How Shall We Deal with Our Religious Identity Crisis?

The success of what Professor Ken M. Schultz has called “tri-faith America” there remain problems. One is the identity crisis I wrote about yesterday. Catholics and Protestants are no longer sure why they are Catholic or Protestant, at least to a significant degree. Few understand the theological debates and most do not live in the tensions of the past. How do Catholic and Protestant institutions self-identify when they have been so successful that they are losing their way? This question is as old as antiquity if you know the Old Testament.

The religious right has posed serious opposition to this new version of public expression Schultz calls “tri-faith.” But, he rightly concludes, “the success of the tri-faith idea shaped American life during the second half of the twentieth century and has continued to do so well into the twenty-first” (Tri-Faith America, 208).

This new public expression of faith in America helped to formulate new principles of group communalism, group rights, and religious privacy. While some conservatives debate the ultimate value of these principles I am one that welcomes them as a better way than that of our pre-civil rights past. Schultz notes, “It helped usher in the second disestablishment of religion in the United States, which still stands as the law of the land” (Tri-Faith America, 208). While this may be despised by some who long with nostalgia for an older America I believe it is the fruit, generally speaking, of our best ideals and principles as a people.

The tri-faith movement also “softened the ground for the civil rights movement” (Tri-Faith America, 208). This set the terms for all future debate about American diversity. This changed the landscape for women, homosexuals and others who have been socially and politically marginalized in various ways in America’s Protestant past. With this change the church now faces major concerns. Who are we? What makes us distinct? How do we become inclusive without losing our way morally and spiritually?

It is here that I end this brief series of comments about America and the role of religion in our public life. What is the role of missional-ecumenism in tri-faith America? I believe it is the only appropriate response to this change given the great mission field which is now America. American Christendom is dying, if not dead. How will we pursue the kingdom of God in America when America is no longer closely linked with that kingdom in the perception of most people? This is the question that gets me up in the morning and drives me to teach what I call missional-ecumenism. America is not going back to what it was. I, for one, am grateful. The question really is clear: “What is our role as Christians (not as Protestants or Catholics first) in this new context?”