Friday, March 2, 2012

The Pathway to Freedom: Christianity Replaced by the Church

In his article, “Why Can’t We Have a Christian Republic,” Daniel McCarthy of The American Conservative highlights a phenomenon that has been recently brought to my attention, an understanding of which, I believe, is necessary for lasting systemic change in the American system. Some of the most basic values that Americans hold dear are the very ones that will continue our demise of any claim to moral superiority.

McCarthy calls our system, borrowing from Grant Havers, “federal majoritarianism,” which values self-government, while maintaining a sort of aristocracy rooted not in heredity but in education, connections, and, more recently, charisma. This premium placed on self-government comes clearly from the Colonists’ being predominantly Protestant, that is, within ecclesiastical traditions “in which congregations had great say over church governance.” Thus, McCarthy states,

It’s easy to see how men who were accustomed to managing their spiritual affairs might think that they could manage their worldly affairs without king or Parliament. The tradition — the practice — of self-government held more authority for Americans than such institutions as crown, Parliament, or Anglican hierarchy. When the two types of authority came into conflict, it was clear where the colonists’ strongest loyalties would lie.

Americans love their independence, their liberty for every individual person as an individual and not as a member of a group or family or race. This nation began as a Protestant nation that was always trepidatious about either Church or civil leaders who claim any sort of authority. For instance, McCarthy recounts that in the 19th century the Roman Catholic church, a thoroughly authoritarian tradition, was confronted with suspicion in the United States. He reasons, “because the Catholic faith subordinates the laity to a hierarchy, wouldn’t Catholics in politics subordinate citizens to the pope or a dictator?” I also presume that this suspicion has factored in to keeping the Catholic Church from exceeding 25% of the populace to this day. In ecclesiastical matters, like civil, Americans prefer their leadership to earn their rights by education, connections, or charisma.

The question posed by the (presumedly Catholic) author is this: “As Protestantism has mutated into less structured congregations… and as religious practice in general apparently declines, have Americans also lost the experience that made political self-governance possible?” American is sliding from a loosely structured “federal majoritarianism” to a “new plebiscitary majoritarianism, which is impatient with constitutional filters [and the limitations it places on the leadership] and demands a direct expression of the people’s will through the power of the president of the United States.” With this slide in view, are Americans willing to continue perpetuating their system while recognizing the possibilities inherent in a system of liberty of the individual accompanied by an almost irrational trust in charisma and celebrity?

One could hope for a “Catholic moment” in which authority and hierarchy play a greater role, despite their risk of abuse. But such hopes must be tempered by the reality that America’s “political structure at its core is Protestant.” Not only would such a move be resisted by the populace, the Catholic mindset rightly hopes too much:

Catholic political theory has a hard time dealing with the American political system — despite a great many modern modifications, the Catholic Church’s fundamental understanding of how politics works was shaped by the practices of Christendom, by the existence of stable authorities who formally acknowledged the moral authority of the Church and who at least pretended to heed the Church’s teachings. The American public, by contrast, is not a stable authority... and neither the public nor the Constitution acknowledges the authority of the Church in anything except the fuzziest or most utilitarian terms.

This, I believe is the heart of the matter. America was founded upon “a Constitution that rested exclusively on popular rule.” And this rule by the populace, rather than establishing religion, guarantees the equal legitimacy of all religions, though under certain transcendent limitations. Thus, as time has passed and the people have become less Christian in their individual thinking, “we have something closer to a mass democracy than a federal republic.” And “the influence of a landed well-read aristocracy has given way to what Aristotle would have recognized as a money-minded oligarchy.” McCarthy makes the scathing but true indictment that “commercial wealth speaks more loudly than the Framers had expected, and the 18th-century notions of character and reputation have fallen before modern concepts of charisma and celebrity.”

Daniel McCarthy has made an accurate assessment of where we are and how we got here. It is most certainly true that when men like Thomas Jefferson guaranteed the equal standing of all churches, he radically relocated the role and the realm of rule of religious institutions. By moving the work of the Church to primarily, almost exclusively, the inner, spiritual man, a movement with with the church itself was complicit, the American system established a baseline authority to which even the Church must submit. The Founders redefined the authority the Church could wield and established rules that must not be broken. Equal legitimacy of all religions is possible as long as each one abides by these higher and prior laws that transcend all others. John Locke knew that the biggest threat to liberal democracy was the Church and that the Church needed to be replaced with a internalized Christianity. But when the Church acts as an institutional body meeting the needs of the whole man, she is forced to break some of these transcendent rules, at times encroaching even upon the purported functions of the civil state.

In America religious freedom has come at the cost of internalization. Thereby the church has been provided with an excuse for abdication, and she has taken full advantage. Now, in this age of tolerance, it has been too easy to minister merely to men’s souls but not to the whole man. And being complicit in this internalization, the church has become largely irrelevant as an authority over and definer of culture. The civil community with its practices now transcends the ecclesial community and its practices. Thus, in the words of Rich Lusk, the cross has been replaced by the flagpole. We teach our children the pledge of allegiance but not the Nicene Creed. The practices of the church have been internalized and individualized. Baptism is for those who can comprehend the gospel. The Lord’s Supper is a time of quiet introspection and not a joyous, sensuous feast. It is no surprise that the largest denomination in the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention.

My burden is not primarily for the nation of the United States but for the Church. It is only as she recovers her understanding of her authority over the affairs of this world will the culture change. This understanding was more obvious in her early centuries when she was more clearly an alternative and counter culture. She now needs to awaken to the fact that she is in a situation very similar to those early days. She must recognize that rather than being her ally, tolerance of internalized, individualized religion is a grave enemy. She must reassert her transcendence above the limitations placed upon her by the mass, tolerant democracy in order to act as the Church.

Daniel McCarthy asks, “Why Can’t We Have a Christian Republic?” We can. But only when Christianity has been replaced by the Church.

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