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James J. Condra on “Christian America”
Ashley Woodiwiss managed to cover an awful lot of ground in his “Revising Our Pledges of Allegiance” (Touchstone, September/October 1998). While I agree with much, I think that the prescriptions he offers: an embrace of serious ecclesiology, a rejection of consumerism, and a reinvigorated sense of community, offer anything but a rosy scenario for America’s Evangelicals, at least in the short run.
The systemic allegiance that Evangelicals have to the American civil religion is perhaps more tenacious than the allegiance of many on the secular Left. Political discourse in our country is hamstrung by the individualist-collectivist dichotomy, which forecloses a politics respectful of, to use Dr. Woodiwiss’s phrase, harmonious difference and solidarity. The Christian Right takes it for granted that rugged individualism is one of the things that made this country great, in contrast to liberals, who profess solicitude for the good of the whole. What is missing from this debate is the classical trinitarian concept of the person who finds his place and identity in relationship to a community of other persons. This concept excludes the notion of the rugged individual, even the rugged individual studying his open Bible by candlelight. What it offers instead is an image of the person standing in line with his family and neighbors to receive the blessed Eucharist. As a vision of organic community, it also unmasks the pretensions of the Left, which wants to destroy the church, the family, the neighborhood, and the guild so that the collective good is nothing more than lone individuals at the tender mercy of the secular state. Anyone who accepts this classical trinitarian vision and who listens to such popular forums as “conservative” talk radio feels estranged from the Enlightenment-based rhetoric of “contract” and “rights” that American Christians share with their adversaries.
I think that the grip of the American political-economic system is so strong that only dire economic necessity will force most Christians to accept the prescriptions Dr. Woodiwiss offers. If the middle-class corporate life of the wage economy has been transient and dehumanizing, like the welfare programs of the secular state, it has always held its attractions for individuals. It has liberated people from accountability to their parents and extended families. It has afforded people the freedom to reinvent themselves socially in ways incomprehensible to their grandparents. With the mutual interdependence of parish and village life has always come that tough love embodied in the wisdom of elders—commonsensical things that our therapeutic culture derides as narrowly “insensitive” and “judgmental.” My experience with my own peers indicates that such wisdom is not gracefully accepted.
The movement of women of child-bearing age into the paid work force over the past thirty years represents a revolution that escaped the notice of the pro-family lobby. What started as an assertion of autonomy on the part of a few women quietly became an entrenched societal expectation that both dad and mom spend the majority of their waking hours away from the hearth and that the young souls God has entrusted to them be committed to the care of paid strangers. Part of the superficiality of the pro-family lobby that Dr. Woodiwiss decries consists of its failure to recognize that its business-oriented cobelligerents under the Republican “big tent” have played a key role in institutionalizing this expectation, to the point where any concept of a family wage is a bygone memory and normal housing is out of reach for young couples who want to raise their own children. If the business sector still shared a 1950s outlook with the family lobby, the counsel proffered by its spokesmen like LaHaye and Dobson would have more relevance. As it is, Evangelicals have not arrived at the point where they view pro-business and free trade advocates with the same jaundice they have for entertainment executives and education bureaucrats.
I share Woodiwiss’s belief that the continual dislocations of the global economy, given its adoration of speed and innovation for their own sake, are giving new relevance to localism. However, such an approach means a return to an accountability to which contemporary believers have never been exposed, one that might strike them as intrusive and legalistic. Reconstruction of viable community life probably will not come about in the absence of some massive interruption in consumption on a scale not seen in the last sixty years. Until the day when tumbleweed blows across the cracked surfaces of a thousand mall parking lots, it is clear that moral outrages are not enough to rouse Evangelicals from the self-deception that this is still their country, and that its political and judicial processes will respond to them in the absence of the hard work of building an intellectually coherent societal infrastructure that only people consigned to outcast status have the incentive to do.
The relevance of communities and the accountability they demand are also a challenge to Evangelicals’ individualistic approach to Christianity. In a subculture that regards “church” as something entrepreneurial, and in which its sacraments are denuded of any salvific efficacy, the notion of excommunication, and therefore of accountability, is meaningless. Yes, there are plenty of churches out there; it is just that in American Christianity, there is no Church, as in “pillar and ground of the Truth”; a visible, transgenerational, covenant Body that began on the day of Pentecost, is protected by the Holy Spirit from dogmatic error, and hence does not have to be continually reestablished. One that is not something that gets in the way of Jesus, but rather, as his Body on earth, is the portal through which we meet him. Consider that in this subculture people who are considered knowledgeable believers can say things like, “she used to be a catholic, but now she’s a Christian.” This commonplace is a scandal, and it underscores the deracination that has been at work in Protestantism for so long. Whereas the historic Church, understanding that it was generally impossible to see into someone’s heart, had used a combination of public creedal fidelity and sacramental participation in the Body (tied to one’s lifestyle) as objective criteria for determining the legitimacy of one’s faith, Evangelicalism came to read the “moment of decision” into St. Paul’s teaching on justification. What had started as a way to induce conversions during the Great Awakening was absolutized into the “decisionalism” that now does duty in a sectarian pluralistic culture as a substitute for both the New Testament witness about baptism and the traditional initiation process of the catechumenate. The ability of the individual to articulate that he has made this decision (and in the right vocabulary) became the paramount test of legitimate Christianity. This is the lens through which Evangelicals relate to the world, and sadly, their Orthodox and Roman Catholic neighbors.
Thus, the task of convincing Evangelicals that the Church is a legitimate object of faith is gargantuan. Nonetheless, it is indispensable for the recovery of any alternative communal vision among Evangelical believers. For those in the Evangelical knowledge class who are coming to the conclusion that the Church is an integral part of the Good News, it also raises a more immediate and disturbing question, namely, can this conclusion be reconciled with being Protestant? Those familiar with Evangelicalism are accustomed to speaking of it as a “third tradition” in Christianity, and this implies a more or less permanent state. But Evangelicalism, as Protestant Christianity, possesses formal (sola scriptura) and material (sola fide) theological principles that are not a half millennium old. Moreover, the pastoral and emotional distinctives that really define it are the products of pietism and revivalism, phenomena that are a little over two centuries old. In the span of church history, this is a relatively short time. Even those staunchly committed to the Reformation, such as Dr. David Wells, have openly questioned whether there has ever been any cohesive thing called Evangelicalism.
My own sense is that such prospects will look anything but rosy for most Evangelical Christians. In electing for the Faith over Americanism, and in casting about for that alternative communal vision, Evangelicals are immediately confronted with the paternal claims of undivided Christendom, the rejection of which has been Protestantism’s raison d’etre. All of this makes for rough sledding in the short run.
But this is not the whole story. Evangelicalism has also played a wonderfully providential role in my own life and that of many of my friends. In its older incarnation as fundamentalism, it preserved the catholic residuum still to be found in the Protestant world. With the doctrinal meltdown of institutional Protestantism that was more directly heir to the original Reformation confessions, fundamentalism was a haven for refugees who took biblical faith seriously. What I would like to suggest, ever so gently, is that the rediscovery of ecclesiology by Evangelical scholars might be the harbinger, not of the reprise of Evangelical theology, but of a protracted, decades long, often gut-wrenching process, whereby culturally Protestant believers called “Evangelicals” are reconciled to Orthodoxy or Rome.
Nothing positive that Evangelical scholars discover about the Church, no breakthrough they make in a biblical hermeneutic that is ecclesial, will be new. It is a well-trodden path, worn by the feet of countless fathers, martyrs, confessors, and evangelists. In pagan, inhospitable, post-Christian America, there still may be time to make new theological discoveries, but as Fr. Seraphim Rose was fond of saying, “It’s later than you think.”
James J. Condra lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife and three children. He earned both his bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Mississippi and is currently writer and consultant for a series of maps dealing with the Civil War to be published this year.