As regular readers are no doubt aware, my sympathies in this discussion lie with Darryl’s thesis, especially with respect to the dangers of theocratic and Kuyperian dreaming. However, I keep coming up against what appears to me to be a contradiction within that thesis which, as I see it, risks allowing Darryl’s admirable body of work to bleed out rather slowly. In the comments below, Darryl sums up the creed of the hesitant or conflicted Christian liberal rather succinctly:
Is the church today any worse off than at the time when Paul was telling Christians to be subject to the authorities God had ordained? This question isnâ€™t about the health of the church. Itâ€™s about the freedom of Christians to worship and serve God as they seek. The fairly obvious answer is that Christians enjoy far more freedoms and benefits than the early Christians did. … Yes, liberalism has its problems, as did Neroâ€™s government. Do I like cell phones, air travel, or bans on smoking? Of course not. Even worse, do I think abortion is a terrible evil that even pragmatically makes no sense given the bloated budget lines sustaining middle-class entitlements? Yes, emphatically. But despite all of modern liberalismâ€™s woes, I am hard-pressed to understand how the current state of affairs restricts the ministry of word and sacrement, the discipline of the church, the catechizing of covenant children, or the administration of diaconal assistance, the things that Scripture calls Christians to do while waiting for the return of their Lord.
Actually, I rather think the question is about the health of the church, and about the manner in which liberalism undermines that health. I haven’t seen an adequate account of or even a grappling with the deep ways liberalism is antithetical to Christianity in Darryl’s rendering of the church/politics question. Rather, the account we have seems to boil down to: liberalism gives the church freedom to worship and preach, and even though it also gives freedom to abortionists, etc., it is the best possible arrangement in this world through which we are pilgrims. From that point, the discussion almost always focuses on the latter half of the liberal bargain. And I agree with Darryl that the freedom liberalism grants to wrongdoers is not an existential threat to the church. But what gets missed in this discussion is what is, to me at least, the far more important question which concerns the first half of the bargain: is the form of freedom offered the church by the liberal order good for it? I don’t mean to reduce the question to a simple contrast between 21st Century America and Nero-style persecution, here, but rather to ask: is the order of the liberal soul compatible with Christianity?
To this question, Darryl seems to take the side of American whiggish thinkers (who seem in most senses not to be his natural allies) such as RJ Neuhaus and Chuck Colson who say, basically, with a few caveats here and there, “yes,” it is compatible. In my observation, these are thinkers who, when asked to survey the health of the American church, will by and large affirm the basic health of large-tent evangelicalism in its current form. This is, I think, the only tenable position to take: if you are basically comfortable with the liberal order, then you better be willing to accept the current evangelical mish-mash of the American church. The two are joined at the hip. However, I don’t think it makes any sense to affirm the former and lament or reject the latter. Here is a passage worth considering:
Shannon would no doubt agree with Allen Guelzo who wrote in a recent Books & Culture review of John T. McGreevyâ€™s Catholicism and American Freedom that â€œCatholics might be better advised to forget assimilation to a culture drunk with autonomous individualismâ€â€“culture as choiceâ€“â€œand be content with Catholicismâ€™s own authentic strangeness.â€ Guelzo comes close to suggesting what Shannon might have added himself: the â€œsecularâ€ norms of â€œindividualismâ€ and â€œchoiceâ€ have such purchase among conservative, observant Protestantsâ€“the sort who are often keen to denounce â€œsecularismâ€ and â€œliberalsâ€â€“that Alan Wolfe is correct in The Transformation of American Religion when he deems them â€œharmlessâ€ to the dominant liberal order.
Readers of The New Pantagruel will not be surprised to find that Wolfeâ€™s thesis finds little resistance here. Father Richard John Neuhaus, captain of the First Things ship, however, has consistently railed at Wolfe, calling him â€œthe Alfred E. Neuman of the sociology of American religion.â€ Neuhaus has also suggested more than once in â€œreviewsâ€ with very little analysis that Wolfeâ€™s perceived failure to understand his subject inheres in his status as â€œa secular Jew.â€
I agree with Neuhaus, pace Wolfe, that the assimilation of traditional Christians to the secular status quo is not a good thing for either the Church or the culture. Nevertheless, with serious questions about the integrity of religious traditionalism in general and of Protestant Evangelicalism in particular emerging in First Things and fellow-traveller publications, Neuhaus might do well to ask if he isnâ€™t rather prejudicially shooting the messenger. But noâ€“even when the otherwise admirable David Brooks failed to trash Wolfeâ€™s book in The New York Times, this was clearly due to some lapse on Brooksâ€™ part, and it became another occasion for Neuhaus to snipe at Wolfe. Playing the resentful victim who can never be understood by â€œoutsiders,â€ Neuhausâ€™s animated reactions to Wolfeâ€™s presumed â€œsnobberyâ€ resemble the reactions of other cultural minorities who seethe at any criticism from outside the familyâ€“criticism that they are quite able to accept from â€œtheir own people.â€
As Neuhaus observes in his review of The Transformation of American Religion, â€œthoughtful evangelicals readily admit that their religious world offers a target-rich environment,â€ and Wolfeâ€™s book â€œcontains considerable truth.â€ Nevertheless, it is enough of a â€œcaricatureâ€ to be dismissed as â€œsuperficial sociology of superficial religionâ€“or, more precisely, of religion that the author is determined to construe as superficial.â€ Orâ€“maybe Evangelicalism really is superficial! Considerably superficial? Nuance and self-critique is not the fortÃ© of what McCarraher has called â€œthe embedded intellectual.â€ Signs of malaise and ideological familiarity indeed!
The sickness reaches also to Books & Culture editor John Wilson as he gushes over Robert Putnam, Lewis Feldstein, and Don Cohenâ€™s book, Better Together. Writing in Christianity Today, Wilson claims that Better Togetherâ€™s study of Rick Warrenâ€™s Saddleback megachurch indicates â€œ[t]he unmistakable conclusion â€¦ that evangelicals can be trusted at the civic table.â€ Theyâ€™re generating social capital, and whatâ€™s more, theyâ€™re still maintaining evangelistic agendas. This is supposed to silence the cautionary critics, â€œnotably disciples of theologian Stanley Hauerwas,â€ who hold that Evangelicals â€œhave been co-opted by the imperial state.â€ In a complete non-sequitur which does violence to the real arguments offered by Hauerwas and others, Wilson closes his article by posing Jesusâ€“â€œa man who dined with tax collectors and all kinds of riffraffâ€â€“as a â€œprecedentâ€ over against those who donâ€™t â€œbelieve that [Christians] should strive to have a place at the civic table.â€ I suspect that the civic tables Wilson, Warren, Neuhaus and other Christian culture elites sit at are not populated by riffraff. More appropriate would have been a response to Wolfeâ€™s sense that Evangelicals are selling out their patrimony.
I am under no illusions concerning Wolfeâ€™s place in this debate. He is clearly of the mind that the civic table is a good and necessary thing; a â€œcivilizingâ€ influence on the fervent passions that are prone to grip sectarians such as Hauerwas. Thus, like Neuhaus and Wilson, Wolfe dislikes Hauerwasâ€™s adversarial rancor. Wolfe much prefers what he calls the phenomena of Evangelical â€œSalvation Inflation.â€ In an interview with Michael Cromartie for the March/April 2004 issue of Books & Culture, Wolfe says that in the Rick Warren mode of post-traditional Protestantism, â€œmore Americans than ever proclaim themselves born again in Christ, but the lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem.â€ â€œPeople confess fewer and fewer sins, and are rewarded with more and more.â€ This, to Wolfe, represents a positive development within Christianity, making its adherents better civil citizens of a pluralistic democracy. Wolfeâ€™s manner is strikingly reminiscent of a colonial governor writing home with condescending delight to describe the nativesâ€™ halting embrace of the modern world.
Accompanying the Books & Culture interview, Wolfe received an appreciative but anxious review of The Transformation of American Religion from R. Stephen Warner. Warner prompts readers to avoid Neuhausâ€™s histrionics and give Wolfe a charitable reading in the Iâ€™m OK-Youâ€™re OK Evangelical way where every critic is ultimately an okely-dokely heckuva nice guy. (Translation: we ignore whatever he says that rubs us the wrong way or try to put a positive spin on it.) For in Warnerâ€™s review, truth and accuracy in analysis take a back seat to pop psychologyâ€™s language of diplomacy: Wolfe is â€œwell-intentioned,â€ he has â€œnew evangelical friends,â€ and he does a fair job of understanding them. Wolfe is â€œsensitive to [Evangelicalsâ€™] vulnerability to his scorn.â€ Hence, when Wolfe uses negative terms to describe Evangelicals, it is because he â€œrespectsâ€ them â€œtoo much not to share with them his disdain for the way many of their number flirt with the worst of American pop culture.â€ On the other hand, Warner wishes that Wolfe had talked about other, more progressive Evangelicals, such as those who took in Central American refugees in the 80s and helped â€œdelegitimate Reagan-era counterinsurgency policies.â€
Warnerâ€™s review works the way he thinks Wolfeâ€™s book worksâ€“not primarily as a real analysis but rather as a negotiation between secularists and Christians. Warnerâ€™s main anxiety about Wolfeâ€™s book is not that its analysis of Western Christianity is badly mistaken but that it is inconvenient for the cultural-political agendas of Christian â€œmovementâ€ literature like Books & Culture: â€œWolfeâ€™s well-intentioned purpose to allay mutual fears and disarm recriminations on the part of his two audiences would have been better served if the theme of capitulation had not been such a relentless drumbeat. As it is, he lends support to those who see an eschatological slippery slope instead of a perennial tightrope in every instance calling for their cultural discernment.â€
Again, perhaps the point is capitulation, and perhaps it is an accurate point. Can it penetrate the hardened positions and hardened arteries among movement personalitiesâ€“the passive-aggressive approach at Books & Culture on the one hand and Neuhausâ€™s aggressive-aggressive approach at First Things on the other?