The fusion of politics and religion – most prominently the fusion of the evangelical movement and the Republican party – has been one of the most damaging developments in recent American history. It has made Republicanism not the creed of realists, pragmatists and compromise but of fundamentalists – on social and foreign policy, and even fiscal matters. And once maintaining inerrant doctrine becomes more important than, you know, governing a complicated, divided society, you end up with the extremism we saw in the debt ceiling crisis. When doctrine matters more than actually doing anything practical you end up with Cruz cray-cray. How does one disagree with a Taft:
Watching the Republican Party use the full faith and credit of the United States to try to roll back Obamacare, watching its members threaten not to raise the debt limit — which Warren Buffett rightly called a “political weapon of mass destruction” — to repeal a tax on medical devices, I so wanted to ask a similar question: “Have you no sense of responsibility? At long last, have you left no sense of responsibility?”
But there is some light on the horizon. The Catholic hierarchy has been knocked sideways by the emergence of Pope Francis and his eschewal of their fixation on homosexuality, contraception and abortion. That fixation – essentially a Christianist and de facto Republican alliance among Protestants and Catholic leaders – has now been rendered a far lower priority than, say, preaching the Gospel or serving the poor and the sick. Francis has also endorsed secularism as the proper modern context for religious faith:
I say that politics is the most important of the civil activities and has its own field of action, which is not that of religion. Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres.
But perhaps a more powerful shift against Christianism is now taking place among evangelicals, especially the younger generation. Check out this terrific profile of the Southern Baptist Convention’s new public voice, Russell Moore. Money quote:
“We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,” Mr. Moore said in an interview in his Washington office, a short walk from Congress. “Christianity thrives when it is clearest about what distinguishes it from the outside culture.”
Moore, moreover, is not alone. At 42, he is more in touch with the next generation of evangelical Christians who do not share or support the harsh political agenda of their elders:
A March survey of nearly 1,000 white evangelicals by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan polling organization, found half of those under 35 favored same-sex marriage, compared with just 15% of those over 65. The younger evangelicals were more likely to be independents over Republicans, while the opposite was true of their elders.
“The religious right was born on the theology of numerical expansion: the belief that conservative churches grow while liberal ones die. That conceit is gone now,” says David Key, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.
And that conceit was very much behind the stance of a Catholic like Ross Douthat, who, despite his youth, sounds at times more like a theocon of the 1990s than a Millennial Catholic or evangelical. What Ross and others got wrong, I’d suggest, was being too utilitarian in a context where truth still matters. No one should support a church’s doctrine because it is more effective in the short run at putting bottoms on pews, as they say in England. A doctrine or moral position can only be defended as true, not useful. And the Christianist positions on gay people – they can be cured or should be required to be celibate their entire lives, without even masturbation – is so ludicrous as an example of what God would want for a small proportion of his Creation that it has rightly evaporated among the next generation.
Ditto the silly notion that contraception somehow violates the order of nature in ways so grave it must be outlawed. Evangelicals never had to deal with this transparent nonsense, but Catholics still labor under its staggering lack of persuasiveness. The idea that universal healthcare should be opposed because of a tiny detail about contraception coverage is as theologically ass-backwards as the notion that the church might shut down its services for abandoned children or the homeless for fear of employing one spouse of a married gay couple. Perhaps a strong dose of the old medicine could firm up the older generations – but clinging to arguments that no one under 40 finds even vaguely plausible, let alone humane, is not a long-term strategy for the health of Christianity.
The exception to this is abortion, where the moral arguments against it remain powerful and coherent, if impractical as a political project. So it’s no surprise that it’s that issue the younger generation have not shifted on. But the political program to criminalize it may not be as appealing to this generation as a prophetic call against abortion’s dehumanization of human life, and violence against the most vulnerable. To oppose contraception as well as abortion strikes many, rightly, as morally contemptible as a practical question.
And so the pendulum swings back. We do not yet know what a more apolitical, Gospel-centered, life-centered Christianity will achieve, how popular it may be, or whether it will lead to higher levels of commitment to God than at present. But I suspect even Pope Benedict finally realized it is the only way forward – hence his resignation in the face of his papacy’s near-total failure. What matters now and always is truth, not usefulness, faith, not politics. The next generation gets this.
(Chart: from the WSJ. Photo: A visitor inspects a light installation by British-born artist Anthony McCall during a preview of the exhibition “Anthoy McCall. Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture” at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin on April 19, 2012. By Stephanie Pilick/AFP/Getty Images.)