In his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explores the present decline—economic recession, a divisive, stagnant political climate and a deteriorating moral structure—of American civilization. Rather than citing religious excess or wide scale secularization as the problem, Douthat points his finger at what he calls “bad religion,” or, four basic heresies that present faux-Gospels contrary to the Christian faith.
Douthat’s solution, presented in the book’s conclusion, comes in the form of Christian orthodoxy, what one might call Good Religion. Without delving too far into critique, readers of all ecumenical stripes—even those without any—can profit from a quick examination of Douthat’s four points essential for traditional Christianity to reclaim a respected voice in the American public square.
First, Douthat calls for Christian engagement in the sphere of politics that is “political without being partisan,” marked by a “clear Christian difference.” He allows room for political disagreement while professing the necessity of Christian principles to mark the Christian ballot or campaign.
Second, Douthat endorses a Christianity that is “ecumenical but also confessional.” Douthat desires broader Christian discourse and unity, but vibrant doctrinal debate and a steadfast upholding of characteristic theological standards.
Third, Douthat calls for Christians to cut against the grain of contemporary society with a faith that is “moralistic but also holistic.” To present the Bible’s ethical system as a desirable path for a life, rather than a condescending rulebook, he says, is the great challenge for the Church of today.
Finally, Christian orthodoxy must be “oriented toward sanctity and beauty.” Christians occupy too sparse a share of today’s aesthetic landscape, he argues, calling for more distinctly Christian art the mirrors the novels of Marilynne Robinson or the poetry of Christian Wiman.
Douthat’s book will no doubt stimulate much discussion about Christianity’s place in politics, ethics and art. And voices like Douthat’s are an integral part of the debate. With any providence, both the Church and society will benefit greatly from a wider appreciation of Douthat’s hope:
“My hope throughout has been to persuade even the most skeptical reader that traditional Christian faith might have more to offer this country than either its flawed defenders or its fashionable enemies would lead one to believe.”
Is it unconstitutional for laws to be based on their supporters’ religiously founded moral beliefs? While most of us—at least most readers of this blog—would consider such a question to be absurd, some people apparently think it should be answered in the affirmative.
The New Yorker‘s George Packer believes, “The outcry over Obama’s policy on health insurance and contraception has almost nothing to do with that part of the First Amendment about the right to free religious practice, which is under no threat in this country. It is all about a modern conservative Kulturkampf that will not accept the other part of the religion clause, which prohibits any official religion.”
Ross Douthat provides a devastating reply to Packer’s backwards view of religious liberty:
In part 1 of “Secular Theocracy: The Foundations and Folly of Modern Tyranny,” David Theroux of the Independent Institute outlines a history of secularism, tracing the complex relationship between religion and the spheres of society, particularly church and government. “Modern America has become a secular theocracy with a civic religion of national politics (nationalism) occupying the public realm in which government has replaced God,” he argues.
One of the key features necessary to unraveling the knotty problems surrounding the idea of secularism is distinguishing between the separation of church and state on the one hand, and religion and public life on the other. Hunter Baker does an excellent job describing this distinction and its consequences in his book, The End of Secularism. Secularism, as Baker and Theroux use the term, is a far more vigorous concept than the institutional separation of church and civil government. As Baker writes,
Secularism is much more than a formal financial and legal separation of church institutions and state institutions. It is a way of living together in community that emphasizes clean conceptual boundaries over organic beliefs and traditions. Here we come to a critical point. Secularism is not and should not be synonymous with the separation of church and state.
George Weigel recently observed the thirty year anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland. He noted the “weakness” of the tyrannical government, which had to resort to such tactics. “Politics and economics are important,” he writes. But “what drives history over the long haul, however, is culture: what men and women cherish, honor, and worship; what men and women are willing to stake their lives, and their children’s lives, on.”
So what we need to be most concerned about, it seems, is a kind of cultural and conceptual secularism, a secularist worldview, that provides the basis for a more far-reaching and insidious form of secular political tyranny.
Look for part 2 on “Secular Theocracy” from Theroux in January. And in the meantime you can check out a controversy feature in the Journal of Markets & Morality between Hunter Baker and Jonathan Malesic on the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?” Issue 13.2 of the journal will be publicly available shortly, but you can also get instant access by becoming an electronic subscriber.
Preacher of the prosperity gospel and swindler of poor Brazilians Bishop Edir Macedo was charged last week with embezzeling hundreds of millions of dollars from his Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Until I read about the case (h/t Get Religion), I didn’t realize that the prosperity gospel had much of a foothold outside American Pentecostal traditions. It makes perfect sense though that it should be the heir to liberation theology in Latin America.
The Catholic Church fought back against the false anthropology of liberation theology, and it is no longer the problem in South America that it was, but preachers like Macedo have stepped in to deliver the same old message to the continent’s poor: that their poverty and the injustice in their lives are the primary concern of Christian religion. This is a debasement of the Gospel, and it is theft — those who are taken in by the prosperity gospel are deprived of the fullness of Revelation.
As it turns out, they’re also defrauded. Macedo, whose estimated worth is higher than two billion dollars (at least for now…), seems to have stolen more directly from his flock, preying upon them in a way that liberation theologians never did.
On the other hand, we have the Acton approach to poverty, which is one of empowerment, and which has its sure basis in human nature. In order to vanquish poverty, a society must create wealth — economics is not the zero-sum game of Marxist theory, nor is Macedo’s collection plate a high-return investment opportunity. Economic growth comes only from the productive work of men and women whose work is, in the words of Rev. Robert A. Sirico, “akin to God’s creative activity as we read it in the book of Genesis.”
This vocation is marginalized by liberation theology and the prosperity gospel, which tell their followers that the end of work is a paycheck, and that can be got in other ways too — by class warfare or by manna from heaven. The terribly cruelty is that these lies perpetuate a cycle of poverty.
The debate over the separation of church and state as well as religion’s role in politics has been intense and ongoing for years. In this week’s Acton Commentary, Tony Oleck seeks to add clarity to the debate. In his commentary, Oleck balances the desires of the Founding Fathers with what it means to be a Christian. Get Acton News and Commentary every Wednesday in your email inbox. Click here to sign up today.
Controversial Christianity: Understanding Faith and Politics
By Tony Oleck
As the race for the 2012 party nominations for president heats up, the question of religion and its place in politics surfaces yet again. Whether the controversy is over mosques or Mormonism, religion permeates much of today’s political talk, despite various pleas for a “separation of church and state” from both the secular and religious worlds. But what does the separation of church and state truly mean?
While many use the phrase to refer to a complete isolation of religion from politics, history tells us that the most famous advocate of this principle in America, Thomas Jefferson, may have had a different idea of what a “wall of separation between church and state” really meant. In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson writes:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship. . . I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church & state.
What Jefferson sought to prevent was state intervention into religious affairs. And the separation of church and state, as our founding fathers understood the phrase, meant the avoidance of a church-state. A church that acts as or controls the state is not in accordance with Christ’s message, but a church that informs the state is. If the role of the state is to allow for and to promote the freedom and well-being of its citizens, then it has only to benefit from the Christian understandings of truth, freedom and God’s undying love for the world.
I am reminded of something a former English teacher once told me about religion and politics. “It’s like when I go to get my car fixed,” he said, “I don’t determine which mechanic to go to by what religion he practices.” While I would agree, I tend to take the leadership and future of my country a little bit more seriously than whether or not my radio works. Granted, a candidate should never be excluded from office for solely religious purposes, but a Christian nevertheless need not feel ashamed for supporting a particular candidate because of his or her religiously-based position on certain social issues.
Why did our founding fathers describe man as “being endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”? And why were the words “In God We Trust” and “One Nation under God” added eventually to our currency and our pledge of allegiance, respectively? It was because they realized that only in recognizing man as having been created in God’s own image as a species set apart could America grow and prosper. It was this common Christian heritage that allowed the state to grow in the first place. While not all of America’s founding fathers were necessarily practicing Christians, they understood that for the American experiment to succeed it must at the very least be founded on Christian principles; on both faith and reason. They understood the transformative nature of Christ’s teachings and the dignity and truth which they expounded to human beings.
This is not to say, of course, that the United States only has room for Christianity as a system of belief. Religious freedom is a necessary condition for a just and prosperous society. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his World Day of Peace address this past New Year’s, “Where religious freedom is acknowledged the dignity of the human person is respected at its roots and through a sincere search for truth and good, moral conscience and institutions are strengthened. For this religious freedom is a privileged path to peace.”
But while religious freedom is necessary for peace, it is never an excuse for inaction. Christians often feel the need to separate their religious beliefs from their political views so as not to “impose” their beliefs on others, but this separation is contrary to the Gospel message. Because acceptance of the Gospel and the subsequent sharing of the Gospel go hand-in-hand, a Christian who is content to confine his faith to the walls of his own home may be a Christian by name, but he is an atheist by practice.
Christianity is more than a moral code. It is by its nature both transformative and truth-seeking. And if Christianity is meant to transform our lives and to expound truth (whether that truth is culturally attractive or not), then it becomes necessary that we allow our faith to inform our politics. It offers the lens of a true enlightenment, through which we can understand the meaning and purpose of political action in the first place.
The first article of any social program that will bring salvation, therefore, must remain: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” This article is today being erased. Men refuse any longer to recognize God in statecraft. This is not because they do not find the poetry of religion charming, but because whoever says I believe in God thereby acknowledges God’s ordering of nature and an ordinance of God above human conscience–a higher will to which we as creatures must submit ourselves.
Kuyper said this at the close of the nineteenth century, and in the intervening decades the question of the place of the Christian faith in public life has become even more pressing.
This year’s Novak Award winner Hunter Baker has written an important volume on the place of religion in civil discourse, The End of Secularism. He also participated with Jonathan Malesic on a controversy appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality on the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?” (PowerBlog readers can get complimentary access to the controversy in PDF form here.) Baker and Malesic were also kind enough to follow up on their exchange in the journal with a Radio Free Acton podcast, “Concealing Christian Identity.”
This year also marks the 120th anniversary of the First Social Congress, held in Amsterdam from November 9-12, 1891. In that same issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, we have the pleasure of publishing a translation of a paper composed by Herman Bavinck at that congress, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today.” This translation also includes an extensive introduction from John Bolt, who writes of the “overlooked” tradition of European social congresses as “organized movements for social reform, often including a variety of groups and interests, and acting in varying degrees of concert over an extended period of time.”
Three tasty morsels of Acton commentary goodness for you today:
- Last week Jordan Ballor joined Paul Edwards to discuss the recently concluded Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization and the broader ecumenical movement. They talked about the relationship between “mainline” and “evangelical” ecumenical groups and the role of these groups in articulating the public and social witness of Christians all over the world. Also be sure to check out his new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.
- Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico spent an hour on Religion, Politics and the Culture with host Dennis O’Donovan and several callers yesterday discussing Tea Party politics and Catholics. (Hey – did you know that Father Sirico is now on Twitter? You didn’t? Get with the program – follow him here.)
- Kishore Jayalaban, Director of Acton’s Rome office, appeared today on Vatican Radio to discuss the decision made at this week’s European Union summit to create a “permanent mechanism” to deal with the financial crisis. Translation: the EU has created a permanent bailout fund. Needless to say, Kishore is not impressed, and explains why in a nearly ten-minute interview.
From “56% Oppose ‘Sin Taxes’ on Junk Food and Soft Drinks” on Rasmussen Reports:
Several cities and states, faced with big budget problems, are considering so-called “sin taxes” on things like junk food and soft drinks. But just 33% of Americans think these sin taxes are a good idea.
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 56% oppose sin taxes on sodas and junk food. Twelve percent (12%) are undecided.
Many of the politicians who are pushing these taxes insist that they are intended to fight obesity, especially among children, and to address other public health issues. However, voters are highly skeptical of their motivation.
Only 17% believe the state and national politicians who favor sin taxes are more interested in public health than in finding another source of revenue for the government. Seventy-three percent (73%) say sin tax supporters are more interested in raising additional money for the government.
After all, 86% of adults say it is not the government’s responsibility to determine what people eat and drink. Five percent (5%) believe the government does have that responsibility.
Also see these Acton Institute resources:
“The Sin Tax Craze: Who’s Next?” by Rev. Robert A. Sirico
“Tax man aims to take a bigger bite out of junk food junkies” by Matt Cavedon
“Lifestyle Taxes — Political Camouflage for New Federal Sin Taxes” by Rev. Robert A. Sirico
“The Sin Tax: Economic and Moral Considerations” Occasional Paper by Rev. Robert A. Sirico
“The Economics of Sin Taxes” by James Sadowsky S.J. in Religion & Liberty.