Don’t celebrate just yet: Saying goodbye to Christian America, part II

Don't celebrate just yet. Today I want to talk about what there is to mourn with the end of Christian America. 

By David Gushee

Follow David on twitter: @dpgushee

In my last article, I suggested that realism demands that we “say goodbye to Christian America,” because it is passing. I intended to join neither those who wholly celebrate this fact nor those who wholly mourn it. Instead I meant it when I claimed, with my former teacher Larry Rasmussen, that “there are advantages and disadvantages to every power position for the church.”

The response I have received has been fascinating. Some appear to have thought I was simply mourning the end of Christian America, and joined me in that mourning. Others thought I was simply celebrating, and joined me in that celebrating. But I genuinely intended to both mourn and celebrate. Because both are appropriate.

Today I want to talk about what there is to mourn — or at least worry about — with the end of Christian America.

My comments are affected by my own mourning, as my family has just lost a beloved member: my father-in-law, Dr. W. Vance Grant Jr., a lifetime Baptist layman, who died last week at 89. 

I am also affected by immersion in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in preparation for a class I am currently teaching. We have just now reached his Ethics, which contains his mature, though unfinished, thinking about many things, including the concept of “Christian civilization” and the threat posed by Nazi ideology and policy. I personally think the Ethics is Bonhoeffer’s most important work.

Worldview, Christianity and medicine

Major social institutions are affected by a culture’s deepest beliefs or assumptions, which are sometimes called worldviews. Such core beliefs include whether there is a god, what kind of god/s there might be, what it means to be human, how (different kinds of) humans/groups should be viewed, what our moral obligations are to different humans and groups, how society’s benefits and burdens should be distributed, how the dying and the dead should be seen and treated, and so on.

Christian-influenced cultures believe there is a God. They believe that God is the Creator and Sovereign of the world, and that human beings, made in the image of God, are the crown of God’s creation. Since each and every human being comes from God and is valued by God, we must treat each person accordingly, as having sacred worth. I explore these themes in great detail in my 2013 Sacredness of Human Life.

In Christian-influenced cultures, illness has been treated as an enemy to be combatted because it causes human beings such suffering — and because Jesus came as healer. And death has been treated as an enemy, in part based on a creation narrative in which death did not enter the world until humans sinned — and has been defeated in Jesus Christ the resurrected one, who blazes the trail for our own resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15).

The Nazi alternative

I am not saying that Christian-influenced cultures have always lived up to these convictions. We have often failed grievously. But that these convictions have shaped cultures, including medical practices in cultures, cannot be denied. It was certainly not denied by the Nazi regime in Germany, which understood that its own Weltanschauung stood in direct contradiction to this older Christian worldview, which they needed to undercut wherever possible.

Nazi textbooks, such as The Nazi Primer, which I have on my bookshelf, taught children that the old Christian teaching about the original unity of humanity as created by God should be rejected. The truth, they said, was the fundamental unlikeness and disunity of human groups based on race. They taught that our moral obligations were race-based and thus how people should be treated varied accordingly. They rejected the significance of individuals in favor of the well-being of the race and nation. They did not grant a concept of human rights.

Though they only had 12 years to corrupt medicine, they did a thorough job of it. Early on they forcibly and by law sterilized racial “inferiors.” They killed Germany’s own physically and mentally ill in a secret “euthanasia” program installed in 1939. And at the death camps SS doctors met the trains and decided who would live, who would die and who would be the subject of sadistic medical “experiments.” In their godless mental universe, Nazi racial engineers became gods themselves. With total hubris they destroyed tens of millions of lives.

Will the Christian moral legacy survive?

In his Ethics, Bonhoeffer contrasts Nazism’s medical ethics with Christianity’s historic convictions about “the rights of natural life.” Already while writing this book he knew about the Nazi “euthanasia” program as well as atrocities on the eastern front. He pushed back hard in the name of the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ.

The U.S. health care system is, obviously, deeply flawed. But it is, still, a system governed by ethical principles yielding specific practices we cannot take for granted. These include: emergency rooms are required to treat everyone who walks in; human dignity and rights must be respected for all patients; differentiated care based on race, class, sexual orientation or gender is forbidden; medical conditions are addressed responsibly using best practices; caregivers are nurtured in an ethos of compassion and respect. 

Especially delicate moral assumptions drive how the process of death is handled in U.S. medicine. Death is fought hard, until it no longer makes sense to fight it. But even then, death is not hurried; it is patiently awaited. And, except in a few states, it is illegal for a medical professional to directly hasten a patient’s death, no matter how hopeless their condition. These norms simply exude a sense of humility before death and the Sovereign who is not us. The comparison with the Nazis is painfully obvious. 

I am not saying that a post-Christian America is or will become a Nazi-like country. I am saying that uncritical celebration of the ebbing influence of Christianity is way too simple; in terms of society's well-being, it largely depends on what replaces it. My own belief is that we are living on borrowed cultural capital; many of our ethical norms and practices still reflect the impact of a religious belief system that is itself fading.

One wonders how long Christian ethics can survive without Christian belief. One wonders what kind of moral world we will leave to our grandchildren. 

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