July 5, 2019
Are We Secular Yet?
The Holy, the Sacred & the Profane
Brian Stanley, professor of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, concludes a discussion of secularization in Christianity in the Twentieth Century with the assertion that the US "remains both a secular and a Christian nation."
Stanley cites Hugh McLeod's identification of
"six different spheres in which secularizing tendencies may be apparent: individual belief; formal religious practice; the place of religion in public institutions; the prominence of religion in public debate; the significance of religion as an aspect of group identity; and the relationship of religion with the popular culture."
The strength of the "religious" element in each sphere can vary widely in different cultures: In one nation, government involvement and support of the church and its clergy alongside low levels of personal belief and church attendance. In another, sharp separation of church and state alongside higher levels of church attendance and personal belief.
Stanley writes that American churches, after a decline of "market share" in the 60s and 70s,
"regained much of their former position in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to the success of the more conservative churches. They did so at a price of substantial accommodation to the individualism and self-preoccupation that characterized popular American culture in this period. Christianity made its peace with popular culture. From one standpoint .... it can be understood as a form of cultural secularization, and one that provoked valiant attempts by both Catholic and Protestant intellectuals to push the boundaries back and reclaim the intellectual high ground of the nation for Christianity."
But what witness do Christian intellectuals have when they park their religion outside the secularized public square? This is not a new problem. In America, says Stanley, during the 20th century the divorce between religion and the "apparatus of government and public institutions" became "more absolute in certain spheres, notably the universities, public education, and the media."
In response to this situation, mere Christians must first realize:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
Our calling includes public witness that God has spoken to us and to the nations, and that we will be held responsible for our actions. For words are not enough. God's word to Israel should be a template for Christians:
"I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them." (Leviticus 18:1-4)
Chapters 18 and 19 follow with things to do and not do. The rest of 18 is about sex, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality. Christians are also taught that our very bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, so how do we get off imagining that any sexual activity of our own choosing and desire is of no concern to God? Are not our physical bodies "members of Christ"? Is defilement possible in 2019 or just a cultic leftover from an ancient religion? (1 Cor. 6:15-19)
And, yes, there is more than sexual or bodily defilement. Chapter 19 also warns against idolatry, greed, lying, stealing, false dealings, injustice, partiality to the poor or to the rich, hatred, and more. Christian holiness pertains both to the body and spirit:
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (2 Cor. 7:1)
We must oppose the sexual revolution and injustice; and we must nor hate our brothers in our hearts, nor refrain from reasoning with him about these things. "You shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him." (Leviticus 19:17)
Christians, as kings and priests of the Lord, have a mandate to speak and act, regardless of secularization:
"Since we have such a hope, we are very bold...
"Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, 'I believed, and so I spoke,' we also believe, and so we also speak." (2 Cor. 3:12; 4:13)
Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,
James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James
James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.