of religion to the definition of the family. [And] this leaves American Christianity to ponder the path forward from here. (4-6)
Our natural reflex as human beings to a threat is the “fight or flight instinct of a frightened animal” (Jethani), and both of these responses have been on full display by Christians since June 26th. Competing visions of how the church should respond to cultural change are being widely discussed by Christians these days. Russell Moore describes the options before us as either “clenching our fists” or “wringing our hands” (7).
Some Christians are becoming combative these days and can be heard calling for a Crusade. This is the “clench your fist” and fight reflex, and it would seem to be the dominant face and voice of public Christianity in these parts. Right before last week’s caucuses, Dr. Robert Jeffress of Dallas’ First Baptist Church was in Iowa with Donald Trump at a campaign rally. “Although as a pastor I cannot officially endorse a candidate,” Jeffress explained, “I want you to know I would not be here this morning if I were not absolutely convinced that Donald Trump would make a great President of the United States.” And then he added, “Most Americans know we are in a mess, and as they look at Donald Trump they believe he is the one leader who can reverse the downward death spiral of this nation we love so dearly.”
This is the way that some Christians enter the struggle to maintain their religious identity in an increasingly secular society. They’re mad and they aren’t going to take it anymore. And so they plan on politically overpowering anyone who is opposed to their Christian vision and values. There are conservative Christian versions of this response and progressive Christian versions of this response, and while their visions of what it will look finally like vary widely, what they do have in common is the shared belief in the goal of a “Christian-ized” America. The best way to maintain their spiritual identity, they’ll tell you, is to make the surrounding culture into their image and after their likeness.
At the other end of the spectrum are those Christians who like Noah of old are looking for a lifeboat into which they can safely withdraw from the flood of wickedness that surrounds them and find shelter. This is the “wring your hands” and flee reflex, and it’s getting a lot of play right now in some circles under the banner of the “Benedict Option.”
St. Benedict was the Spiritual Father in the 6th century who at the very beginning of the Dark Ages in Europe began to form these little self-contained and self-sufficient communities of faithful men and women who preserved Christian teachings and values in isolation from the collapsing secular culture around them.
Alan Kreider, a Mennonite Theologian, in his important work on the church in “Pre-Christendom,” that is Christianity before it became the cultural norm in the West, says that the church in the days before the Emperor Constantine existed and operated as an “enclosed garden.”
St. Cyprian, the mid-third century Bishop of Carthage said that he heard the voice of Christ speaking about the church in the Song of Solomon 4:12 – “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed. …It’s ‘enclosed’ St. Cyprian observed – and that means that ‘profane’ outsiders cannot easily get in. And it’s a ‘garden’ – here is life flowering and flourishing in the presence of Christ.” (10)
If some Christians today are saying that the best way for them to maintain their spiritual identity in the increasingly secular culture that surrounds them is to take on that culture with the intention of changing it, then there are just as many Christians these days who are coming to the conclusion that the only way to preserve their spiritual identity is to separate themselves from the surrounding culture just as completely as they can. And in-between these two poles of separation and transformation there emerges a third option, what Dr. Timothy George, the President of Beeson Divinity School over in Birmingham, Alabama, calls the “Franciscan” Option after St. Francis of Assisi who in the 13th century took from the crusading mentality of confrontation the spiritually legitimate impulse of wanting to meaningfully engage the surrounding culture with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and who took from the monastic mentality of withdrawal the spiritually legitimate impulse of Christians needing to be informed, formed and transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ themselves.
Russell Moore calls this approach the way of “engaged alienation,” and describes it as “a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our Gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, and friends, and citizens” (8). This way for Christians to maintain their spiritual identity in the increasingly secular culture that surrounds them begins by first firmly establishing a Christian identity in Christians. Craig Carter, a Canadian theologian, has written about the irrelevancy of so much of the modern church’s engagement with culture.
What could be more irrelevant than Christian leaders who beg the government to pass laws to coerce their own church members into caring for the poor or refusing the abortion temptation, when those Christian leaders cannot convince their own flocks to do these things on the basis of the Bible? (21)
Christian values don’t have a bigger impact on the surrounding culture, political scientist Alan Wolfe says, because Christian values aren’t having a bigger impact in the living rooms of Christians, or in the pews of their churches (Moore 18). And so the way that I believe Christians will maintain their spiritual identity in this increasingly secular world of ours will be the way that Jesus Himself described at the beginning of His Sermon on the Mount –
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)
It begins by being salt, by honoring honor the impulse to cultivate our own distinctive moral and spiritual identity as Christians. To have a “significant Christian influence” in the world, Christians must first be “significantly influenced” by Christianity themselves. And then from that carefully nurtured center, the church must then honor that other spiritually legitimate impulse to meaningfully engage the world. Christians must become “light.”
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid… In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
Shirley Hoogstra of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities puts it as well as anybody when she says that Christians “anchored by the cross, the Resurrection, and God’s sovereignty” can “deeply disagree with our fellow citizens on cultural issues,” while at the very same time seeking the best for them and serving them “with an attitude of kindness and humility.” Salt and light – the way the church will survive and thrive in an increasingly secular culture is by being salt – carefully nurturing her own distinctive “Jesus-shaped” values and identity, and then by becoming light – strategically positioning herself to be able to radiate the light of God’s holiness and mercy in the growing darkness of culture.
Carter, Craig A. Rethinking Christ and Culture. Brazos Press. 2006.
Gerson, Michael and Peter Wehner. “The Power of Weakness.” Christianity Today. November 2015. (40-49).
Hoogstra, Shirley. “It’s Already Being Practiced by the Next Generation.” Christianity Today. November 2015. (49).
Jethani, Skye. “The Naaman Option.” October 8, 2015. https://skejethani.com
Kreider, Alan. Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom. The Alcuin Club 1995.
Moore, Russell. Onward: Engaging the Gospel without Losing the Culture. B&H. 2015.
Willimon, William & Stanley Hauerwas. Resident Aliens. Abingdon. 1989.