“A Catholic, a Jew, and an Evangelical walk onto a stage…”
It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but that was the scene at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville last week. Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler was joined by syndicated talk radio host Dennis Prager in a January 28 discussion moderated by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. In the discussion, entitled “Faith and Freedom in the Public Square,” the three discussed and debated pressing issues facing faithful Christians in an increasingly secularized society, including the state of the “culture wars,” the trajectory of the Religious Left, and the decline in America’s Christian culture.
Douthat begun by summarizing what he believed is the general feeling in the nation’s capital. “The view from Washington right now is that we have entered a kind of ‘post culture war’ era in American politics. And it’s an era where religious conservatism…has mostly lost, is mostly on the retreat.”
Mohler, however, pushed back against the idea that the ‘culture war’ was completely lost, citing a story in The Washington Post that noted that the debate over abortion is the most heated ever since Roe v. Wade. “The culture war is over except where it isn’t,” Mohler qualified, “and still isn’t over where it’s most important.” What has changed, he argued, is a decline in the cultural Christianity ascendant in the postwar period. This cultural Christianity, he claimed, had a “binding moral authority” that has in recent years disappeared. He cited as evidence the increasing number of young adults who claim their religion as “none.”
Prager agreed with Douthat that religious conservatives are on the retreat politically. In general, Prager was much more pessimistic throughout the entire discussion on the state of morality in the United States. “This country is changing. This country is an aberration, that’s my view. Good is aberrant. Evil is normative.”
Prager railed against leftism for its role in this cultural decline, especially religious liberals. “There may be some renaissance of ‘liberal religion,’. which is to me worse than liberal secularism. Because it’s leftism with a cross. Leftism, with a Torah… Leftism has taken over most of my religion, Judaism. In non-Orthodox Judaism… it is more likely that a rabbi would speak about global warming on Yom Kippur, than sin. In fact, global warming is the sin!”
Mohler, however, was uncertain that there would be a Religious Left revival. “…I think liberal religion is not going to see a renaissance. It’s going to see some isolated areas of interest because there’re still some things to use. There’s some cultural credibility to be found behind stained glass and pipe organs and cathedral buildings and all the rest, but it won’t last. Because if it doesn’t have any binding authority no one stays.”
Citing the example of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), Mohler said church officials hired sociologists to help explain why their attendance continues to drop. The sociologists gave a “theological answer,” that people left because there was no binding authority keeping them in the pews. “You no longer believe that Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation, you don’t think there’s anything from which people need to be saved, and thus no one comes to church, no one wants to go, no one feels any binding authority. The whole thing is collapsed!”
Liberal religion will ultimately fail because of its redundancy, Prager proposed. Leftism, he said, already has all the same features of a religion, and most adherents treat it as such. “It even has a Bible,” he told Douthat, “The editorial pages of your newspaper!” Ultimately, he argued there was no reason for a typical liberal to go to church or synagogue to get the same message one can get from The New York Times and NPR.
Speaking as a religious Jew, Prager lamented the decline of cultural Christianity, especially in light of its long history of acceptance of the Jewish people. “The American Christian has created something unique: the most accepting, open, and yet rooted religiosity in history. To be a ‘true believer’ and as tolerant as the American Protestant has been, there is no parallel to it. And I fear its breakdown immensely, because I don’t see what will replace it.”
In explaining much of this decline, Mohler noted that there had always been fewer Evangelicals and Christians than people believed, because many people joined churches for the social capital. Especially in Southern cities like Atlanta, it was expected to belong to a church. But today “cultural Christianity is disappearing. Even in a city like Atlanta, you don’t have to be a member of a church. In fact, if you are a member of church, you speak of it in hushed tones, it’s not the kind of thing you bring up in polite conversation.”
Mohler believed the decline was driven in part by displeasure with the Religious Right. In retrospect, he recognized that Evangelical Christians placed far too much hope in the political process. Ultimately, he stated, it’s culture that informs politics and not the other way around. “Was the Religious Right a mistake? Of course it was! But it was the probably the least worst mistake… that was possible given the circumstances of time. But these are very different times. And anyone who operates under the illusion that the same kind of structure, the same kind of organization, the same kind of political hopes can be invested now, is uh, probably on a trip to Colorado in order to use something recreationally.”
It was Mohler who got in the final remarks before the closing prayer, dismissing secular efforts to introduce new moral codes as irrational. “This is what human beings do when they no longer recognize God, but instead say ‘We can be on our own. We will build a tower into the heavens and make a name for ourselves.’ Well, we know how that story ends.”Google+