Saturday, March 31, 2012


I recently completed reading Christian America (edited by Dr. Daryl C. Cornett), a collection of four papers, each with comments by the other three authors. The approach of the papers is historical, and their emphases are the events and influences from the settlement of the colonies through the Constitution to the Civil War. The papers did relatively little to trace the modern political consequences of any finding whether and in what ways America is or is not a “Christian nation.”

David Barton assumes that the past, an undifferentiated Christianity, is prologue—that what was it still is—but his politics distorts his analysis. The other authors admit diversity from the start and increasing diversity since. They agree that almost all early settlers were Christians, but Christians whose views ranged across the broad spectrum of Christian professions of faith, who were occasionally quarrelsome among themselves and contentious with others, and who differed on perspectives on church-state relationships. Like them, the Founding Fathers shared no undifferentiated Christian faith. In creating a government, defined and empowered by the Constitution, they relied on Enlightenment thinking and language, without recourse to Christian doctrine of any kind.

America is overwhelmingly Christian in numbers of those who identify themselves as Christians. The rubric covers Christians belonging to a great diversity of denominations, mostly Protestant, and having varying degrees of commitment; it also covers a growing number of Christians without sectarian affiliation. (I note a growing number of those born, but not identifying themselves as, Christians.) In recent decades, the numbers of the church-affiliated have shifted from mainstream denominations—Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, northern Baptists, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ—to evangelical and fundamentalist ones, mainly southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and numerous other, small sects. The shift reflects a movement from traditional, multi-dimensional approaches to scripture and doctrine toward non-traditional, literal readings of scripture, and simpler statements of doctrine. Both shifts parallel a third: increasing political and social liberalism in mainstream denominations and increasing political and social conservatism in evangelical and fundamentalist denominations.

The two notable non-Protestant Christian faiths reflect similar developments, but in different ways. The numbers of Catholics have declined; more liberal Catholics have stayed by dispensing with its teachings or have strayed by becoming Episcopalians or Lutherans, and more conservative Catholics have remained. As a result, the Church has become more conservative in political and social areas, if not in doctrine or liturgy. The numbers of Mormons have increased because of missionary work, the appeal of a strict moral code, and conservative tendencies of textual literalism and doctrinal simplicity.

I shall speak of liberal and conservative churches to reflect the dichotomy between mainstream churches, and evangelical, fundamentalist, Catholic, and Mormon churches.

Notwithstanding numbers and diversity, some conservative Christians complain that Christianity is under attack. The critical question is, what is an attack on Christianity? I have not seen an answer to this question which does not reflect differences of opinion about political and social issues or the balance of powers between church and state.

The polemical question is, who is attacking Christianity? The first answer is non-Christians: atheists, Jews, and Muslims. But these small groups of non-Christians, even if they were attacking Christianity, would have the effect of mice attacking elephants. From time to time, they prevail with local changes responding to local complaints, and sometimes win lawsuits about, for example, crèches in public places and Christian prayers in public schools or at other school functions. If conservative Christians think that limits on the use of public spaces and occasions for Christian images or messages are attacks on Christianity, they either adhere to idolatry or are insecure in their faith.

Another answer is the American Civil Liberties Union, a non-denominational organization which promotes rights enumerated in the Constitution and often takes cases on behalf of the aforesaid religious minorities. Agree or disagree with its views about, say, crèches or prayers, it is not attacking Christianity, but advocating First Amendment rights as it sees them and as, in many cases, courts have also seen them.

A third and more likely answer is other Christians. This answer means that any attack against Christianity is really yet another in the long history of intra-faith conflicts within Christianity. Old wars between Catholics and Protestants have become new wars between liberals and conservatives. Indeed, Christian conservatives accuse Christian liberals of attacking the True Faith, presume to be defending it, and are counter-attacking. Such is the excuse offered by religious conservatives who are assaulting or subverting religious liberals. (I note that the liberal denominations are strong in the Northeast and Upper Midwest and that the conservative denominations are strong in the South, the Central Plains, and the Mountain West.)

But the conflict is not religious—that is, doctrinal at all—for the nuances of belief and practice are not contested issues. No one argues about, among many others, free will or pre-destination, trans- versus con-substantiation, the nuances of the Trinity, the relationship between faith and works, and birth versus believer baptism. Given the quantities of blood spilt in conflict over such doctrinal issues, mainly to claim victory in controversy and to increase temporal power, a departure from such internecine religious warfare must be for the best.

Of late, the issues have shifted to social and moral ones in the secular domain, with a tenuous religious connection. Even so, they threaten to embroil everyone in political turmoil and social disorder. With religious or religious-like fervor, everyone argues about school prayer, evolution, global warming, and social issues, mainly sex-related ones: the definition of life—really, of its beginning—abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and gays and lesbians in the military. At the same time, everyone agrees to avoid discussing nearly universal, and nearly universally (and hypocritically) deplored, sexual pastimes: adultery and pornography probably because denominational differences do not exist! Race has probably had its day for debate, though it prompts or energizes a lot of discussion of other topics. The Christianity of white Protestant conservatives, a demographic cliché of the South, has come to reflect one side of the “culture wars,” not a religion, but a lifestyle with a brand name. Wearing a necklace or charm bracelet crucifix is not much different from wearing Calvin Klein jeans.

On this matter of lifestyle—that is, the assortment of social issues—the underlying difference between liberal and conservative denominations is their different views of the relationship between church and state, more accurately, between religion and politics. Liberals, in accord with the Enlightenment outlook of America’s Founding Fathers, accept the pre-eminence of the state as guarantor of the religious freedom of each and all faiths, their followers, and even disbelievers. Conservatives, in accord with the main theological impulses of the early Puritan and Separatist settlers in New England, wish to subordinate civil government to religious rule, with the state the enforcer of its moral and social as well as its religious prescriptions and prohibitions.

The battle, with each side invoking the Bible, becomes one of books: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution versus the Mayflower Compact and Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Religious conservatives, who are, or are allied with, political conservatives—that is, Republicans and Tea Partiers—talk the founding documents but walk the “city on the hill.” They advocate a Christian theocracy, not a constitutional republic. They advance moral and social positions on the sectarian authority of a clergy acting in accordance with dogma, not on the secular approach of a Congress elected and legislating under democratic laws.

I once taught American literature from the colonial period through the Civil War. My students read the Puritan, the Federalist, and the Romantic writers. The development of the American spirit, from the pinched view of the earlier writers to the expansive view of the later writers I found neatly summarized in a famous phrase from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” That phrase, redolent with the ethic of Christian sentiment, takes the measure of those who seek to divide and dictate doctrinally, and those who seek to unite, deliberate, and decide democratically.

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