Religion as Escape?

June 2013By C.H. Ross

C.H. Ross is a lawyer in Nashville.

Unconventional Partners: Reli­gion and Liberal Culture in the United States.  By Robert Booth Fowler. Eerdmans. 185 pages. $12.95.



Ever since St. Augustine received the news of Alaric’s rough visit to Rome and com­mented at length on the impli­cations, Christians and others have been trying to puzzle out the nature of the relationship between the city of man and the City of God. For all the vaunted secularity of our age, we are still at it.

The city of man today, in the West at least, is liberal. In America even “conservatives” are liberal, though many don’t relish being told so. What usually passes for conservatism here is a variant of 19th-century Manchesterian ideol­ogy. This social setting is, no doubt, the reason St. Augus­tine is mentioned only once or twice in Robert Booth Fowler’s book. Like so many other treatments of the church/socie­ty relationship in America — and there are many — this one is basically synchronic: Fowler’s frame of reference is generally post-World War II.

Confining the theater of operations to the present gen­eration is a handicap, for ecclesiology in the proper sense does not really lend itself to synchronic analysis. The more supra-temporal an institution is, the harder it is to say sensible things about its nature if you are blinkered to see only one time (and place). This is pre-eminently true of churches, which are by defini­tion founded to last. Ignorance of and contempt for the past are the principal reasons so Utile good ecclesiology is being done nowadays.

A corollary is that books like this tend to be about how the churches are perceived — what people inside and out of them say about their roles.

What scholars say has tended to reflect the assump­tions of a few major schools of thought. Fowler believes that none of these adequately ex­plains the role of religion in American life, and therefore proposes a model of his own.

His chief targets are what he calls the “integration thesis” and a countervailing attitude that might be labeled the “challenge thesis.” The “inte­gration thesis” holds that “religion and America’s liberal order are part of an intertwined whole,” and thus that “religion in America has serv­ed as a support for the estab­lished liberal order.” Integra­tion theorists are more histori­cally minded than is common, and more likely to take a diachronic view of things relating to churches. That is healthy in itself, but it is often accompa­nied by a harmful tendency to assume that certain religious components have been con­stant in our culture, whereas in fact many of them have gradually leached out over time.

The greatest integration theorist was Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote that the churches were the principal sources of the moral values that Americans poured into their other institutions. What Tocqueville wrote was very true at the time; were he to come back today, he would be hard put to reach the same conclusions. As Fowler rightly says, “De Tocqueville saw a pluralistic but united culture in which religion was an essential integrating factor. That world may have existed in America then, but no longer.”

The “challenge thesis” is of more recent vintage and takes into account the general desacralization of contempo­rary culture. According to this view, churches in a post-Chris­tian culture have been forced willy-nilly into a prophetic role. They are, in a real sense, once again “signs of contradic­tion,” proposing and defend­ing moral values that go against the grain of the sur­rounding secular culture. This view often draws heavily on the proponent’s desires, not infrequently in spite of a dearth of empirical support. It would certainly be a great gain for America were its churches more “radical,” more “prophet­ic,” more “challenging,” and in general more trouble than they presently show them­selves to be. But too many of them seem eager to avoid any unpleasantness vis-à-vis their milieu. There are historical reasons for this, beyond an anti-incarnational otherworldliness. In American Protestant­ism the evangelical mode of religion predominates. It is not without great virtues, but its central preoccupation — the personal salvation of the indi­vidual through an immediate encounter with Jesus as Lord — has often led to a privatiza­tion of religion. Many evangel­ical communities seemed to survive for years in an atmosphere of self-contained eupho­ria. It did not occur to them that sin could have a social dimension until things like legalized abortion and homo­sexual militancy tore into their tidy world like ploughshares into an anthill.

Even when the churches awake to the larger world, sometimes the awakening is but partial. Fowler’s discussion of the Moral Majority and al­lied groups points up this problem. These organizations produced a good deal of Sturm und Drang over the decay of sexual values, and that was well and good (though some­what overdue). But in other fields their positions could be conventional to the point of banality. Moral Majoritarians could bray about “getting the government off the business­man’s back” just as loudly as any Chamber of Commerce huckster. The whole thing reminds one of the Puritans in Hudibras, who made it their practice to “compound for sins they are inclined to / By damn­ing those they have no mind to.”

I wish I could say that the Catholic Church has clean hands in this regard. But, ex­cept on the theoretical level, the Church has often been depressingly timid. The U.S. bishops have issued some laudable pastorals, very admirable in the abstract. But they largely remain abstrac­tions. There are few signs that Catholic principles on war, peace, and the economy are being assimilated below the episcopal/academic level. And what about the Church’s performance on the gravest moral issue of our time — abortion? Well, it’s almost enough to make you turn in your Miraculous Medal. The leadership of this fight has passed, by default, into evan­gelical hands.

God is nonetheless won­drous in his saints, and in one respect Fowler’s treatment of the “challenge thesis” is un­characteristically imperceptive. One of his reasons for reject­ing it is that it “overestimates the political influence and the unity of American religious groups.” This seems to carry the worrisome implication that a challenge is not really a challenge unless it succeeds. But surely the degree to which a movement prospers tells us little about its character. A Becket slain at the altar, a Jaegerstaetter killed by the SS, a Joan Andrews in prison — these are not success stories, at least as the world counts suc­cess. But challenges they cer­tainly are, for they are images of Christianity’s original and greatest challenge — the scandal of the Cross.

Over against these re­ceived theories, Fowler sets his own model, that of the Church as refuge: “support for a lib­eral state may come from reli­gion not because it is well-integrated into that society’s norms and power but because it is not, and rather serves as a pressure-relieving escape from them.” This might be called the “zone theory” of the church; certain areas of society are to be zoned for religion instead of pornography. Ac­cordingly, people who might otherwise trouble the peace of the world — by emphasizing community as opposed to atomistic individualism, by supporting high moral stand­ards as opposed to laissez-faire sexuality, or by giving undue attention to the transcendent and supernatural in contrast to the comforting civic agnosti­cism of the public sphere — can be indulged in their quirky predilections in a set of mar­ginalized preserves. In this way they will not annoy their neighbors; they may even return to their posts in liberal America, prepared to function according to its norms after the Sunday-morning catharsis has been completed.

One can hardly deny that many churches usually (and all churches occasionally) conform to this model. But whether a liberal society — or any society — is buttressed by the phe­nomenon is open to debate. Is a society made strong merely by not being bothered?



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