The Guilty Secret of Liberal Christianity

October 1996By James Hitchcock

James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. His latest book is the reissue of his The Recovery of the Sacred (reviewed in the March NOR).

Classical theories of secularization provide only limited understanding of religion in America, and that geographical deficiency in turn reveals the most important element lacking in most of those theories overall -- a recognition of the primacy of cultural, and indeed religious, factors in the very process of religion's decline.

In Western Europe secularization is closely related to industrialization, the classic pattern being pious peasants who, upon moving to the city, cease to practice their faith. That pattern has been traced roughly in proportion to the magnitude of urban centralization -- large cities are more secular than small -- and the size and complexity of the industrial enterprise itself.

Why this should be is not all that clear. Most obvious is the trauma of profound social displacement, as the familiar rural world, in which everything has its place and everything is taken for granted, dissolves into a wholly unfamiliar terrain where it seems nothing has its place. For many European industrial laborers, it was apparently simply a matter of having been raised in a religious environment in a rural village, then losing the habits of faith in the process of uprooting.

In many countries formal religion in the 19th century came to be identified with oppressive social structures. The self-respecting worker who was conscious of injustice, and believed that organized militancy was the only hope for improvement, came to regard the church as being in league with government and business in causing his oppression.

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