From “Christian America” to the Gospel of the Resurrection
by Ashley Woodiwiss
On June 26, 1996, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a major finding in its nationwide survey (a sampling of nearly 2,000 adults) on the issue of religion and politics. Most news stories that followed dwelt upon the data concerning the capture of white Evangelicals’ votes by the Republican Party. (It seems that no longer can only the Protestant Episcopal Church of America be dubbed the Republican Party at prayer; the Southern Baptists now have their knees on the pillow as well.) Some also commented on those findings that indicated that the Roman Catholic Church in America appears profoundly divided between progressives and traditionalists, who appear united only, and distressingly, by their shared support of pro-choice positions. Other signs of the tenacity of religious opinions, beliefs, and sensibilities were also documented in this report, which garnered headlines in all the major establishment media sources.
But for my own concern, the real story is found in Question No. 33. For with that question Pew discovered that fully 60 percent of its nearly 2,000 adult respondents consider the United States a Christian nation. (See Question No. 33 from the questionnaire, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, May 1996 Religion and Politics Survey.) This finding is just as central a challenge to embodying “the Gospel of the Resurrection in a Culture of Death” as are those other more familiar targets of Christian critique: secular culture, postmodernism, feminism, the homosexual agenda, etc. Hence my thesis: We confront not just the culture of death. Rather, the place and significance of this notion, “Christian America,” may well be the central problem inhibiting the full flowering of the Gospel of the Resurrection for American Christians.
I start then with two givens. First, “Christian America” will be with us for the foreseeable future as a marked characteristic that informs and shapes how American Christians understand and live out their faith commitments, individually and politically. We will continue to witness “Washington for Jesus” rallies and “God, guts and glory” bumper stickers, along with the continued and calculated political effort to mobilize a majority of these Christians to become political foot-soldiers in a rhetorically created “culture war.” And second, such a state of affairs is not good for the Church. My hidden assumption, which I bring out here, is that the Gospel of the Resurrection and the flourishing of the Church are inextricably bound together.
I take it as my task, then, to set out what it will take to change this state of affairs. I will trace out fault lines within conservative American Christianity, specifically evangelicalism, that indicate that at least some movements and ideas are beginning to emerge that might promise hope for a better state of affairs. Can the Gospel of the Resurrection be discerned even in and through the confusion that “Christian America” has produced? Indeed, there are promising signs that among a new generation of conservative American Christians, “Christian America” is losing its grip. So my largely prescriptive comments will be spiced with present-day signs of hope. In good scholarly fashion, however, let me set the context for the prescriptive comments that follow.
The Modern Republic and the Rise of Civil Religion
I view early modernity, the age that saw its greatest achievement in America’s founding, as the project to secure a new foundation for political society different from the orthodox Trinitarian Christian theology that had hitherto served as European civilization’s basis. This project had two main strategies: (1) the displacement of the public role of Christian theology and the Church by means of a new hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures, and (2) the insertion of a new religious narrative to keep the republic appropriately religious.
The former required what some scholars have dubbed the “capturing of the biblical text.” The latter produced what is known as civil religion. These twin developments were coincidental in time and intentional in design. The legislators of modernity had learned the ancient wisdom well: republics are inherently religious. The conclusion of the moderns (Machiavelli et al.) was that a new, modern republic was necessary, that it would have to be religious, but that it could not at its root and foundation be Christian.
Some of our best scholarship, though done under the black flag of postmodernism, has, beneficially for Christian critique, unmasked the rhetorical pretensions of the intellectual founders and apologists of modernity (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Spinoza, Bacon, Descartes, etc.), revealing these thinkers as “political theologians.” So, in his Not by Reason Alone, Joshua Mitchell treats Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau in light of their specific political-theological project. They each employ what Mitchell calls a “politically authoritative history,” an argument that modern, scientific, political societies cannot be justified by reason alone, but are, for their public justification, in need of supplemental support from revelatory teachings. Their different descriptions of this fortuitous combination of reason and revelation we can glean from the pages of Leviathan, The Two Treatises, The Letter Concerning Toleration, and The Social Contract. Thus, the “capture of the biblical text.”
Given Locke’s pride of place in the American story, it is useful to dwell a moment on how his project was mediated to the American founding moment. A deep reading of Locke reveals a particular complex of theological and political commitments that enjoin a particular hermeneutic of the Christian narrative at once theological and political. Such a complex Steven Dworetz, in his book on Locke and the American Revolution, The Unvarnished Doctrine, calls “theistic liberalism.”
In a fascinating treatment of the relationship between Locke’s ideas and those of the New England clergy prior to the Revolution, Dworetz identifies “a theistic concept shared by Locke and the ministers” and traces “the movement of the idea from theology to political theory in Lockean and clerical thought” (p. 136). He claims that what linked Locke to the clergy was a “foundation of shared religious preoccupations and ‘theological commitments’ from which Locke and the ministers derived similar ideas about civil government” (pp. 135–136). In a lengthy treatment on the history of the interpretation of Romans 13, he emphasizes how this text, the traditional locus classicus for a theory of passive obedience from Augustine to Calvin, came to be “a revolutionary teaching” at the hands of Locke and the clergy (p. 155). Dworetz identifies this “liberal reading of Romans 13” as necessitating “a new reading of the content of the passage—a shifting of interpretative emphases” (pp. 156–157, emphasis in the original). In line with the hermeneutical argument of the Mitchell text cited above, Dworetz concludes: “The revealed teaching in Romans 13 and the law of nature apprehended by reason together contributed to a single political theory—and the same political theory—in both Lockean and clerical thought” (p. 172, my emphasis).
For my purposes here, I want to employ Dworetz’s term theistic liberalism as an apt description for the essence of “Christian America.” That is, “Christian America” should be understood as a rhetorically powerful mask for particular theological and political assumptions that work to serve the interests of the modern American individualistic and commercial republic. Hence, Evangelicals who accept the methods and commitments of thinkers like Locke (and his political and theological descendants) as “appropriately Christian designs” do so as participants in a historically contingent and politically particular reading of the biblical text, one that ultimately makes problematic the possibility for Christian critique.
The modern capture of the biblical text makes possible the public silencing of the Church. But more: the nation-state, with its commercial needs and dynamics, has replaced the Church as the object of Christians’ affections, loyalty, and obedience.
A clear example of such displacement is found in Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 “Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.” To remedy the looming crisis of the Union (which the sensitive Lincoln discerned a full two decades before Ft. Sumter), he invokes “reverence for the laws” as a salutary “political religion of the nation,” one that is to be “preached from the pulpit.” Since the founding generation with its heroic deeds had now passed, it would take “reason, cold and calculating” to mold “a reverence for the constitution and laws,” a work of conscious political creation whose sole measure of success would be, “as has been said of the only greater institution, ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’.” So the American Pericles wraps the spirit of the nation-state and its future glory in rhetorical allusion to the Holy Church.
But similar rhetorical devices have ever been employed throughout American history: from Locke’s providential New England clergy to recent Operation Just Causers. Those who insist on privileging the historical place of this modern nation-state have always been subject to confounding the will of God with the interests of the American system. So civil religion remains a functional necessity for the modern republic. And while the nation-state of America has certainly benefited from “Christian America” talk, I think most would agree that for the Church it has been a disaster.
If Evangelicals are to break the spell of “Christian America” among conservative Christians in our country, we will need to recover our theology, revive our ecclesiology, and rethink our allegiances.
Evangelical Theology: Its Demise or Its Reprise?
On the one hand the news is not good from the evangelical world. Consider David Wells’s well-known lament on the decline and loss of a distinctive evangelical theology:
The loss of the traditional vision of God as holy is now manifested everywhere in the evangelical world. . . . It is this God, majestic and holy in his being, this God whose love knows no bounds because his holiness knows no limits who has disappeared from the modern evangelical world. He has been replaced in many quarters by a God who is slick and slack, whose moral purposes turn out to be avuncular advice that we can disregard or negotiate as we see fit, whose Word is a plaything for those who wish merely to listen to themselves, whose Church is a mall in which the religious, their pockets filled with the coin of need, do their business. We seek happiness, not righteousness (No Place for Truth, p. 300).
Though sympathetic to Wells’s complaint, I must confess I do not share in it thoroughly. If theology for American Evangelicals, as historically understood and practiced, has resulted in a habit of mind that situates the individual as only accidentally related to the community of believers, that robs the mystery of God’s Being and work in favor of a rationalistic via positiva, and that constructs an understanding of the holy life shorn of the centrality, the holy necessity, of good works and the disciplines, then I suggest such a disappearance is not necessarily bad news. The individualism, rationalism, and pietism of evangelical theology have left evangelical churches defenseless in the face of powerful cultural forces—democracy and industrialism in the nineteenth century, technology and materialism in the twentieth. Chesterton might celebrate late nineteenth-century America as “the nation with the soul of the church.” I, however, lament American evangelicalism of the late twentieth century as a church with the spirit of the nation. If evangelical theological efforts have contributed to this condition, then I do not rue its decline but want to encourage its eventual disappearance.
To loosen the grip of “Christian America,” evangelical theology must drop its Enlightenment methodology and assumptions in such areas as hermeneutics, apologetics, and systematics. The good news is that such a movement has begun among a younger generation of evangelical scholars. Witness the publication of such texts as The Nature of Confession (Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), wherein a number of evangelical theologians engage in critical discussion with self-described “postliberal” theologians who have abandoned the Enlightenment project. At work in this book, based on a conference held at Wheaton College, is the effort on the part of a new generation of evangelical theologians to begin a new way of doing theology from under the rubble of the Enlightenment disaster.
Evangelical theology in the years to come must and will increasingly embrace the historical and contextual methodologies that have come to dominate the scholarly mind. Dropping the modernist heresy of universal rationalism and methodological individualism, evangelical theology will become more historical and contextual. That means good news for the quality and effect of evangelical theological reflection.
When I was a graduate teaching assistant for a religious historian who was working on a biography of a leading nineteenth-century religious figure, I was asked by my mentor, in light of that figure’s story, “What happens when an Evangelical discovers history?” My response then was: “He becomes neo-orthodox.” That was then. Today my response would be, happily, “He becomes a catechumen.” We shouldn’t be surprised that Evangelicals are on the road to Canterbury, Rome, and Constantinople. And as happens with most “movements,” the head is only now beginning to catch up with the feet. The via negativa, so important to those traditions, may have more or less play within the evangelical theological world, but it is appearing with more frequency and its tonic for the sterility of Enlightenment rationalism is being more eagerly received by Evangelicals. But as most would agree, theology, though regina scientia, isn’t enough.
Evangelical Ecclesiology, or The Return of the Church
If the casting off of rationalism is part of loosening the grip that “Christian America” has on evangelical hearts and minds, so, too, must its cherished individualism be overcome.
Perhaps nothing has been as pernicious for evangelical churches as the commitment to sovereign individualist notions of faith and practice: from the Reformation “priesthood of all believers” to now: every man his own church. America, absent a state church and an orthodox public theology, has degenerated into a general culture of religious individualism. The delightful term given to this condition by Robert Bellah and his coauthors in their popular Habits of the Heart is “Sheilaism.” Actually they merely record this term. For this very typical American religious sensibility was a self-given name. They quote “Sheila”: “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice” (p. 221).
I would submit that “Sheilaism” is the true logic of our system, even as that blessed event, the moment of silence, is the perfect political solution for policing a republic full of Sheilas. And while most American Evangelicals would take exception to her construal of faith and practice, their very assumptions and methodologies make them, in fact, evangelical Sheilas.
Ultimately, “Christian America” with its civic Sheilas will be displaced by Evangelicals only as they are seized by an alternative communal vision. John Milbank in his magisterial Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Cambridge, 1992) unmasks the pretensions of both Enlightenment modernity and Nietzchean postmodernity by retrieving St. Augustine’s theme of the City of God as the truly human, truly authentic altera civitas. Such a vision of the Church, grounded chiefly in its historical, physical, and institutional rather than its mystical qualities, possesses the complete resources for an alternative manner of life for those American Christians who recognize the nation-state as an empty cistern that holds no water. A similar message animates the work of Stanley Hauerwas: the recovery of an ecclesiocentric perspective is the only way to save the American church from itself.
Happily, such ecclesiocentrism has been spotted recently within evangelical life and thought. One dramatic instance was found (of all places!) on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The article tells the story of how a Vineyard Church under the enthrallment of a charismatic preacher converted root-and-branch to Greek Orthodoxy. It goes on to state that such developments are increasingly common.
Promising signs are evident within evangelical scholarship as well. In 1996, I chaired a panel at the annual Wheaton College Theology Conference at which I first encountered the phenomenon of “progressive dispensationalism.” Coming from the lips of a professor from Dallas Theological Seminary (the virtual command center of American evangelicalism), I learned that progressive dispensationalists “regard the church as an inaugurated form of the kingdom” (from Robert A. Pyne’s conference paper, “New Man and Immoral Society”). What this signals is the grudging concession among pietistic individualists that the believer, sola, is not the starting point for Christian thought and practice.
At the same time, a different kind of reading of the Scriptures is being enlisted to help Evangelicals overcome their individualistic understanding of the faith. Richard Hays in his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale, 1989) claims that Paul’s hermeneutic “is functionally ecclesiocentric rather than christocentric” (p. xiii). Hays situates the interpretive moment away from an agent-centered perspective to that of the community: “if we learned from Paul how to read Scripture, we would read it ecclesiocentrically, as a word for and about the community of faith” (p. 184).
Such ecclesiocentric sightings fit Milbank’s prescriptions for viewing the Church as an altera civitas that both reads a different political text than the city of violence and at the same time lives a different kind of politics, one premised on harmonious difference and solidarity.
Revising Our Allegiances
Let me cite two examples of how conceptual rethinking leads to more authentically orthodox Christian conclusions. Here, I point to how Evangelicals who begin to question long-held cultural or political verities come to recognize that their allegiances have been misplaced. The Gospel of the Resurrection, when embodied in our lives, compels us to revise our accounts of ourselves and what it is we are all about.
One area has to do with the family. “Traditional family values” is of course a big winner, an empire-builder among American Evangelicals. And yet, some evangelical voices are now claiming that while advocates of “traditional family values” have accurately identified a profound social problem, serious analytical flaws in their argument call into question the legitimacy of their project. The conclusion, put starkly by one of these writers, is that “family values are destroying the family.” Rather, to identify the contemporary nuclear family as the “traditional family” is to seriously distort the historical record. In his challenging work, Families at the Crossroads (Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), Rodney Clapp states:
The “traditional family” is not a family lifted out of the Bible’s patriarchal period, its united kingdom period, its exilic and postexilic period, its early or late New Testament period, or any other period. Though certainly presented with reference to the Bible (and in some ways true to it), it is instead a family lifted out of nineteenth-century, industrialized Europe and America (p. 13).
We may call the nuclear family a family, but we stretch the truth to call it traditional. It has only very recently emerged onto the stage of social existence.
Furthermore, such popular pro-family advocates as Dobson, LaHaye, Bauer, and Robison (and such political spokesmen of the family agenda as Bennett, Buchanan, and Reed) confuse symptoms for causes. For the new pro-family but anti-systemic Evangelicals, the real problem is one of political economy. They hold that contemporary capitalist society is, in fact, the family’s greatest enemy. So Clapp complains that the list of ills that Christian family advocates commonly draw up “does not go deep enough. It fails to ask what it is about our setting and ourselves that so inclines us to eroding families.” He then goes on to identify that deeper problem. “To put it bluntly, the deeper problem is that capitalism has succeeded. It has succeeded for good, certainly. . . . But capitalism has also succeeded for ill” (pp. 50–51).
Why have the advocates of “traditional family values” committed such historical and analytical errors? The problem is one of systemic allegiance: these advocates have employed a reading of the American way of life that is insufficiently critical of the detrimental effects that the American political-economic system have had upon the family. Historically, Evangelicals have possessed an uncritical, implicit faith in the American way of life. The systemic allegiances that these “traditionalists” possess make it impossible for them to ask the tough questions or to go deep enough in their analysis. Ironically then, some of the system’s staunchest supporters now witness that system undermining the very institutions that they claim, in the name of that system, to be defending.
Among the new generation of pro-family evangelical voices, the poet-farmer and essayist Wendell Berry serves as an important source of inspiration. Berry, though no Evangelical, has long written on this theme of an America grown inimical to a truly traditional way of life. He locates the healthy life in the practice of settled families in small communities of economic and ecological self-subsistence. What he calls “a practical harmony,” once the dominant mode of life in America, now is an endangered species. But he is hopeful that concerned Americans in their deliberate choices will take the steps worthy of repentance.
Such steps would greatly qualify our systemic allegiance, however. As Berry notes, “to advocate such reforms is to advocate a kind of secession—not a secession of armed violence but a quiet secession by which people find the practical means and strength of spirit to remove themselves from an economy that is exploiting them and destroying their homeland” (Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, 1992). When Evangelicals revise their allegiances, a new way of life begins to emerge as a possibility, a concrete way to embody the Gospel of the Resurrection.
The Family Looking Outward & Local
This leads to further rethinking: to save the family requires the recognition that the family is not enough. Families healthy, whole, and complete are certainly part of the cure. But to truly care for our families forces us outward, to care for those communities in which our families are nested and by which our families are nurtured (for weal or for woe!). For example, Clapp, writing for a mostly conservative evangelical audience, claims:
The primary polity, the real foundation of order and morality for the Christian, is not the nuclear family or the nation-state. It is the church. The church is a family that includes not just the nuclear family but extended families, singles, and indeed those few who have no other kin on the face of the earth. It also gives the family a purpose not confined to the “private” or “personal” and, therefore, not reduced to mere sentimentality.
Berry, whose audience is broader and more secular, seeks to refocus our allegiance away from the national economy to the local community. The difference is between loyalty to an economic system based on a form of competition that destroys community and loyalty to the practical harmony of community that nurtures and sustains in place and over time all of life—domestic, ecological, and local. Strong communities make flourishing families possible. Nuclear families, isolated and in constant motion, are not enough, and indeed, cannot be enough for full human flourishing. Something must be held firmly in place for a family to grow. And so, Clapp maintains, “Within the church, nuclear families can resist the social forces that would remake the family in the image of the economic exchange model” (Crossroads, p. 84).
A reconceiving of the family as deeply woven into extended spiritual kinship relations orients us to think less of the nation-state as God’s locus of action and concern, and more of the immediate issues of truth, compassion, and need that lie on our doorsteps. It is what I have called in another place “a preferential option for the local.”
Rethinking Education & Global Economy
A second example of rethinking our systemic allegiances comes from another favorite issue for Evangelicals: education.
Historically, Americans have been faithfully committed to the idea of public education. But as we are well aware, for the last several decades the public has been awash with talk of a crisis in our public education. Yet there has been a curious air to these public discussions. For in keeping with the needs of the commercial republic, the crisis in education has been almost exclusively viewed in terms of our ability to compete in the international global economy. The crisis has been cast, then, not in terms of local character, but in terms of competency in global and technologically based disciplines. Nicholas Wolterstorff of Yale Divinity School contends in Schooling Christians (Eerdmans, 1992), an edited collection of essays largely devoted to a Christian critique of current educational practices, that for all the talk of crisis we have, in fact, “the schools we deserve.” The author notes how “our present educational morass is the consequence of ideological convictions, social structures, and social dynamics deep in the American system” (p. 3).
The author focuses upon the social effects that the extension of capitalism has precipitated: “the presence of contractual relations among human beings is increased enormously and the loyalty—and expectations of loyalty—to persons and institutions characteristic of traditional societies is destroyed” (p. 11). The problem with capitalism is that it “eats away all traditions and all subcommunities. It powerfully pushes all of us towards the melting pot” (p. 28).
Education in advanced capitalist societies serves the wants of the national and global economy, creating a brain drain and the flight of the best youth from rural and small town localities to the mega-power centers of our society. This modern linkage of education with national economy has so shaped our psychology or habits of mind that we consider leaving home and being permanently separated from any stable roots in a community as natural, thus inevitable. Our education as currently structured and practiced fits us only for being wandering gypsies for America, Inc.
This Christian critique extends beyond the public sphere to indict also those Christian and private educational institutions that, in their structural and substantive imitation of the American system and hierarchy of values, make a truly healthy alternative impossible. John Westerhoff, of the Duke Divinity School, concludes in his contribution to Schooling Christians: “In light of this situation, it appears obvious to me that Christians need to question seriously their support of public schools, or better, they need to consider seriously the formation and reformation of parochial schools” (p. 266). Such a refocus would recenter the enculturation of explicit Christian virtues like patience, faith, and humility in our curriculum.
This recovery of education as training in discipleship, in other words, revives education as a form of catechesis. Such rethinking of our educational allegiances thus opens up another vista whereby the Gospel of the Resurrection can make practical differences in the very stuff of our living. When our children live in harmony with the Church Calendar and the Holy Year rather than Labor Day, Presidents’ Day, and Memorial Day, with the first Sunday of Advent rather than the first day of school, we can expect to see the grip of “Christian America” loosening.
Recent research by George Gallup, Jr., confirms the troubling relationship between our systemic allegiances, the culture of “Sheilaism,” and traditional religious practices. As reported by Richard Morin in The Washington Post Weekly Edition, Gallup’s polling data reveals a “God Gap” in which Americans fall far short of living up to the religious values they too easily profess. Whether in terms of moral behavior, theological knowledge or church commitment, it appears that “while religion is highly popular in this country, . . . it does not change people’s lives to the degree one would expect” (November 6–12, 1995). The system has worked only too well. But Evangelicals are beginning to get it.
The Recovery of the Truly Political
As a political scientist, I must end on a political note. In the last several years, I have come to abandon the modern understanding and appraisal of politics that follows from Machiavelli and Hobbes. But I still do believe in politics. I even consider it a noble practice and high calling. What has happened? I’ve grown increasingly convinced, in the words of John Milbank, that “all ‘political theory’, in the antique sense, is relocated by Christianity as thought about the Church” (Theology and Social Theory, p. 406). And here is the punch line: The road from “Christian America” to the Gospel of the Resurrection is a political one. Could it be otherwise? For the gospel is good news about a kingdom. And the way of the Church, as the political life of the kingdom, is the way of truth, beauty, and goodness—for politics as for all things.
The largely rosy scenario or argument I’ve laid out here is all well and good for an audience such as this. After all, you know these things. Indeed you believe and practice them. A historical traditional theology. A thick sense of the Church. An embrace of a communitarian understanding of life. A less than affirming embrace of technology’s place in our world. So, I acknowledge that I’ve been preaching to the choir in large part.
One thing I am confident of, however. What I’m saying here will have very little effect on Evangelicals in this election year. American flags will festoon our sanctuaries. Patriotic sermons will rain down from their pulpits. We’ll continue to pray for “our boys” in Saudi Arabia, Tuzla, or any other place where the American military-economic juggernaut has need. And come November, we’ll almost overwhelmingly vote for the GOP, believing inwardly, though only whispering among ourselves, that GOP really does in fact stand for God’s Own Party.
“Christian America” runs deep—too deep for a brief paper like this to do much uprooting. But for those of us who live a faith informed by Councils, Creeds, saints and martyrs, we ultimately have little to worry about. Unlike John Maynard Keynes, the famed economist, who once quipped, “In the long run, we’re all dead,” we know better. God’s is the long run, and he will preserve and protect his Church, delivering her spotless and without wrinkle. And without the Stars and Stripes also, we may be assured.
Ashley Woodiwiss is Associate Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. He writes and lectures in the areas of Christianity and modernity, communitarianism, and the history of political thought. This article was first given as a talk for “In the World–The Gospel of the Resurrection in a Culture of Death,” sponsored by Touchstone and the Fellowship of St. James in August 1996 in Glenview, Illinois.
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