I have an argument that sounds idealistic, naïve, even triumphalist, but that only serves to increase my determination: The nation needs a church.
I still believe the church matters and that we have a role to play that is the opposite of the current devotion to secular politics. My appeal is not rooted in a nostalgia for the church of the 1950s. I am not attempting to put the church in some position of power. I am interested in the ability of the church to enrich, encourage and develop democracy in our political life.
My other deep theological commitments to the church are no less important, but they are set aside for the purpose of engaging in a political debate dealing with democracy. America, and democracy, needs a church.
What a mess. The United States of America is being torn apart by people who have no actual policy recommendations, no serious, substantive democratic deliberations. They are hellbent on getting even with people, calling people names, labeling people as enemies, calling people communists, creating anger and strife and dissension.
“My appeal is not rooted in a nostalgia for the church of the 1950s.”
As a world we are facing divisions we do not know how to heal. What’s troubling to me is how many of our leaders do not want to have our alienation from one another healed. An entire powerful section of the church — the evangelicals — is aiding and abetting the dismantling of democracy. What a mess!
Not just any church can meet the challenge. Not the church of nativism, racism, homophobia. Not the church-growth churches. Not the accommodated church that has morphed into a secular institution. Not the evangelical church whose idolatry to secular politics makes it a branch of the Republican Party. Not the prosperity gospel church. Not the church routinely set up as a straw man by puffed-up atheists whose excruciatingly fatuous descriptions of the church have no resemblance to any actual church.
Do you really think the future of Christianity in America depends upon Robert Jeffress defending Donald Trump for his egregious actions and rhetoric? Or Marjorie Taylor Greene seeing a communist at every table in every coffee shop? Or Joel Osteen packing people into an arena to feel good about feeling good? Or Sen. Tom Cotton insisting on “civilizational self-confidence” for white people?
We need a church teaching and practicing the virtues
Once the church had a daunting pedagogy of virtues, ethics and practices. Start with the four cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude. The church’s early theologians were deeply influenced by Aristotle. Aquinas referred to him only as “the” philosopher.
It’s no surprise that Aristotle’s 12 virtues are written everywhere in the church’s life. Courage, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, patience, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, shame, justice, modesty. Saying these words out loud feels as if I’m giving democracy a much-needed bath after a long sojourn in the wilderness of mud pits and muckraking and misery.
“Saying these words out loud feels as if I’m giving democracy a much-needed bath after a long sojourn in the wilderness of mud pits and muckraking and misery.”
We need to fortify the church that is supposed to teach us the virtues. Our nation slips toward a new dark age — a return of barbarism. The old systems, with the ancient rules, reassert their power.
Robert McElvaine, writing in The Great Depression, describes it as “every-man-for-himself, the devil-take the-hindmost competition and acquisitive individualism.” Virtue lies in a ditch, discarded because nothing matters except getting even, destroying enemies and breaking all the rules. The bad boys and girls have come to play, and they are not playing fair.
Virtue has taken a back seat to the vices of rhetorical perversion and persona. The bad boy/bad girl persona has gained acceptance to win elections. The Joker has been elected mayor of Gotham. Thanos is the tyrant of the universe. Darth Vader rules the stars. Ethos has been taken down a dark alley and beaten senseless. The politicians have followed the comedians who took the genre into profanity and the radio personalities who have visited “shock jock” commentary on culture.
It’s sickening. It’s demeaning. I’m tired of it. The performance of profane rhetoric undermines democracy.
“Our nation, like sharks in the water, is in a feeding frenzy over hyperbole.”
We need to fortify the churches that are supposed to teach the virtues, the skills of disciplined living for others: how to treat people with dignity and respect; how to correct for our own faults and learn to doubt our certainties; how to forgive people who hurt us; how to avoid mistrust and apocalyptic scorch-the-earth thinking; how to maintain spiritual zeal without weaponizing our rhetoric; how to become one in the spirit.
Our nation, like sharks in the water, is in a feeding frenzy over hyperbole; untruthful, indefensible and incoherent claims and accusations; threats of revenge; constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words, profanity, violent imagery. As the crowds are whipped into emotional rage, no one notices the unraveling of the great American “us.” Instead, lines have been drawn and there’s an “us” and a “them.” The “US” in USA has been replaced by “them.”
The church has practices that have nothing in common with the practices of our secular politicians. Confession, for example, can be the starting point. Church and confession belong together.
We are the only institution on the planet constituted by the practice of confession of sin, as noted by Stanley Hauerwas. When we replace confession with excuses and rationalizations, with fake apologies and whining, we should know we have a problem.
Hauerwas says, “Politics is certainly about the conversation necessary for a people across time to discover goods that they have in common, but what is needed is the actual display of the material practices that constitute that conversation.” That conversation has come to a halt. There’s no seeking of goods we have in common. There’s no attempt at mutualism, rapport, cooperation or listening.
The conversation has been canceled by both sides. Republicans scream about being “canceled” by political correctness and then cancel dissident voices in their own party. Conversation has become a monologue of harsh, hard-nosed, demeaning pronouncements. There’s nowhere to turn when the opening gambit is, “All Democrats are a bunch of communists.”
David Brooks: “Even in America, over the past decades, the institutions that earlier generations thought were essential to molding a democratic citizenry have withered or malfunctioned. Many churches and media outlets have gone partisan. Civics education has receded. Neighborhood organizations have shrunk. Patriotic rituals are out of fashion.”
The old normal has returned. The jungle has grown back. The barbaric has risen from the dead. Brooks adds, “The 21st century has become a dark century because the seedbeds of democracy have been neglected and normal historical authoritarianism is on the march.”
“This is not merely a dark century; this is the birth pangs of a new dark age.”
I don’t think Brooks goes far enough. This is not merely a dark century; this is the birth pangs of a new dark age. The age of tyranny, authoritarianism, the “strongman” ruler, the violence of military and war. We are giving in to the illusion of security, and we will pay a heavy price.
The practices required for a viable faith, or an actual democracy, are as complex as the skills required to play baseball. Discipline, effort, attention to detail, practice, constant practice, are the essence of playing baseball. Even then, not many people can hit a slider.
The disappearance of the .400 hitter in baseball is a case in point. Changes in the game have made hitting .400 impossible. Instead of a hitter facing the same pitcher five times in a game, he faces up to four or five different pitchers. By the same token, changes in our political rhetoric have made it difficult to maintain decorum, tradition and practices of virtue.
The church in grasping for political power seems to have dropped the Cross and grabbed Tolkien’s ring without noticing the systemic forces of corruption that accompany the grasping.
We need a church with a social gospel
The nation doesn’t need a religious version of successful corporations. The nation needs a church that meets economic needs because of empathy and compassion and concern. The nation needs the faithful church — thousands of little churches dotting the landscape and filled with faithful, caring people who are always extending the hand of fellowship and hospitality to the stranger.
Have you ever lived in a poor rural area of our nation? I have, and I remain amazed at the level of care people provide for one another.
In Doris Betts’ story “This Is the Only Time I’ll Tell It,” we see a mountain community united in helping a single woman raise a child. “All us natives took on our voted jobs. Some, during church hour, forked more hay into her barn; others would lift Zelene’s hens and add eggs. … “Sometimes, at the courthouse, I put down a little on Zelene’s land taxes. Sometimes for her I turned back the scales at my store.”
I’m saying the church needs a vision of all the Zelenes in this nation who need a helping hand. The church, filled with individuals of unbelievable generosity and goodness, needs to open our hearts to providing a government that encourages, lifts, helps and cares for all the Zelenes of every creed, color, nationality. Transfer all that individual goodness into a political goodness.
“This nation needs a church with a burning determination to meet the economic needs of everyone in need.”
Jesus didn’t feed one hungry person; he fed 5,000. Jesus didn’t die for one person; he gave his life for the world. This nation needs a church with a burning determination to meet the economic needs of everyone in need.
“God has sent me to preach good news to the poor,” Jesus said. Good news to a poor person is food on the table, fire in the fireplace, clothes on the back, money in the bank, enough resources to pay the doctor, the pharmacist and the physical therapist. Good news to the poor? Food, clothing, shelter.
Truly I stand amazed at the generosity of church people. I have lived in this institution my entire life, and church people will give the shirt off their backs to help a needy person. I am asking them to transfer these deep feelings of empathy to the nation. The individual ethic of care needs to be transferred to the government. Without removing an iota of evangelical zeal to “save sinners,” I want to add the social gospel to our politics.
We need a church with good manners and a spirit of gratefulness
Good manners are essential to a civilized people, and our politicians have thrown away good manners. They are reading The Art of War when they need refresher courses in Emily Post’s Etiquette. Gratefulness. They engage in politics about nothing rather than passing legislation designed to enhance the lives of all.
There’s no future in a nation where the political machinery produces anger all the time. Every news cycle there’s something new, some new conspiracy, some new accusation that we are all supposed to be enraged over and determined to stop.
Make a single political donation on your phone, and the text messages will pop up night and day with powerful emotional texts designed to frighten or disgust you. An angry people are being fed anger as the main course for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A democracy disappears bit by bit with each outburst of anger, with the cumulative effect of anger leading to violence and the possibility of a fractured nation.
“There’s no future in a nation where the political machinery produces anger all the time.”
Contrast all those angry Christians with people who are grateful.
The world does not look the same to someone who is angry and someone who is grateful. We need to cultivate different emotions. Gratefulness rather than anger. Forgiveness rather than resentment and revenge.
Reframing faith as an experience of gratefulness returns us to basic convictions that God is good, creation is good, life is good, and so long as people are alive, they need not despair, for they can find freedom and happiness even when they suffer.
We need a church producing trust instead of mistrust and anger
Agents of mistrust sound the drums of suspicion in our democracy. There never has been a time in our history when so many have been so willing to desert all notions of truth and embrace lies, distortions and disinformation because of a lack of trust. A plague of talking serpents, descendants of the serpent of Eden, now put doubt, suspicion and mistrust in the minds of Americans. Politicians major in producing mistrust. Some media outlets promote mistrust every news cycle. Some preachers, people who belong to a religion of trust, tell us not to trust anyone.
Rowan Williams, in Tokens of Trust, gestures in the direction that our culture has fled. He says we are in a crisis of trust, but it’s much worse than that. We live in the age of mistrust.
“The provocateurs of mistrust bombard the anchor institutions of our culture, accusing them of lying.”
The provocateurs of mistrust bombard the anchor institutions of our culture, accusing them of lying. Sen. Rand Paul’s every waking moment seems dedicated to fostering mistrust in the work of Anthony Fauci. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, former President Trump, and an army of evangelical preachers are telling us not to trust America’s historians. We are now being taught to mistrust science and history, mistrust the nightly news, mistrust our educational system, our health system and all of government.
Mistrust means suspicion. Everyone else has a hidden, selfish agenda; they are out to do us in and hurt us and take what is ours. Life is not working to our advantage. “Globalization” the prophets of mistrust whisper. “Political correctness,” “CRT,” “can’t trust those liberal historians.” Power is being taken away from us. We are losing. The system is rigged against us. There is a sense of not being in control. Others have hidden advantages. Something hostile and sneaky is going on behind our backs.
American historian David Blight offers a dose of reality: “The lies have now crept into a Trumpian Lost Cause ideology, building its monuments in ludicrous stories that millions believe, and codifying them in laws to make the next elections easier to pilfer. If you repeat the terms ‘voter fraud’ and ‘election integrity’ enough times on the right networks, you have a movement. And ‘replacement theory’ works well alongside a thousand repetitions of ‘critical race theory,’ both disembodied of definition or meaning, but both scary.”
The nation needs a church determined to restore trust. Our mistrust of science, especially in relation to climate change, is not only misleading, it is dangerous.
“Do not rely on your own insight,” says the Wise Woman of Proverbs, yet everywhere we turn, people are rejecting the truth of experts, scholars, scientists: “Who are you to tell me I should wear a mask?”
“Bad religion teaches people not to trust but to have constant suspicion and anger against all the forces that are against you.”
Bad religion teaches people not to trust but to have constant suspicion and anger against all the forces that are against you. Trump tells South Carolina supporters they must fight to the death against Critical Race Theory. I didn’t know Critical Race Theory has invaded South Carolina. Is the state that brought us secession really under attack from a theory? How can this be? What weapons does CRT possess? What exactly is supposed to make CRT so dangerous? CRT says that racism is systemic. If conservatives are tired of being called racists, they should stop ranting about CRT and wokeness and become antiracist.
We need a church of ‘us’ without a ‘them’
Feeling like Abraham pushing God for one more compromise on behalf of Sodom, I offer one more attribute that only a church can produce. The nation needs a church that attempts to do what many preachers deem impossible — to imagine a universal community without division, a solidarity that does not exclude, an us without a them.
A church imagines a truly universal community unbounded by any borders, and, while this vision is beautiful, philosophers argue that it is difficult to sustain any such rhetoric of universality, which is perpetually breaking down into more restrictive rhetoric that claim that we are divine but they are not.
When such supercharged rhetoric has been yoked to claims about family or blood, it has led to the worst types of violence in human history. A church focused on being the body of Christ will address friends and enemies and strangers alike as “brothers” and “sisters.”
The nation needs a church that models an ideal politics — that is what Christians do, we capture an ideal, a constitutive good — devoted to a relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a God who includes everyone, a community without fences.
“This is not the suggestion of an oppressive oneness that obliterates difference and dissent, that cancels disagreement.”
Devoted to the body, “the diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite — they unite now,” Walt Whitman wrote in “The Sleepers.”
This is not the suggestion of an oppressive oneness that obliterates difference and dissent, that cancels disagreement. The church I project acts as the ground on which persons can stand together when it is time to argue, to judge, to debate, to discern and to draw the lines that make church work.
The idea of making space for everyone, if the subject is broached, is usually the syrupy version, “We should all try to get along with one another.” I am not attempting to be memorable or wonderful or idealistic or give out temporary mountaintop moments of the Kumbaya variety. About the last thing I would want is for my argument to fall into that spiritualized pit.
I have Whitman’s vision in mind: “Rejecting none, permitting all,” runaway slaves, prostitutes, farmers, mothers, children, dock workers, common workers, the deformed and the sick, the poor and destitute, all have their place at the table. This is the meal pleasantly set … this is the meat and drink for natural hunger. It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous … I make appointments with all, I will not have a single person slighted or left away, The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited … the heavy lipped slave is invited … the venerealee is invited, There shall be no difference between them and the rest.”
Or as Whitman also wrote: “Not until the sun excludes you do I exclude you.”
“I still believe the church matters.”
Given the way we talk about one another, this will be no small task. Who on the left will volunteer to be part of a delegation to go discuss the fate of democracy with Robert Jeffress, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson? Who on the right will come to a symposium with 10 of the finest American historians and progressive theologians and help create a blueprint for American renewal?
I argue the nation needs a church — a nonviolent, peace-producing church of virtue, Christian ethics, hospitality, good manners and practices that inspire and maintain the democratic genius of our nation. America doesn’t need a church that is America — a lapdog, butt-kissing religious institution; America needs a church that will dare to be the church.
I still believe the church matters. I still love this place, still believe every blame thing I ever learned here in church. If somebody in this house doesn’t hear the weeping of our Savior, if somebody isn’t moved to sacrifice some time and thought and energy for our country’s sake, then our democracy may not survive. It’s that simple. Which puts the ball in our court.
And I hope I am right about the staying power of the church. I am convinced that democracy no longer can prosper with America as its church; now, democracy needs the church to be the church.
Rodney W. Kennedy currently serves as interim pastor of Emmanuel Freiden Federated Church in Schenectady, N.Y., and as preaching instructor Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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