The United States of America is a secular, pluralistic, nation that is home to hundreds of distinct faiths, philosophies, and traditions living, working, and playing side-by-side. Our diversity has often been touted as one of our great strengths, that we don’t succumb to endless internal wars, chaos, and strife, that the American experiment largely “works.” That said, no matter how “pagan” our democracy, our republic, is, we can’t but acknowledge that Christianity has been a driving force in our collective history, and in the history of Western civilization as a whole. Christian colonizers pushed out indigenous peoples and beliefs, and tried to build a new Jerusalem, a “city upon a hill.” However, partially due to the strife between Christian denominations, our nation on its founding erected “a wall of separation” between (Christian) church and state, and our history has experienced waves of disestablishment and religious “awakenings” ever since.
Today, despite the softening Christian character of our nation, our politics and culture are dominated by a Christian narrative (more than 3/4 of Americans identify as Christian), with almost mandatory public shows of Christian piety from the majority of our leaders.
In the cover story of this week’s Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan says that Christianity itself is in crisis, and that the “ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes.”
“All of which is to say something so obvious it is almost taboo: Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial—or that most Catholics, even regular churchgoers, have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been? That’s why polls show a huge majority of Americans still believing in a Higher Power. But the need for new questioning—of Christian institutions as well as ideas and priorities—is as real as the crisis is deep.”
In a live-chat discussing the story, Sullivan explicitly links the crisis of our current political dysfunction with the crisis of Christianity.
“I do not think the crisis of our politics can be resolved without addressing the crisis of American Christianity. Because the corruption of Christianity has corrupted American public life and we must be rid of it to move forward. Hence my coinage of the term Christianist. I use it out of respect for real Christianity, as much as concern about its current partisan politicization.”
Reading the article, and the live-chat, the question came to me: what about us? What about the 22% or so of Americans who aren’t Christian? The “others” and “nones” on those surveys. How do we live in a society where the dominant faith is experiencing a crisis? How do we make our voices heard in a landscape that has devolved into “Democrat Jesus” vs. “Republican Jesus,” where all moral arguments are couched in the language of Christianity?
Where once President Franklin D. Roosevelt might utter the now-unthinkable phrase “the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance,” today the spirit of that epithet may as well be launched at Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, and other faiths that are seen as odd, suspect, or foreign. Meanwhile, Christianity itself grows ever-more polarized and the ranks of those who claim no religion (“nones”) swell to over %15 of the population. The “pagan” answer to this problem might be a better pluralism, embracing that we are entering a new age, and provide more seats at the table for a variety of moral and religious perspectives. To remember a world where embracing many gods wasn’t seen as a weakness, but a strength.
Sadly, most Christians (right and left) see the answer to this crisis as a return to “true” Christianity (whatever that means to them). Sullivan writes the same prescription that hundreds, if not thousands, of Christ-following “doctors” have written before.
“This doesn’t imply, as some claim, the privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere. There are times when great injustices—slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation—require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well. They embrace nonviolence as a moral example, and that paradox changes the world more than politics or violence ever can or will. When politics is necessary, as it is, the kind of Christianity I am describing seeks always to translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all. But it also means, at times, renouncing Caesar in favor of the Christ to whom Jefferson, Francis, my grandmother, and countless generations of believers have selflessly devoted themselves.”
I’m truly sympathetic to the version/vision of Christianity Sullivan describes, but no matter how eloquent the words, or how in tune with my personal morality it may be, it still comes down to fixing a problem by doing Christianity “better” (or “purer” if you prefer) in some fashion. The problem with this is the triumphalist thread that runs through the roots of all exclusionary monotheisms. Sullivan himself inadvertently touches that root when he approvingly quotes Catholic monk Thomas Merton (from the “New Seeds of Contemplation”), saying his words are “at the kernel of what I believe is the struggle we are all involved with.”
“Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God Who delivered Himself to the Cross and suffered pathological cruelty of His own creatures out of pity for them. In conquering death He opened their eyes to the reality of a love which asks no questions about worthiness, a love which overcomes hatred and destroys death.
But men have now come to reject this divine revelation of pardons and they are consequently returning to the old war gods, the gods that insatiably drink blood and eat the flesh of men. It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.”
Even at its most poetic, its most refined, the ongoing slur within Christianity of gods that are not their God must always continue. I say that with sadness, because I greatly admire Merton, but even he was not immune to the notion that his faith was an evolutionary and moral step forward in religion. The idea that Christianity can be apolitical, except in times of great injustice, is a kind of folly as there will always be those who interpret the times as times of great injustice. For some, there will always be an “injustice” so long as other moral codes, other gods, dare to hold sway, or even stand their ground. When Sullivan endorses New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s new book (“Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”), I can only remember that Douthat is also preoccupied with fighting “Dan Brown’s America” (because, you know, Paganism) and is very, very concerned about Hollywood’s rampant pantheism.
My greatest concern within this crisis is how we tiny communities and groups, we of the 22%, weather the contractions of a post-Christian world being born. So long as our voices, our solutions, are ignored, I fear that we’ll always return to a status quo of Christianity competing with itself in a paper-thin American secularism, thinking its theological and political poles represent diversity of opinion and thought. Only a future of coexistence, not Christian dominance, is tenable for those of us who fall outside that faith’s borders. As the generational plate tectonics shift, as the anxieties of those in power grow, we need more who are willing to reach out their hands, to avoid the worst realities of such shifts. Make no mistake, we are caught in another faith’s crisis, and how that faith treats the “others” and the “nones” will reveal the tenor of our republic for generations to come.