Monday, November 29, 2010

Republocrat: Chapter 2 "The Slipperiness of Secularization"

Carl Trueman begins chapter two of Republocrat by noting the differing way religion and politics mix in his native UK and his adopted home. The kind of religious language routinely used in American political campaigns is unheard of in British politics. On the face of it this is odd since America has no state church and England does. Of course, church attendance is much higher here than it is in Western Europe, so this no doubt contributes to the explicitly religious nature of American politics.

It would seem that the U.S. is an exception to the secularizing trend that's seen British churches turned into nightclubs and Christianity pushed to the margins of the public square. It might seem so, but Trueman argues that it's not that simple. Earlier in the book he's noted that the task of the historian is to complicate things, and this he sets out to do by asking some questions that challenge American exceptionalism regarding secularization.

Could it be that both Britain and America are both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such language? (p. 23)

Is it actually the case that the American church has maintained the loyalty of large sections of the population by essentially becoming a secular institution? Could it be that secularization might merely have taken a different form in America from that which we find in Europe? (pp. 26-7)

Answering yes to each question Trueman begins with a "soft target" -- the prosperity gospel taught by such as Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn. The message preached by the prosperity preachers bears no resemblance to that found in the New Testament. It's fundamentally the same message preached by the "psychobabble self-help gurus" popular in the UK. Their message "is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity." (p. 27)

Trueman moves on from those soft targets to ones closer to home in the conservative evangelical circles from which he comes, and to which this book is primarily written. Indeed he intends to demonstrate that the secular gospel of personal fulfillment is subtly present even in confessionally orthodox American churches. Borrowing from the work of David Wells he contends that secular values, ambitions and methods pervade doctrinally conservative megachurches and doctrinally liberal emergent churches. The former is an accommodation to market-driven consumerism ("the church's equivalent of the big-box store"), the latter to the "eclecticism of postmodernism." (pp. 28-9)

The remainder of the chapter is taken up with three characteristics of conservative Christianity in America that are examples of the subtle secularization thesis. I'll briefly summarize each.

Cavalier view of church membership vows

Americans rightly celebrate our heritage of the frontier. Rugged individualism and a healthy mistrust of authority are built into our national DNA. Our origin is one of rebellion against a monarch. However, those individualistic values create problems when taken with us into the church of Jesus Christ. The author sees the casual disregard of church membership vows as a prime example of secular values influencing the way we think about church. Church is seen as "another aspect of the consumer culture mentality whereby, as soon as my itch isn't scratched" I'm off to the next church. (p. 32)

You would think this wouldn't be a problem in Reformed and Presbyterian churches; since these traditions have historically taken church discipline and vows seriously. Sadly that's not the case. I serve as an elder at a theologically conservative Presbyterian church. One of the biggest surprises to me has been how quick upstanding Presbyterians will be to check out as soon as something happens they don't like. Gentle reminders that membership has responsibilities as well as privileges -- which at least means regular attendance in Sunday worship -- is met with incomprehension.

It's inconsistent for conservative Christians to criticize liberals for preaching a secular gospel when they treat membership vows as no more binding than one's cell phone plan. In fact, less binding, since walking away from your cell phone plan usually has a penalty attached.

The identification of America with God's special people

Trueman isn't concerned here with Christians who are strongly patriotic, or who defend the right of Christians to have a voice in the public square, or whose politics are shaped by their faith. What he's after is a "Christian America" mentality that often morphs into "uncritical nationalism" and where "the boundary between church and state, and sometimes even biblical history, becomes rather dangerously blurred." (pp. 32-3) Two examples of this cited are The Patriot's Bible and the painting One Nation Under God. I suspect he's mostly preaching to the choir here so I won't recapitulate his indictment of these admittedly extreme cases.

What's perhaps more troubling is the jingoistic, uncritical support given to the second Iraq War in which the "notion of America as the nation of God" played a prominent part. He recounts being in a Bible study where someone remarked how great it was that "God had raised up George W. Bush for such a time as this. . . . in response, I asked who had raised up Saddam Hussein. By the expressions on the faces of the people around the table, it was clear that the penny was starting to drop. World leaders, good and bad, are all raised up by God, just as they are toppled by him as well." (pp. 34-5)

The temptation to conflate the destiny of a nation with the destiny of the church is strongest when a nation is at the height of its power, as Britain was in the 19th century and America has been in the 20th and 21st centuries. For the integrity of the church and the sake of the gospel this temptation must be resisted.

If I have to sign up to believe in the manifest destiny of the English-speaking people, or of a particular political project, in order to be a member of Christ's church, or even simply to feel that I belong, then it is arguable that, whoever's church it is, it is no longer the property of Christ but of some more earthly power. (p. 36)

The Christian preoccupation with superstars

Here the book makes an especially profound point: a secular mind-set is as much about form as it is about content. One hears here an echo of McLuhan's central insight that the medium is the message. When we judge church leaders by the standards of the celebrity-obsessed society around us we betray a "creeping secularism." (p. 37)

This was one of the problems Paul was addressing in 1 Corinthians. The believers in Corinth were comparing Paul to the flashy orators of the day and finding him lacking in star power. They wanted a cult of personality instead of an apostle who preached nothing but Christ crucified. Trueman suggests that the "celebrity syndrome" is alive and well in conservative Christianity, particularly the Reformed/Calvinistic corner. We shouldn't judge the success of the many faithful "ordinary" pastors out there by measuring them against the unique gifts and context of men like John Piper, Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll.

This chapter challenged me to look for ways secular thought-patterns creep into my own life. Labelling something as "secular" doesn't make it necessarily bad. One of the strengths of the Reformed stream of Christianity is that it recognizes a place for a secular sphere. But if we think of secular values as the values of the world opposed to God's values, then it makes sense that secular (or worldly) values are always vying for our allegiance. The best defense is a mind being renewed by God's word. Trueman is right to warn us that secularization is more slippery than we imagine.

Up next: a look at that fair and balanced news channel.

Quotes from Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010)

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