In Stillness Tried
Christianity in the ’90s
History is always full of uncertainties, and perhaps that is the only unchanging lesson which it teaches. Both God's providence and human freedom mean, among other things, that the future is never merely projected on a straight line from the present.
But the 1990s seem perhaps more uncertain than any time since 1945, and seldom in the memory of most living people is there less obvious assurance as to where the world is going.
Often society seems to be simply carried along by the overwhelming power of events, to which human beings must somehow adapt, which they can barely hope to affect, much less to control. During the 1930s the reality of economic depression dominated everything, and the first half of the 1940s was dominated by war. Beginning in 1945 peoples all over the world, especially Americans, seemed at last to have the opportunity to build the kind of world they wanted.
On the whole, they did a reasonably good job. The United States entered the most prosperous period in its history and assumed a position of leadership in the world which was mainly beneficial. There was a return to fundamental values, especially religion and family life. Elsewhere in the world there was a similar recover of prosperity, as well as new beginnings for many former colonial peoples. Although the evil empire of communism was strong, even then its foundations were rotting.
Practically no one foresaw the character of the 1960s, which was anything but a linear development from the previous decade. What is usually called “the sixties” actually began about 1966 and lasted until the mid-1970s. The decade remains in many ways mysterious as to what precisely caused the great explosion which deeply affected every aspect of life—not only politics but also religion, education, families, personal morality, and virtually everything else that could be named. Even those who were the ostensible leaders of these new movements did not claim to control them, and everyone was to some degree or another carried along by gale forces. (Drugs serve as a revealing metaphor for the age—those who used them were ostentatiously asserting their freedom even as they were choosing the vilest kind of slavery.)
Common sense saw that the New Left could not last, but what followed was not precisely predictable, although in retrospect it was quite logical. The “me generation” was not a repudiation of New Left values, as conventional wisdom has it, but their transfer and extension—the cult of self-assertion and social destruction, which had taken primarily political forms in the 1960s, was now kindled in every area of life. Those who had previously “liberated” themselves from government and other structures of authority now began exploring “inner space.”
It was predictable (and often predicted) that there would be a reaction against all this, which can be conveniently dubbed The Reagan Era. During the 1980s values which had been dismissed as obsolete—patriotism, religious faith, self-reliance, the family, tradition—were given new respectability through the efforts of often highly intelligent and creative “conservatives” who succeeded in gaining public attention and changing the terms of respectable discussion. President Reagan was not primarily the cause of this, and his own contributions were relatively modest. But the White House remains a “bully pulpit,” and the fact hat he occupied it for eight years forced people to listen to the New Right even when they may not have wanted to.
Inevitably, Christians have tended to respond to broad cultural movements rather than to shape them, except in rare cases. As the churches lurched sharply leftward in the 1960s, many people followed, many more drifted away, and others began to take steps to preserve and strengthen authentic faith in the midst of a culture which was experienced as overwhelmingly hostile. The era of the “me generation” made expressions of deep personal feeling publicly respectable in ways they had not been before, and highly expressive religious movements such as the charismatic renewal were able to use that to give authentic witness.
The Reagan era was dominated on one level by the questions of religion’s public role, as bold believers, and some sympathetic non-believers, insisted that faith has to be more than personal and subjective and must attempt to shape the culture.
Throughout the period 1929–45, and again in 1965–90, Christians in a sense let the world set their agendas, as liberal Christians insist it must. Whether or not church members were embracing the spirit of the age or opposing it, they did not have to worry much about discovering their task—it seemed obviously to be that of relating in some way to the march of history.
The period 1945–65 was something of an exception, because the slate did not appear to be blank in 1945. Although communism naturally called forth a good deal of Christian concern, even the most ardent anti-Communists realized that this could not be their sole agenda. But what was? On the whole, Christians of that postwar period did not use their opportunities very well. There were many good things, such as the flourishing of contemplative life among Catholics, but much of the religion of the period was really religiosity—vague and unfocused religious emotions stirred up for the sake of cozy personal comfort.
The last decade of the second millennium after Christ provides no obvious clues as to what the culture will bring, or how Christians might respond. Conceivably it might be a decade of war in the Near East. Almost certainly there will be economic dislocations worse than most people have experienced for many years. Inevitably Christians will respond to these developments in different ways.
All postwar euphoria—the euphoria of rebuilding after 1945, the euphoria of rebellion in the 1960s, the euphoria of self-discovery in the 1970s, the euphoria of the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s—are spent. The 1990s seem likely to be a sober time, a time for reconsideration and reflection.
Arguably it is times like these which really try faith, even more than times of crisis. It is easy to be faithful during a crisis, so long as one remains courageous, since it seems fairly obvious what God wants from his people. It is during the quiet times—the 1950s, possibly the 1990s—that the resources faith are really tried, somewhat in terms of Blaise Pascal’s aphorism that nothing is harder for human beings than having to sit quietly and confront themselves.
The state of the economy is of particular interest to Christians, for more than one reason. Like everything else, Christians have an obvious stake in continuing prosperity, not only for selfish reasons but also because money of good purposes is much easier to come by in prosperous times.
But history seems to prove what Scripture seems to teach—that high prosperity tends to undermine faith and lull believers into an easy, self-indulgent worldliness. Faith must often be bought at the high cost of suffering, at the very least of unselfish discipleship—ideas which almost cease to have meaning in comfortable times.
A serious and continuing economic crisis could therefore have a purifying effect on the culture, and might induce a religious revival more genuine than the relatively superficial one that occurred after World War II.
Christians of the 1990s probably will have to get along without the public respectability which the Reagan administration bestowed on religion (even if the president himself was not an active church member). Many of the movements which appeared to be gathering force in the 1980s—the pro-life movement, notably—may suffer serious, but hopefully temporary, setbacks. Militant secularism, smarting under even the partial defeats it suffered during the 1980s, now seeks vengeance. There are few religious leaders who seem able to point with confidence and say, “This way!”
The general religious situation in America in the 1990s will continue to be polarized, which also has immense and somewhat unpredictable consequences for believers.
The liberal churches will continue to move “left,” at least in terms of theology and personal morality, if not politics, to the point (already being reached by some) where it will be very difficult for them to say in what way they are Christian at all.
Meanwhile militant secularism also will continue to gain in boldness and social respectability, overwhelmingly supported by the mass media and the entire educational system. Even many religious believers have come to accept the idea that religion is a purely personal thing which ought not to “intrude” itself into public discussion in any way.
Both liberal Christianity and militant secularism now view orthodox Christianity as a threat to themselves and to the kind of society which they envision, and liberal Christians find that they have far more in common with secularists than with conservative believers.
Despite their professed principles, both liberal Christianity and militant secularism are in fact quite intolerant of traditional religion, which both regard as an unfortunate hangover from an earlier time, something which retards the maturity of the human race.
Thus public battles over morality and society—abortion, euthanasia, pornography, the nature of education, and many other things—will become sharper rather than diminish. The vague religiosity which has been the backdrop of American culture practically since the beginning of the country will probably fade faster and faster, to the point where religious belief must be overtly justified to a generally skeptical society. As people leave the liberal churches, they do not necessarily join conservative ones. Many simply blend into the great amorphous secularism of the culture, which aggressive secularists more and more exploit to their own advantage.
Although history (and hence divine providence) will not cease to make demands on believers, the uncertainty of its present direction will perhaps serve as a necessary and salutary means of purification, where it tries itself in stillness before it once again goes forth to battle.
James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“In Stillness Tried” first appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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