The Failure of American Christendom

James Rogers over at First Things nails it hard in this essay on the failure of the church in America to properly teach the faith, and teach Christians what it really means to sustain a Christian life. Because they could rely so heavily on the culture formed and created by American Christendom.

American churches grew up and developed in a context in which the culture played a significant role in policing moral behavior. Churches could ecclesiastically free-ride on this cultural moral consensus. Churches and congregations did not need to invest heavily in developing and policing their own moral boundaries. The culture did a large part of the moral heavy lifting for them. In parts of the U.S. today one can still hear echoes of this old consensus. “Why of course I’m a Christian. I’m a Texan.”

Because churches could depend on culture to police moral boundaries, they did not develop—because they did not need to develop—ecclesiastical mindsets and practices to inculcate and sustain basic Christian moral expectations. The moral membrane between church and culture was relatively permeable, but that was relatively safe at the time. This is not to say that they were the same. Nonetheless, it was relatively easy for individual churches to gin up the moral heat for their congregation when the starting point was a culture that kept things at least morally lukewarm.

Rogers holds the 1960s accountable for a cultural shift in America in which formerly prohibited activities suddenly became morally acceptable (though he acknowledges this began long before the 1960s rolled around), leaving the church incapable of addressing its problems because “the Church contracted out moral discipleship and church discipline to the culture. American Christians had gotten used to and easy-going, non-threatening permeability of church and culture.”

Fast forward to today when we hear about the need for churches to exercise the so-called Benedict Option. Basically, it means little more than churches need actually to reflect the full reality of what they’re supposed to be in the first place. But American churches are out of practice, ironically because of the power they once exercised over American culture.

As a result of developing the last 200 years of a “nation with the soul of a church,” Christians don’t have the ecclesiastical practices and habits that allow them easily and naturally to be fullness of the church.

These habits and practices, or the lack thereof, created all sorts of problems, even ignoring how they obscured the Gospel. Evangelicals naturally, if idolatrously, turned toward politics rather than to ecclesiology for the solution to the moral disorientation they saw in society. The Moral Majority, school prayer, “Take back America for Christ” campaigns, all reflected more of an attempt to reassert ownership of America’s moral public space than to save souls or spread the Kingdom or strengthen the life of the community of disciples in the churches. Recovering a full-orbed ecclesiology for the Church—not for the Church in the abstract, but for the practical lives of Christian layfolk and leaders in the churches—must be in initial imperative for the Church today.

This is in line with what I have come to think on the subject — too many Christians, liberals and conservatives, still confuse discipleship with good citizenship — and so I don’t really have much to add. But there’s an interesting point here that Rogers makes when he notes that the problem stems from “the power [churches] once exercised over American culture.”

Temporal power seems to be its own comeuppance in scripture. The fall of the powerful can frequently be traced to the very height of power — the division of Solomon’s empire into civil war and two competing polities can be traced directly to the costs associated with maintaining Solomon’s court and the massive army needed to hold the empire together. The people of Israel seek relief from both crushing taxes and conscripted labor to maintain the state, and when Solomon’s successor Rehoboam arrogantly refuses — even increasing the tax burden — half the kingdom follows the rebel Jereboam as he denounces the house of David and takes the northern portion of the state for himself.

Israel’s very wealth and power is the place where its downfall begins. The American Church is paying for its long period of power and influence with collapse, with idolatry, and is now metaphorically besieged on all sides by (metaphorical) Assyrians and Babylonians. I do believe there is a very biblical lesson about power in this — trust not in mighty men or in treasure, but rather in the promises of God. By the time prophets come, however, to tell the people of God to actually trust God, as opposed to their own devices, it’s usually too late.

2 thoughts on “The Failure of American Christendom

  1. A couple of comments, just side issues, nothing in disagreement with the main point, and mainly referring to your quotations from Rogers:

    1) American churches are not just “out of practice”. If they are not adjuncts of the culture, they generally have no idea of what the phrase “the full reality of what they’re supposed to be” might mean. And those who think they know are quite likely to be wrong. Besides, most church leaders are managers, and have no intention of manifesting “the full reality” of anything.

    2) A small and pallid defense of the Moral Majority, etc., of the 80’s: Conservative churches were transformed in the 70’s and 80’s by an influx of new members, who were terrified of the county they found themselves living in. They sought political influence because they were concerned about political problems. It wasn’t primarily displacement from power. Despite their big membership numbers, churches of the 1950’s had almost no real power over the secular culture or government, just some residual moral habits which kept some words off television broadcasts, that sort of thing. It wasn’t even sex outside of marriage or the culture of hedonism, not in themselves. Rather it was the boldness of the worst to exploit the situation which added something that was completely new. Times Square was iconic, having become entirely a congregation of seedy porn businesses. The rest of the city was overgrown with graffiti (and not the imaginative artsy sort common today). It was dangerous everywhere. People looked into the future what they thought they saw was the face of Charles Manson. Not everyone was troubled, but those who were are the ones who tended to join conservative evangelical churches. (Unless they preferred cocaine.) As it turned out, the churches contributed very little to a solution. Things did improve somewhat, but it was the result of political measures taken by politicians, who were not particularly in awe of the churches. The latter fact became clear over the course of the 80’s and 90’s. Only a small minority of Christians in the U.S. still have anything like a political program, and very few of those expect politicians to deliver on promises made to them. The internet makes it easy to talk of such things, but action is something else. Exploitation by the worst and boldest was curbed not because of morality or religion, but because the resulting apocalyptic urban landscape turned out to bad for business. Except in the case of the movie & TV business – there is no law in that arena. (Except the laws of copyright and contracts and all that.)

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