Following up on our discussion of the Pew survey on the American religious landscape, I have a few thoughts as to what plagues American Protestantism, particularly of the evangelical variety, and it has to do precisely with the “catholicity” of Protestantism.

To the extent that people are leaving Protestantism, or are searching for another denomination within the broadly Protestant camp, I think there are at least two connected precipitating causes. (A caveat: there are many, many individual and anecdotal exceptions to the generalizations I will make below, and I think they serve to highlight rather than to undermine this basic picture.)

The first is the lack of historical connection to tradition (with a lower case “t”) among American Protestants. Whether by intention or ignorance, the relation of Protestantism to the broader church’s history is sorely under-recognized.

Part of this phenomena is the anti-creedalism, anti-confessionalism of many evangelicals, such that when something like the Apostle’s Creed is even part of a worship service, the church is confessed to be not one, holy, “catholic,” and apostolic but rather “Christian” (or at best “catholic” with a footnote).

Part of it is simple intellectual laziness (i.e. not having the methodological and academic rigor to take up questions of the origins of the Protestant Reformation in its context). The claims of the reformers to represent the authentic “catholic” Christianity of the church’s tradition, focused especially on their grounding in the patristics, must be dealt with responsibly, even if in the final judgment some find these claims to be untenable. More often than not, the claims to the catholicity of the Reformation are ignored rather than engaged.

The second cause is a lack of connection with worldwide Christianity. The “catholicity” of the Church has not only to do with our connection to the past tradition, but also to contemporary believers who live all over the world. If the Pew survey is bad news for American Christianity (and evangelical Protestantism in particular), then the good news is that the church is not limited to North America and that Christianity is growing both by number and by vigor in the global south and east.

Part of the emergent impulse is I think an inchoate and instinctual response to these realities. Wouldn’t it be tragically ironic if at the height of American evangelicalism’s political influence its spiritual core was failing? We need to be concerned about “whitewashed tomb” syndrome, so focused on the external influence of the church on culture, politics, and society that we abandon the church’s primary spiritual calling.

In addition to an increased historical awareness of the roots of the Reformation, one fruitful avenue to explore in making these connections is in the pursuit of a theology of obedience, suffering, persecution, and martyrdom, a theology more along the lines of Tertullian, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer than of the political and cultural Christendom that has so recently dominated the church in Western civilization.

A sampling of some books worthy of consideration that are indirect popular responses to these problems I identify:

Blog author: jspalink
Thursday, February 28, 2008
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Buckley and Sirico
Buckley & Sirico – Acton’s 2nd Annual Dinner – May 12, 1992

Rev. Robert Sirico reflects on the life of William F. Buckley, Jr., who died in his study on Wednesday, praising him as a friend, a literary genius, and a supporter of the Acton Institute. Sirico writes, “He will be lauded by numerous pendants and scribes for the incredible number of his accomplishments, preeminent of which is his historic role as godfather of the modern conservative/libertarian movement in the founding of the National Review.”

Read “WFB: In Memoriam.”

On this week’s edition of Radio Free Acton, Rev. Robert A. Sirico pays tribute to the late William F. Buckley, the RFA regulars are joined by Professor Joseph Knippenberg from Oglethorp University in Atlanta, Georgia to discuss the Pew Forum’s newly released research on the American religious landscape, and we listen in to some bonus audio from Dr. Glenn Sunshine’s Acton Lecture Series address, Wealth, Work and the Church. You can listen at this link.

With regard to the discussion on the Pew Forum study, you’ll find more information at the following links:

Good news is not always so hard to find. Case in point: Free-market economics is making a comeback at the Vatican’s daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

Previously known as a dry read, L’Osservatore Romano (which means The Roman Observer in English) now contains provocative interviews and real news stories from around the world. This is attributable to the paper’s new editor, Giovanni Maria Vian, who was appointed to the post by Pope Benedict last October (see here for the interesting background on the change by the Italian journalist Sandro Magister.)

Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, a well-known Italian economist and banker, has been given prominent space to comment on current economic developments. He is a strong defender of the link between Christian principles and free markets, having authored a 2004 book titled, Money and Paradise: The Global Economy and The Catholic World.

In a February 13 article titled “The capital we should value most is human,” he warns against the temptation to resolve economic problems by merely increasing public spending. As Italians know only too well, high public spending will at some point translate into higher taxes. He stresses that these, in turn, diminish human liberty and dignity.

He is also critical of the Italian welfare state which only distributes resources without enhancing individual responsibility and future opportunities. His solution to the current economic difficulties is to leave more space for the market to push Italian businesses to a higher level of competitiveness, which then helps to increase investments and create jobs.

Gotti Tedeschi’s latest front-page article deals with an equally important subject — the high price of oil and economic development. He directly confronts those who argue that we need to reduce economic growth in order to adapt to falling energy supplies.

In his view, this would signal an unwarranted pessimism and distrust in human creativity. Instead, future energy problems should be combated with more research in new technologies and through using existing technologies more efficiently. Getting human anthropology right and showing confidence in human inventiveness are crucial.

Gotti Tedeschi’s ability to combine economic issues with Christian thought greatly enriches L’Osservatore Romano and all supporters of the free market should be thankful for this turn to sanity. Three cheers for the Pope’s newspaper!

UMAction, the Methodist wing of IRD that supports traditional and historic Methodism is encouraging women in the United Methodist and Wesleyan tradition in ministry to consider attending the “Come to the Water” conference in Nashville from April 10-13. John Lomperis of IRD appropriately notes, “Many evangelical clergywomen in the United Methodist Church feel sidelined or excluded in some of the denomination’s official clergy women’s networks because of a dominance of intolerant theological liberalism.”

Just last night I was talking to a female probationary member in a United Methodist Annual Conference who said she was required to listen to sermons that praised liberation theology and attend seminars that promoted many kinds of theological and political liberalism. Fortunately, this conference will stand in stark contrast to the famous Re-Imagining Conference.

Blog author: mvandermaas
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
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Buckley & Sirico – Acton’s 2nd Annual Dinner – May 12, 1992

One of many remembrances at National Review Online:

Bill died doing what he loved doing — he never left this movement he built, never left NR, he never stopped writing, never left home, never left thinking. And he’s as much a part of us today and forever as he was all these years. He’s left a remarkable legacy.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
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As I said in 2006:

Without too much exaggeration, you could say that today’s electric cars are really coal-powered. If you look at the sources of electricity in the US, “coal provides over half of the electricity flowing into American homes.” That means that in one ideal world of the alternative fuel crowd, when you plug your car in, you’re plugging it in to a coal plant (this is also why the idea of consumer carbon credits is catching on). The energy and environmental issues in the world are about far more than “gas guzzling” SUVs.

Now from USAToday, “Plug-in cars could actually increase air pollution.”

See also (from 2006): “Plug-In Hybrids Are Not So Green.”

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
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Peter Heslam, a friend of the Acton Institute and sometime contributor to our journal, is the founder of a promising initiative at Cambridge University. Begun a couple years ago, the “Transforming Business” program has recently been revamped, with a new and improved website, including a blog. The program’s goal, as I understand it, is to bring together academics and businesspeople in an effort to understand and articulate how business can play a fundamental role in distributing prosperity more widely. Acton senior fellow Jennifer Morse is on its board of advisors. Check it out here.

Fidel Castro

In today’s Detroit News, Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, argues for the end of the trade restrictions against Cuba. Fidel Castro, recently retired from the position of el lider maximo, held the small island nation in the tight grip of his totalitarian regime, effectively stagnating all economic development for the past 50 years. The United States embargo against Cuba gave Castro a scapegoat to blame for the economic woes that oppressed the Cuban population and helped him maintain control. Now, Fidel Castro has left office and the United States has a new opportunity to reassess its foreign policy with Cuba.

So, how should we move forward? Sirico writes:

Now the United States needs to rethink its policies. A vibrant trading relationship will prevent the new regime from continuing to scapegoat its Northern neighbor. It will inject much-need cultural and political influence. It will permit growing travel, emigration and immigration. In time, normalcy will pervade.

I recently talked with a Cuban acquaintance of mine about Cuba. He expressed the growing dissatisfaction that Cubans feel for the Castro regime (I spoke with him the week before Castro retired). The nation is impoverished financially, but also emotionally. People have forgotten how to be entrepreneurial; how to act on their ideas to make change. The difficulty of travel between such geographically close locations (the United States particularly), especially by Cuban citizens, the lack of economic contact with the United States, the religious opression experienced by Cubans until recently, and the tight control of ideas allows this feeling of woe to stew in its juices. The way to change is to open up: to make travel easier, to send missionaries, to allow Cubans to attend U.S. universities, to import Cuban cigars, and to encourage tourism to Cuba. Now is the time to free the Cubans.

Howard Friedman, at his ever-noteworthy Religion Clause blog, reports on the brewing battle over charitable choice language in the US Senate. The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), which includes Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is pushing for language in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Act of 2000 to be removed that allows for faith-based charities receiving government funds to limit their hiring practices along confessional/denominational borders.

This is just the latest in the long affair to determine in what ways the federal government can subsidize private explicitly faith-based charitable work. The Washington Times reports, “Under the Civil Rights Act, religious groups are allowed to only hire people of their particular faith. The battle erupts over what should happen when these groups accept federal dollars.”

A correlative question is not only whether faith-based initiatives receiving federal funding ought to be staffed by like-minded religious folks, but to what extent that program can then implement explicitly religious content.

It’s no surprise that the substance abuse legislation is the first target of the CARD alliance push to remove hiring limits. Original research published by the Acton Institute, growing out of our work with the Samaritan Guide, found that “a program’s faith element relates to the people they serve and the type of help they provide, as programs with more explicit and mandatory faith-related elements are likely to be substance-abuse programs.”

Thus, it makes sense that CARD would first target the areas most likely to have explicit faith-based elements in their quest to secularize charitable choice.

Friedman writes, “Some say that removing the language from SAMHSA would be a first step toward eliminating similar provisions from various other federal programs as well.” With the most difficult hurdle out of the way, the path would be laid wide open for similar provisions to be excised from legislation affecting other areas of charitable work.