missing religious center

Conflict in a Society without a Religious Consensus

Rick Plasterer on May 11, 2022

Loss of conviction about ultimate things is at the heart of the unease of American society. It is behind our highly polarized politics, which at least from 2020 onward has sometimes turned violent. New York Times columnist and author Ross Douthat well analyzed the current predicament at a Faith and Law presentation on May 6.

Douthat began by observing the conservative narrative about American society. This is that it was broadly Judeo-Christian before the 1960s, with a nearly universal belief in God and acceptance of Judeo-Christian morality, but has “gradually secularized” since then. He observed that about twenty years ago, it was widely held among conservatives that secularism had been imposed on the nation by a secular elite. At least part of the solution was to “mobilize mass opinion,” and moral authority against this. This really was a kind of continuation of the “moral majority” strategy of the 1980s. Today, however, religious conservatives see themselves an “embattled minority.” As part of this, what is also seen more in “Catholic circles” is the claim that “democracy itself” is the problem – that it will inevitably lead to secularism.

Secularists in this situation have insisted that the United States has always been a secular republic, and “church and politics” should be separate. It might be added that this viewpoint currently feeds a secular globalism, which, Douthat said, in turn feeds the fears of religious conservatives, which fear helped elect Donald Trump,

In Douthat’s own view, the American republic is a “structure” which can be inhabited by “different moral and theological views.” This determines debates that occur, which are played out by the “moral framework” provided by different worldviews. The actual moral order of the republic at the beginning was a Christian morality, with a heavy deist theological element. Following the Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century, there was “a long period of mainline Protestant” dominance. This was accompanied by a strong moral sense of national purpose from the Civil War until the Eisenhower Administration. An essentially Protestant society came to accept Catholics on the basis of a commonly shared morality, and ultimately came to include Jews, and the resulting term (especially since World War II) of “Judeo-Christian morality.” In this moral framework “American political debates were carried out.”

This moral system, Douthat assesses, fell apart because “mainline Protestantism” fell apart. Many people simply moved into a “more secular … post-Christian kind of religious engagement.” Others moved into “a more conservative, theologically Evangelical direction.” This separation gave the general public no common religious or moral framework. There were also many technological changes accompanying this loss of moral consensus, from “interstate highways to the  … rise of birth control pills.” There is no framework “to set the boundaries of debate.” All kinds of questions, such as the nature of God, the relation of God and politics, and the relation of different groups and individuals in society are left unanswered, making the resolution of political engagements very difficult.

What has resulted from this continuing lack of moral and religious framework is a “soft form of religious individualism.” It tends toward a pantheistic theology in the background, and a belief that there is a “divine spark in everyone.” A common orientation is toward a religious viewpoint somewhat like that of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. One’s internal life, one’s intuitions, are “more important than any kind of external revelation or external story.” This ties into pantheism, in which God is held to be “imminent, in nature.” This kind of religious viewpoint is not new in America, it has “always been a mark of American pluralism.” Christian Science was a nineteenth century example of the Emerson/Whitman kind of outlook, but it “has gotten more culturally influential as institutional Protestantism declined.” He referred to commentary on cultural trends of the 1960s and 1970s in such works as Habits of the Heart, by Robert Bellah, or The Triumph of the Therapeutic, by Philip Rieff. Oprah Winfrey is one of the most noted contemporary manifestations of this spiritual individualism. It is a “soft” religion which is individualistic, non-dogmatic, and non-institutional. It is attuned to “whatever you feel in the moment.”

A response to the disappearance of the American religious center in institutional Protestantism has been the Evangelical/Roman Catholic alliance. This is an attempt to maintain “old school religion,” and focus in public debate on Evangelical/Catholic commonalities. In addition to the common theological and moral doctrines, Catholic thought, which Evangelicals at the present time commonly assent to, holds forth natural law arguments as a way of finding broad public consensus on moral and political issues. Pope John Paul II was especially popular among Protestants, and this alliance seems to have reached its apogee about the year 2000. Chuck Colson and Billy Graham were other important figures in this alliance, which attempted to assume the mantle of mainline Protestantism. The alliance’s fortunes declined, however, with the end of the George W. Bush Administration in financial crisis and a protracted overseas war, along with the sex scandals of the Roman Catholic Church, and now the fall of important Evangelical leaders in sex scandals. There was also the failure of religious conservatives to persuade a broad consensus of the American people that Christian sexual morality is in fact correct. These failures (along, this writer would add, with the attack on the religious conscience spearheaded by the secular and sexual left since the 2000s), propelled religious conservatives to support Donald Trump, and the politics of the present day.

Nevertheless, there is a strong sense, Douthat believes, among many Americans of widely different viewpoints, of the need for a moral vision in society. Even the pantheist/Gnostic part of society shares in this, he believes. This group can be thought of as the heirs of the Puritans in their moral fervor and fastidiousness to their own sensibilities, and even can be found prominently in the old religious denominations. Against the predictions of other conservatives, Douthat sees a possible future in which “wokeness … carries all before it.” The woke revolution is attempting the opposite conquest of society as the Moral Majority of the 1980s. The Moral Majority proposed to move from a popular base and capture elite institutions. The Social Justice Warriors propose to move from elite institutions to capture society. The Moral Majority had a majority of the American public with them for a number of years, but failed to capture the institutions. The woke warriors now seem to be encountering stiff resistance from society at large. Douthat also sees “significant liberal discontent” with the woke even in the academy.

Overall, Americans feel the need for a strong moral framework, and at least a “soft” religious consensus to provide a backdrop for the moral framework. People know that political proceduralism and the Bill of Rights are not adequate to give society both order and liberty. We must in fact know what is “good and true” to have a healthy society. Only among the highly secular elite in universities is there a true commitment to materialist philosophy and moral relativism.

As long as there continues to be no religious and moral consensus in the nation, it will continue to experience “wild swings” between the Right and the Left. Despite the election of Donald Trump (and his appointment of three Supreme Court justices, it might be added), political power without cultural power will not be adequate for conservatives. He agrees that there is no simple formula of “politics is downstream from culture.” Rather, they interact with one another, feeding off each other in a “whirlpool.”

Douthat believes that the advent of same-sex marriage has resulted in a qualitative change in the American religious and cultural situation. For Christianity ever to regain its status commanding a cultural consensus, as was true in the nineteenth century, and, diminishingly, into the twentieth century, the moral imperative of accommodating homosexuality, and accommodating it particularly in the institution of marriage, is now a barrier to many non-religious or nominally religious Americans, who might “otherwise be open to persuasion.” The other problem for Christianity in America is, as noted above, a strong commitment to materialism and relativism in the academy at ‘the highest levels of American culture.” Such things as belief in “miracles, the inspiration of the Bible, [and] the resurrection of the dead” are judged to be entirely out of the realm of possibility.

A questioner asked about the move to subjectivity in the wider world. Douthat said that while that move has happened, in the last ten to fifteen years, “there has been some shift away from subjectivity and relativism in the moral realm.” Twenty years ago, the Left favored moral relativism, and cast doubt on expert opinion. Today it takes absolutist positions (as is certainly true on LGBT issues and abortion) and advances expert opinion (which is likely to be the opinion of leftists) as authoritative. The failure of the public to accept this “has created panic within the expert class.” Meanwhile for the woke, “lived experience” is a new absolute truth.

In answer to another question, Douthat observed that public schools are “the primary cultural battleground.” If an organization devoted to the humanities advances strongly woke statements, even if it is an academic department, it does not create many ripples in society. But woke policies and curriculum in public schools do.

Douthat said that he was surprised that Texas’ new “heartbeat law” banning abortion had not resulted in more pushback. He thought that the “most likely near term optimistic scenario” was that conservative states would pass laws banning abortion along the lines of many other countries, with 12 or 15 week limits on abortions.

This writer would point out while Douthat is correct in saying that the woke revolution “may carry all before it,” this is only one possibility. Both the Texas law and the success of Governor Ron DeSantis in resisting corporate coercion in Florida show that religious and social conservatives can win, and when they do, that is a new legal and social reality that screaming does not change. But we also need to realize that Douthat’s analysis about the need for some moral consensus is correct, and that now is the time when Christian conviction is truly being put to the test.

We have heard the call of Christ in our lives, and we find agreement to God’s revelation in both reason and experience. Strong institutional and moral bonds have been eroding for at least a generation, although recent trends show a slight improvement in doctrinal understanding among Evangelicals. We can neither accommodate sin, nor speak lies to support it, as is now being required at various times and places in contemporary paganized society. We must continue to speak the truth from God’s revelation and from reason, living it in our own lives, and knowing that God’s providence works all things for the good, and he will finally prevail.

  1. Comment by Diane on May 13, 2022 at 4:35 am

    “The actual moral order of the republic at the beginning was a Christian morality, with a heavy deist theological element”

    Christian morality? Enslaved people thought to be animals. Slaughter of people regarded as savages. Imprisoned and murdered “witches”. And so much more.

  2. Comment by John Kay on May 13, 2022 at 7:09 am

    Diane,

    Do you run a fruit farm? I ask because you do a nice job cherry picking certain issues and ignore everything else (i.e. reality) to support your point.

    How many Christians, even those who thought slavery was ok, considered black people as animals in the early settling of our country? Did that opinion permeate all of American society at the time? Two hundred years later a few guys are writing books to justify slavery and try to show blacks were not quite human, so we should ignore ‘Bleeding Kansas’, the Fugitive slave movement, the rise of the Republican Party, et al?

    And as an aside, if you read some people, indentured servanthood, the which many white Europeans came to the colonies was really slavery. So what do you think these people were considered to be in the social pecking order?

    I know that there were witch trials in one area of colonial America, and not long after religious groups groups settled in the country. So tell me how many places in Pennsylvania has major witch trials. Was Virginia a hotbed of witch persecution? Did Rhode Island have an office of anti-witch enforcement?

    Let’s compare witch trials in the US with say, the power of the equivalent people to witches in sub-Saharan Africa? Or better yet, let’s compare how slavers in Africa and the Middle East treated their slaves/captured populations they bought and sold and what happened in the pre-Civil War US. And yes, of course, you believe that all the Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere before white Europeans came to destroy them lived in a paradise of peace and plenty with no war, no slavery, no disease, and no evil.

    In other words, people sin, sometime horribly. But to label Christianity of 300 years ago as a false religion, worthy of condemnation, and detrimental to society as you did is crazy.

    Are we better off today? You tell me; we have Wiccans trying to say they are a legit religion and are ignored, slavery is still alive and well in parts of the world, we have secular religions like radical environmentalism worshiping Gaia like people worshiped Baal and Asherah millennia ago. In many places in the US life is closer to anarchy and urban combat than anything else.

    I hope one day there can actual legitimate conversations about issues like this, but when I read posts like yours I doubt it will ever happen.

  3. Comment by td on May 13, 2022 at 12:30 pm

    Diane and john kay-
    What i see when we compare societies and governments that are christian with societies and governments that are atheist is blaringly different outcomes that our media and academics ignore because they want to blame christianity.

    They so easily ignore that the two biggest atheist movements of the last 100 years- nazism and marxism produced the largest intentional state-sponsored killings of civiliand recorded in human history. The stain of slavery, witch trials, etc pale in comparison. If you are looking for a religion with more respect, dignity, life, and freedom for people that is better than christianity, your search will never end.

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