American religon 2.0

Christian History’s Chris armstrong sat down recently with three scholars of the American religious scene to discuss whether it is still as diverse and thriving as it once was: R. Scott Appleby (Professor of History, College of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame); Martin Marty (Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity, University of Chicago Divinity School); and Molly Worthen (Trinity College, University of Toronto).

CA: How has the combination of religious freedom and innovation contributed to the diversity of American Christianity?

MW: I think that the religious free market has been crucial to religious diversity. It feeds the instinct for innovation that characterizes all corners of American religion. I particularly see this in conservative Protestantism.

Evangelizing in a free market means you have to convince believers and spread your message in an effective way that is attractive and meaningful to people and answers questions that your audience is asking. Religious movements that emphasize evangelism—ranging from the Jesuits to “Jews for Jesus”—naturally encourage innovation.

Here’s one example. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Church Growth Movement had its roots in the mission field, where evangelicals used insights from the world of social science to make the gospel culturally relevant. They brought those lessons back home, which contributed to the rise of the megachurch movement and seeker-sensitive Christianity.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists throughout American history have also been early adopters of media, despite charges that they are “antimodern.” They were quintessentially modern in their embrace of radio when it came around, and all forms of print media. Nowadays, we see this in their embrace of the Internet, though it is doing interesting things to traditional forms of authority, and I think we’re seeing a culture in flux.

CA: How does technology affect traditional forms of authority?

MW: Take C. J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries. Individuals in that church who are dissenting from the top leadership have used the Internet to get around the leadership. They’ve started a Wikileaks-type website where anonymous members of this church or disgruntled former pastors have posted stories and challenges to the top leadership, and that has nearly toppled Mahaney’s ministry. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but new media have the potential to really change the internal culture of churches that embrace them.

I’m not sure that this happened to the same degree in other media revolutions. Control of the radio empire, control of the print empire, remained in the hands of top church leadership. But the Internet is so naturally democratic that it’s a whole new animal.

MM: Scott [Appleby] and I have found in studies that fundamentalism’s reputation, often self-cultivated and advertised, of being “the old-time religion” is inaccurate. Conservatives were conservatives, and some still are. But many have aggressively adapted. I remember a line that if you want a white fence post, you are very busy repainting it all the time. Conservatives let things lie. Fundamentalists and others like them are constantly improvising.

Modern “inventors” have not been Reform Jews or mainstream Catholics or mainline Protestants, but Pentecostals and certain kinds of evangelical and African American churches with allegedly “conservative” biblical theology.

Why? They react strongly because they feel they have the most to lose. They fear being “blended in” if they don’t paint themselves in bright colors and with rigid boundary lines.

I recall that when Christian rock came on the scene, conservatives—Pentecostals, fundamentalists, etc.—opposed the sounds and the costumes and the pelvic movements. A few years later, Christian rock topped the charts.

What we have to ask about the next generation is, What will happen to theology when drastic stylistic changes, using and adapting so many symbols and signals from challengers to faith in the culture, come to shape all aspects of the faith and its communities? Give the changers credit. They are good students of culture. Their antennae are alert.

SA: On the one hand, communications technology has been a vehicle for being different, competing, finding a niche in the market. On the other hand, media makes things more similar. There’s a certain way communicating happens in modern media, whether it’s Wicca or orthodox Christianity. The ways we present ourselves and think through media, the ways images are used, have a homogenizing, Americanizing effect.

And one way that people of diverse backgrounds can feel comfortable in one American nation is that most religious groups that have been here for a while have at least one toe in what we would call civil religion.

CA: What is “civil religion”?

SA: When national symbols and rituals like the flag or the funeral of John Kennedy incorporate religious rituals and symbols and associate them with the nation itself. The symbols and practices of the nation become the sacred canopy shared by all Americans because they are American.

So we salute the flag, every president says “God bless America,” and when we have state funerals they are full of ritual, symbol, and invocations of a kind of deist god. It’s the notion that this is an “almost chosen nation,” as Lincoln put it. We are a nation that is under God, with whatever ironies that may contain, but we are nonetheless celebrating ourselves as the beacon, the shining city on the hill.

CA: At one point in the mid-twentieth century, formal ecumenism was all the rage. Has it been replaced by a more informal “grassroots” brand of ecumenism today?

SA: That hoped-for moment passed in the mid-twentieth century—a moment of, if not theological unity, then theological convergence. It passed because of a greater comfort with diversity itself and also because of an “enclave” or “retreating” movement within some groups.

Chris Smith has written a book called American Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving. That’s what many people feel as they perceive Christianity in an increasingly indifferent, if not hostile, society. Let’s be embattled, that’s a way to thrive. And that means reinforcing and underscoring our distinctives, and why we have advantages over the next group down the valley.

Mainline and liberal Christians have recognized a more universal sense of diversity as good in and of itself. Then on the conservative side of the spectrum, which was never very enthusiastic about the ecumenical movement in the first place, they are circling the wagons—precisely to survive and thrive.

CA: But isn’t there something pulling the other way? Pragmatic cooperation on certain issues, or to gain certain political ends?

SA: Yes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” I’m not so sure it’s led beyond tactical alliance building and then retreating, so I’m not so sure it’s a trend that has real depth to it.

CA: I recall the experience of my wife and myself as young conservative Christians. We got involved in the crisis pregnancy center movement and experienced people from all kinds of backgrounds, both Protestants and Catholics, joining in common cause.

SA: I don’t want to suggest there’s no room for transformation. I simply mean that it hasn’t led us to drop the denominational or doctrinal fences very far.

MM: I want to go back for a minute to what we’ve been calling “formal ecumenism.” Without doubt, it does not make news the way it did 50 years ago. Here’s one incident that helped reveal the changes to me.

In 1960 I attended the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches [WCC]. At the time the Faith and Order people were working on a fresh definition of the goal of ecumenism. They had a beautiful phrase: “that all in each place” who accept Jesus Christ should come to a “fully committed fellowship.” We in the press got a release in which the typist had reproduced it as “a full committee fellowship.” Full committee fellowship is what most Christians, if they heard about ecumenism at all, pictured.

Vatican II, WCC, National Council of Churches in the United States of America [NCCUSA], and the rest were mainly seen as committees speaking with each other. The people went elsewhere to find fully committed fellowship. It followed few formal rules.

MW: I think there is contradictory evidence. Take, for example, the reaction to Mitt Romney. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a gap between the reaction of evangelical leadership to the idea of collaboration with Mormons for common social causes and the reaction of the evangelical grassroots.

But the gap works the other way too. Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue in American Grace that we are seeing increasing theological muddiness along with political polarization. They were giving a lecture about their research to some Lutheran Church Missouri Synod theologians and revealed that 86 percent of Missouri Synod Lutherans believe that their non-Christian neighbors might go to heaven. Putnam said, “Upon hearing this news, these theologians were stunned into silence.”

Over the course of twenty-first-century life, most people have had increasing contact with neighbors who have different beliefs, with gay people, with people who disregard all sorts of traditional beliefs. That does break down intellectual assumptions and categories. If you have friends who are Muslim or gay or what have you, it becomes harder to accept the intellectual claims that perhaps you’re hearing from the pulpit on Sundays.

CA: Has the trend toward acceptance and diversity played down differences between American religious groups in recent decades or brought attention to them?

MW: We are seeing a sort of pragmatic adjustment, as people get used to living their lives in more diverse societies. But there’s also been a backlash against multiculturalism.

We’re seeing more mutual tolerance among Catholics and Mormons and Protestants, but that’s not yet extending to Islam by any means. And I do think it’s complicated by political polarization: American political culture as two completely incompatible worldviews based on different assumptions, rather than as problems we can negotiate together as a community.

SA: The divisions are not necessarily between Christian denominations but within those denominations on political, theological, and cultural matters. Catholics are very divided, for example. The current contraception debate with the Obama administration exposes a real division and tension and lack of communication within Catholicism. While they may take on religious language, these are questions about diversity and about the definition of our nation.

How much diversity can we tolerate as a people? When that diversity becomes too threatening, we launch theological torpedoes at our fellow Presbyterians or Catholics or Jews. I think civic issues and political issues have become dividing points. People load up on theological bonafides when they get into debates that are partly, at least, political.

MW: I’m encouraged by the thought of liberal and conservative Baptists or Catholics sitting side by side in the same pew and arguing. But one pattern that some scholars have noted is a sorting, where people tend to prefer congregations that affirm their pre-existing ideas. They are not very interested in dialogue.

As much as the Internet has opened us up to potentially talking to people all over the world, the blogs we tend to visit are those that reaffirm our own prejudices. And this is the downside of American religion, particularly in evangelicalism, where there is freedom to break away and start your own congregation as soon as there is any disagreement.

I think the Roman Catholic Church has a great advantage here. It has a structure that forces you to stay in the same intellectual, cultural, and worshiping community as the people who disagree with you. This is something that evangelicals to a greater degree can get away with not doing, and I think that it’s intellectually crippling.

But I think that new immigrants are complicating that picture. Latino Pentecostals, for example, are for the most part coming out of a history and an environment that has given them deep antagonism toward Roman Catholicism. They harbor a serious anti-Catholicism in some cases that native-born Americans just don’t recognize.

SA: The Catholic Church is being transformed in this country by the presence of Latino/as. By 2025 about 40 to 50 percent of American Catholics will be Spanish speaking or at least from Spanish-speaking homes. This also challenges the institutional Catholic Church because its leadership still remains white and largely Irish.

MM: Many of these changes relate not just to divisions of space and place but of time. Lausanne agreements and Vatican-and-others agreements get invoked, but few live by them. “The kids” today have a harder time going back to their parents’ “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” or “Kumbaya” than they would to Gregorian chant. Ernest Gellner says that there is nothing more dated than the modernism of the previous generation. But that means that resolutions made today won’t last long either.

CA: Thriving and vitality are words that are still relevant to American religion, but are they popping up in places nobody predicted 20 or 30 years ago?

MW: Yes, and I think Christians are being clever about redefining what it means to thrive. So evangelicals continue to be obsessed with baptismal rates. And you see liberal mainline Protestants talking about their success at bringing to secular society what they see as Christian values. For example, membership numbers may be down among liberal Episcopalians and Presbyterians, but look at the mass of social victories achieved by those groups.

MM: The letters of Paul speak of how “the forms of this world are passing away” and that is the case in the church too. The issue is, What will survive, what will die, what will be transformed?

For Protestantism at least four things that were invented between 1740 and 1840 are now being challenged. First, the denomination. They did not exist before the U.S. pattern of separated church and state and church competition. Second, the Sunday school. There are still Sunday schools, but they lack cultural clout. Third, the missionary movement. Fourth, the competitive parish system. There’s still competition, but it’s not just congregations that compete: media, parachurches, and go-it-aloners are in the mix.

SA: My little coda is the excitement of the continuing diversity of American religious experience. James Joyce was referring to Catholics when he said, “Here comes everybody.” But you could say the same of American religion more broadly. It’s one window on the really striking diversity and wonder of the human experience. CH

By Chris Armstrong, R. Scott Appleby, Martin Marty, Molly Worthen

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #102 in 2012]

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