One day in a doctoral seminar at Union Seminary, my ethics mentor Larry Rasmussen said words I will never forget: “There are advantages and disadvantages in every power position for the church.”
The ultimate Christian social ethics issue of our time is not any particular moral issue such as abortion, war or gay rights. We argue fiercely about these issues, sure. But the ultimate Christian social ethics issue, at least in the United States, is the fact of declining Christian cultural power — and its fallout in both church and culture. This is the context within which every particular moral issue is contested.
It is not a stretch to say that most of today’s most controverted moral debates are at least as much about declining Christian cultural hegemony as they are about whatever the issue is. Whether Hobby Lobby should have to cover contraceptives, or devout Christian florists serve gay marriages, or the Ten Commandments be posted in the courthouse, these are all proxy fights for the deeper issue — the declining cultural power of Christianity in America.
In the new United States of America, unlike anywhere else, the Christian faith was both legally disestablished (First Amendment: 1789) and culturally dominant. For almost 200 years it was both legally forbidden to establish Christianity as the official religion of the United States and culturally a fact that Christianity was the unofficial religion of the United States. Call it legal disestablishment + cultural hegemony. That was who we were. And of course, for most of the time this was Protestant cultural hegemony. Franklin Roosevelt is reported to have actually said, out loud: “This is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.”
There are advantages and disadvantages in every power position for the church. If back in the day you happened to be a Christian, or the locally dominant version of Christian, you experienced a cultural context in which your religious symbols and values dominated. The town square said it all. With the First Baptist Church catty-corner to the courthouse, and the same people essentially running both, not to mention the schools and the Chamber of Commerce around the corner, this was a pretty cozy little world. It was culturally comfortable and happy — if you were among the majority. It was a disadvantage if you were Jewish, or Catholic, or agnostic. (Or black.)
And of course the legal disestablishment of Christianity was often fictive. The city council opened its work with prayers by the Baptist preacher, juries were instructed with Bible quotes and politicians ran for office exuding Christian rhetoric. And the kids were led in the Lord’s Prayer over at the elementary school. There was one more or less coherent moral world, and it was drenched in semi-official Christianity.
All of that has been changing visibly since the 1960s, and closer examination would show slippage long before that. On the legal front, a series of cases have been decided in such a way as to tighten up adherence to the actual words of the First Amendment related to disestablishment. (Critics would say that an original “benevolent neutrality” of the state toward religion has changed in the direction of a hostility to religion, or at least hostility to Christianity.) In any case, that once-comfortable quasi-establishment of (Protestant) Christianity is being gnawed away, one decision at a time.
On the cultural front, of course, the changes have been even more dramatic. First there was explicit rejection of some of the most visible Christian moral claims (sex belongs only in marriage, marriage is for life). More recently we have witnessed a rush to the exits vis-à-vis Christianity and church attendance itself.
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SOURCE: Associated Baptist Press
David P. Gushee