One day in a doctoral seminar at Union Seminary, my ethics mentor Larry Rasmussen said words I never will 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 today’s most controverted moral debates usually 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 all are 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 plus cultural hegemony. That was who we were. And, of course, for most of the time, this was Protestant cultural hegemony. Franklin Roosevelt is reported actually to have said, out loud: “This is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.”
The town square said it all
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 often was only imaginary. 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.
A rush to the exits
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.
Here are some staggering numbers: White Protestants and Catholics constitute 69 percent of the US population 65 or older, but only 25 percent of the population 18-29. Only 11 percent of the over 65s claim no religious affiliation, compared to 31 percent of the 18- to 29-year-olds. We live in one physical territory, but in a very real sense, we do not live in the same country.
Our most bitter moral fights gain much of their intensity due to these religious dynamics and the power shifts going with them. Partly the anger is about lost power, for, as Reinhold Niebuhr and then Martin Luther King observed, “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” Christians in general, older Christians in particular, white older Christians especially, are dealing with their lost cultural hegemony, and many are not at all happy about it.
But it’s not only about power. These Christians also are grieving what they perceive to be real cultural losses, such as declining moral integrity in public life, collapsing families and loss of any kind of cultural moral consensus.
Fodder for culture wars
The saddest thing about all this is the way in which real people’s suffering becomes fodder to use as proxies in culture wars. Think of women facing crisis pregnancies and teenagers struggling with their sexual orientation. Can we at least agree that human beings ought to be treated as human beings and not as proxies for political fights? It seems we cannot.
In the end, if the numbers hold up, Christians will have no choice but to face the end of their cultural hegemony and the tightening up of what disestablishment is taken to mean. Those who lead Christian communities will face the challenge of communicating the possibilities—and not just the losses—facing a now-minority church.
Perhaps we will be able to read the New Testament with fresh eyes. Without any legal or cultural power, those who wrote it followed Christ, built faithful churches, and told their neighbors about God’s love. We could do it, too.
David P. Gushee is senior columnist for faith, politics and culture for ABPnews/Herald. He is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Follow David on twitter: @dpgushee