Is Cultural Christianity Enough?

On establishment (that which must not be named)

One happy side effect of the Trump era, and all that it entailed, has been a renewed interest in history—our own history wars, if you like—specifically, the genesis, meaning, and demands of American history. That is, its character at the start and the extent to which it should continue to be formative and normative. Most societies have affirmed the formative and normative impact of national history if only for mythological purposes, an answer to the fundamental human need for an origin story that C.S. Lewis credited in The Four Loves.

Imbedded within the reassessment of our own American story—a cyclical exercise in considering first principles anew especially common in republics, as John P. Diggins noted—is the question of religion’s place in our nation’s socio-political order. Arguably, this is, perhaps, the perennial inquiry for us.

A part of this inquiry for Americans is the place of Christianity, specifically in public life. Since the mid-twentieth century, Supreme Court jurisprudence has indicated the pressing nature of said inquiry. Carveout after carveout has done little to settle the issue at a fundamental level.

Prompted by these legal indicia is a more academic question as to the course of Christianity in America, from earnest Puritan origins to Great Awakening enthusiasms to the WASP, mainline Protestant malaise chronicled so eloquently by Michael Knox Brenan. In retrospect, this story tells us what happens when cultural voluntarism, or pure liberalism, is embraced as a comprehensive strategy for upholding the morality of a society, a phenomenon insightfully chronicled by Robert Handy in A Christian America.

Contra prevailing, anachronistic, and triumphalist narratives, eschatological evangelical enthusiasm was not introduced to America in the 1640s but the 1740s. Thenceforth, the American religious landscape was forever changed as old hierarchies and institutions were either killed by or infused with “new light.” Further still, per Mark Noll, more is owed to the Second Great Awakening than its predecessor in terms of the attitude toward religion in modern America. That is, a mood of what I call religious market fundamentalism became predominant. We occupy this nineteenth century legacy, which is still being played out.

Especially in the Gilded Age, voluntary agencies or societies permeated the social landscape as denominations bled members and new, indigenous ones sprung up. Parachurch ministries, if you like. Stripped bare of the ancient strictures, the voluntarist approach to building a Christian civilization in America became necessarily issue-based. The temperance movement is the quintessential example; it became an avatar for the fate of Christian society, sober-minded and moral.

As Handy surmises, when establishment is eliminated, only “culture” remains. And though culture or popular opinion is fickle, voluntarism knows no other battlefield for the institutionalization it inevitably but bashfully craves. The paradox is that this, by definition, defied voluntarism in its pure form. Intuitively, even disestablishmentarians desire some form of visible solidification.  

It was also the erosion of establishment, in conjunction with rapidly rising immigration, that instigated an uptick in cultural intolerance. Destabilizing attempts by various groups to secure advantages for themselves ensued to compensate for crumbling institutional protections. To be sure, disestablishment is not the only cause of nativist Protestant panic, but it was a cause. Just as persecution of dissenting sects increased after the period of Puritan dominance in New England, anti-Catholic reactionism in the nineteenth century was instigated by popular enthusiasms, not state-sanctioned (there are exceptions, of course). The boundaries of, and criteria for tolerance, are difficult to define absent a baseline establishment when no measuring stick remains.

When boundaries of the socially and morally acceptable depend on little more than vestiges of the old establishmentarian chains thrown off by the voluntary society and institutions of moral formation (i.e., the church) invariably are reduced to the voluntarist value attributed to any other society; the cause of the gospel becomes one among many, and today, an increasingly suspect one in that its legacy is regularly affiliated with oppression. 

Some advocate a mere cultural Christianity. They eagerly embrace the results of Christian cultural influence, but only if it is organic (i.e., spontaneous and sanitized of political or legal backing). They want no government thumbs on the scale, for such would compromise their voluntarist cultural outlook—voluntarism constrained by a harm-principle ethic, of course.

But if a mere Christianity is not desirable for individuals, as they would surely agree, then is it desirable for society? Further, can individual Christians flourish absent moral discipline, extracted from a community and tradition that supply standards of moral discrimination and judgment? Why, then, could a community, a society, or a country?I simply ask, is a voluntarist cultural model enough to construct and maintain the requisite moral character of a country? Is such an approach sufficient to do anything other than reproduce the present conditions that ail us? Or, in the alternative, is something more substantive and less chosen required to secure the ties that bind? Perhaps, the cultural war exhaustion experienced by many Christians begins to answer that question for us. To my mind, so-called cultural Christianity is and has been a good, the demise of which is lamentable. Again, the question for the merely cultural Christian party is what means are necessary and sufficient to produce the spontaneous and voluntarist cultural revival they seek? Do the formative powers ordained by God have any role therein? At least at present, this is the most important question among Christians seeking cultural change.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is an attorney practicing in New Jersey and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Rachel.