Waking Up Is Hard to Do

Sometime in the late 1980s, or early 1990s, I began to realize how profoundly we had moved away from “My America.” Whatever my parents believed about America and our culture there were fewer and fewer people who believed it and the social and religious tide was clearly moving in an entirely new direction.

Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians began to realize that people were not becoming Christians by simply growing up in the neighborhood and being brought to church to follow Christ. They began to “fight back.” They demonized the secular society, especially the courts and the politicians on the left, and launched an attack mode that had a significant impact until 2008. In 2012 we saw the fading glimmers of this public and political movement come to large scale ruin. (I know, there will be more of the same to come but you can take this much to the bank–this movement is dying and will be of no significant importance in future national elections. Furthermore, those Christians who fight to transform the culture by these means will only spend more money and energy on rescuing Christendom, a grand way of trying to save a civilization that is passing away. Sometimes we will still elect a “Christian” culture-warrior here or there but even most Christians will know this will not work in the coming years (as millennials already do). This type of rhetoric will not work in national campaigns in the future, only in regional enclaves where pockets of white evangelicals over 50 still decide elections. (Witness the two Republican candidates for the U. S. Senate who likely would have won seats in Missouri and Indiana who made foolish statements about rape and abortion and saw their campaigns go in the tank.)

Tinkering with budgets and court cases will not right the ship of Christendom. (I am not suggesting that we passively allow our public life to be destroyed by radical secular ideology but I do not believe this is the clear alternative anyway. We will remain a “religious” people for some time, albeit a people who are much broader in how we think about the role of religion in public life. ) We cannot form a “Christian culture” in the years ahead. We do not have the numbers to make it happen. The multitude of studies prove this to be a truth beyond reasonable doubt. We must awaken to the fact this is no longer “our world”–if it ever should have been as some of us understood it.

The Day the World Changed

aliensHauerwas and Willimon, in their much-discussed book Resident Aliens (1989), argued that our world was fundamentally changed in Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. We have been, as they write, “trying, but failing, to grasp the implications of that change ever since” (Resident Aliens, 17). This is the heart of what we must recover inside the church. The incarnation altered the world, all of it. I believe that it altered our world in ways that radically undermine a large part of the Christendom narrative.

Our problem is fairly self-evident to those who take the time to analyze what has happened to America. We adapted and domesticated the gospel so that we could fit uniquely American values into a “loosely Christian framework” (Resident Aliens, 17). By this means we created a culturally significant expression of Christianity that had a lot about it to like. But, and this is an important but, it had a lot about it that should have been rejected as well. Righteous America was never righteous, and down deep most of us knew it. I suspected that this was the case in the 1950s but adults told me to shut up when I asked my questions about it. I knew it for sure in the 1960s but by then I was on the inside of the system and was learning how to play by the (cultural) rules. Then in the late 1970s I was questioning the rise of the Moral Majority openly in my pulpit. I often felt like I was alone among my conservative ministerial peers, most of whom either endorsed this “culture” agenda or at least quietly tolerated it. Finally, in the 1980s I knew that we were in deep trouble but my voice was still anything but a majority view.

Hauerwas and Willimon write:

We are aware that from 313 to 1963 many Christians found ways to dissent from the coercive measures necessary to ensure social order in the name of Christ. What we are saying is that in the twilight of that world, we have an opportunity to discover what has and always is the case–that the church, as those called out by God, embodies a social alternative that the world cannot on its own terms know (Resident Aliens, 17–18).

The demise of the Constantinian (Christendom) world view–the general idea that the church needs to build and support a surrounding “Christian” culture to prop it up and develop its youth and the society around it–is something I celebrate! (Brace yourself, and please read that again. I am not a radical anabaptist, per se. I am a chastened and postmodern, post-Christendom Kuyperian if you actually want a label. What I cannot deny, all such labels aside, is that a significant part of the New Testament seems particularly clear to me–the church has its true “commonwealth in heaven,” as St. Paul so plainly puts this point in Philippians 3:20.)