This Easter, the New York Times’ Sunday Review section was packed with op-ed columns related to American religion — more specifically American Christianity. Here’s a small summary.
- Nicholas Kristof interviewed former president and perpetual Baptist-Sunday-school-teacher Jimmy Carter (Carter even taught Sunday School at First Baptist Church in Washington while he was president. Reflect on that for the next four years!) Carter concluded: “I try to apply the teachings of Jesus in my own life, often without success.”
- Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Peter Wehner called Christians to reclaim humility as their identifiable virtue, asking, “If humility was good enough for Jesus, why not for the rest of us?”
- Molly Worthen, professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, examined “The Evangelical Roots of Post-Truth,” evident in fundamentalist rationalism and denial of evolution as contradicting Bible-based creationism. She concludes, “Cynicism and tribalism are among the gravest human temptations,” made more dangerous “when they pose as wisdom and righteousness.”
- Catholic columnist Ross Douthat offers an “implausible” proposal that “liberal post-Protestants should find a mainline congregation and start attending every week … for the sake of their country, their culture and their very selves.” Mainline churches, Douthat observes, are “aging and emptying,” even as their distinctive contributions — “ecumenical spirituality and a progressive social gospel” — permeate elements of American culture. Conservative Douthat can’t resist ironic/catty insistence that the mainline collapse “reveals the weaknesses of liberalism in religion.” (Hope he read Wehner’s column on humility, since his own Catholic Church has been losing communicants for years.)
Other recent reports expand such permanent present across the theological spectrum in American Christian communions.
In an April 2017 article in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart cites a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) study suggesting that “the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990.” Beinart concludes that, “This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination,” calculating that a majority of the 81 percent of evangelicals who voted for Trump had already disengaged from conservative churches, expanding the ranks of the “nones.”
On Easter Sunday, CBS Face the Nation featured a panel on American religion that included a Catholic priest, a Jewish writer, and two evangelicals, including Rod Dreher, author of the best-selling The Benedict Option. After mourning/whining the loss of a “Judeo-Christian moral center” in American life (as if there were ever consensus on that nebulous term, not used until the late 19th century), Dreher warned conservatives that “Trump is not going to be the ultimate savior of Christianity in America.”
But might he reinvigorate it? In a recent Christian Science Monitor, Harry Bruinius tracks “a surge in attendance and a newfound energy” within many progressive congregations in the United States. Bruinius suggests that while this may be merely “a blip” on the decades-long decline of liberal Christianity, “since the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency, in fact, liberal enclaves have reported something of an awakening.” (Is President Trump an unanticipated agent of revival in progressive Christianity? Don’t tell Franklin Graham!)
As if fulfilling that prophesy, the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal reported on a Maundy Thursday interfaith gathering at Temple Emmanuel urging the city council to designate Winston-Salem a “Welcoming City” in response to the 25,000-30,000 undocumented immigrants in Forsyth County, N.C. From the synagogue steps, United Methodist pastor Kelly Carpenter declared: “We stand as a people of faith to say that scapegoating those who are different from ourselves is not the way of God. Policies built on prejudice make us less safe.” Of these immigrants, Carpenter noted: “They live among us, go to school with our children, shop in the same stores, drive on our streets, gather and serve our food,” he said. “We are called to stand with all people who are vulnerable to oppression.” (Advocates for the designation withdrew their resolution, realizing they didn’t have the votes to support it.)
My own limited experience mirrors those concerns. During Lent, I presented three sessions on “Welcoming the Stranger,” that brought together Anglo congregants from Highland Presbyterian Church and Latino/a members of El Buen Pastor, for whom the lectures were translated into Spanish. Conversations centered on churches reaching out to those whose racial, economic, ethnic, and religious heritages are not simply varied, but can seem disturbing. While these gatherings may seem a small response to larger issues, they represented the willingness of two congregations to come together, be together, to facilitate dialogue and community at a time of great volatility regarding “strangers” in the midst.
I began using the phrase “permanent transition,” at least by October 1999, in a convocation address that marked the official beginning of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. By that I meant that in 21st century America, traditional ways of organizing and engaging religious communities, religious experience, and faith perspectives are in such a state of continuous alteration that more stable and enduring institutional and ideological forms will be a long time coming.
For Christians, this surely means that we have to continually re-form our public case as sacramental communions of justice and reconciliation, compassion and grace whatever our varied theological orientation, ways that reflect an abiding spirituality turned outward on the world. Know it or not, the “spiritual, not religious” folks need us to do that. But with humility.