The Problem of Modernity

I’ve dealt with the subject of the American civil faith beforeespecially from that glorious time of strong and steady church attendance in the decade and a half following the Second World War, but it is a subject I will return again and again. In part, because I listen to a lot of old radio shows — many bundled with commercials and public service announcements — and in part because I think the rot in the American church is a very specific product of American Christendom.

So, I present yet another public service announcement — this from an episode of Gunsmoke broadcast on December 02, 1956 — encouraging Americans to worship:

The world is in a chaotic state these days. Maintaining world peace requires much more than military strength. It takes moral strength too. That moral strength can come from our spiritual advisors, our ministers, priests, and rabbis. Educating our children in the right way, teaching them to love and fear God, can to build morally and spiritual strong young men and women out of them.

Many of us have personal troubles, some of which seem insoluble. Contact with God will provide the necessary comfort and strength to carry on under even the most trying circumstances. Get into the habit of attending your church or synagogue regularly, and don’t go alone. Take a friend with you, or better still, take your whole family. Families who worship together, stay together.

There come times in all our lives when we feel the need of advice or comfort from a spiritual advisor. Howe much more helpful he can be if we are in regular communication with him through weekly worship.

Make America spiritually strong. Attend your church or synagogue each week.

Remember, this is from the high-water mark of American Christendom. Churches were full and well-funded. They bustled with children. Clergy were respected, and listened to, as intellectuals and figures in the community. The country was a lot more Christian in any number of senses — culturally, ethically, even perhaps on some level confessionally. And yet someone convince me that the faith presented here is not Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Because that’s what it looks like to me.

The focus here is on the individual and the nation. But not on the Church, or God, or even Christ. (Jesus couldn’t be central save as a teacher of good works, since at this point, Jews had become full participants in the American civic faith.) There is no mystery here, no communion, just faith as a public utility with a personal and public end — a strong nation peopled by individuals capable of dealing with problems. There is no suffering here, just “times of our lives when we feel the need of advice or comfort.” There is no sin and no redemption here, just a chaotic world in need of morally and spiritually strong women and men.

Again, tell me why this isn’t Moral Therapeutic Deism.

I feel like I’m belaboring a point. (Because I am.) This is the problem with liberal Christianity — and by that, I mean the (primarily) protestant surrender to the truth claims of modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Rome would surrender later.) The protestant churches accepted the modern order — the state, society (the community of citizens bounded by the state and defined by their relationship to the state, progress, and the belief that the purpose of human history — the purpose of humanity — was embodied in the state, rather than the church. The church became an adjunct to the state, supporting its efforts, its purposes, and guiding people toward their “proper” places in this order. The whole point of the church was to provide a moral and ethical buttress to the state-centered order, and provide ethical guidance to individuals during “trying circumstances.” The church is useful to the maintenance of the liberal order, and perhaps justifies it morally (especially in cosmic struggles with officially atheist ideologies), but it is nothing more.

So, of course the church cannot meaningfully teach its story — the story of Israel’s encounter with God, the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how that changed the people Jesus called to follow — and cannot meaningfully disciple people because it has, for at least 150 years, been too busy making good citizens out of them. The church has been too busy telling, and elevating, and celebrating the story of liberal modernity — democracy and progress and science and history and freedom — to tell its own story. If we have failed to shape people as followers of Christ, it’s because we stopped trying. A long time ago.

It is a partisan political conceit of the worst kind to think that somehow the rot set in only recently, with a few Supreme Court decisions, or in the Sixties, when 1950s American Christendom fell apart. It is much older than that. It goes back at least to an uncritical and unquestioning acceptance of modernity, and the story enlightenment moderns tell about human beings and the meaning and purpose of our existence. (And it may go back farther than modernity, and may be deeply rooted in Christendom itself, which means failure and collapse is an inescapable product of success and prosperity. Which is, if you consider it, very much in line with the biblical story of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Israel.)

Which means, like Jeremiah, all we can do is watch as the Babylonians gather and being their siege. Nothing is going to save this city. There are no miracles coming. Only defeat. And exile.

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8 thoughts on “The Problem of Modernity

  1. You are describing the era of my childhood: I turned 13 in 1960. What you say is broadly true, but things were really much more complicated. Congregations tended to be more conservative and confessional than the clergy. They retained a sense of distinctiveness of denominations, and many people were proud of the superiority of their own system. I had a cousin several years older than myself who was shocked to learn in her early teens that there were people in the world who didn’t know that Jesus was divine. Jews were not very strict about doctrine, but intermarriage with gentiles was unthinkable for most. The Catholics were almost as firm about it, unless the spouse-to-be converted or at least vowed to raise the children in the Church. Much traditional Christian faith remained, but it was masked somewhat by two factors:

    1) There was a “liberal establishment culture” which dominated the media and universities, and to some extent the professions, though it was not much like contemporary liberalism. It sought to establish and maintain an ‘enlightened’ moderate consensus about policy and values and to defuse potential conflicts. Much of it was well-intentioned, but also naively overconfident and ignorant about what really motivates people. It was accepted that religion was useful in a MTD sort of way (though with much less emphasis on the therapeutic than now), as long as people avoided what the 18th century called “enthusiasm”, which was dangerous and scary.

    2) The cold war, and the victory of anti-Marxist elements in the labor movement, put the nation in the position of defenders of faith against Godless Communism (which was evil for that and other reasons). So pro-[moderate]-faith PSAs were a tool in that struggle.

    Both factors tended to support a civil religion, which turned out to be vacuous and ineffectual when put to the test by the cultural upheavals of the 60’s. But this civil religion was an idealized construct of the established order and was not at all identical to the faith of the majority of people, which was highly diverse and often intense. There was a lack of serious engagement with traditional church doctrine which transcended sectarianism. In that respect, things are much better today, for the smaller number of serious believers.

    There really was a generational chasm. The WW2 generation were pragmatic, but tended to hold to traditional expressions of faith, though not very well thought-out. Then there was the cohort who came of age in the 1950’s, who were sometimes described as careerist, conformity-obsessed sheep by those who thought they should be more activist (obviously an over-simplification for a group which included e.g. Bob Dylan and many of the early leaders of student radicalism and the civil rights movement). But the generation born after the war seemed almost a different species from their parents. Television trumped all other cultural influences, much like social media today. We grew up taught to express beliefs in the same words and forms as our elders, but the seeds had fallen on stony ground or shallow earth. The old forms fell away with shocking suddenness. So did the old liberal consensus — exemplified by poor pathetic Hubert Humphrey running for president in 1968. He had all the credentials to be people’s choice in the old order, but the old order had passed away.

    Anyway, you are still right that institutional support for a confessional faith (as opposed to a pragmatic social gospel) was undermined long ago. Among the mainline denominations it was all over by 1920. In Europe it happened earlier. By contrast, I actually consider this period to be a renaissance of the gospel, though there is nothing like the old civil religion to give it power. Anyone who thought that anything like the latter has existed at any time since 1970 has been confused by immersion in a sub-culture.

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    1. I am reminded, when you speak of Europe, about something I read in a book on modern German history. Otto von Bismarck was very conservative, very Prussian, and very Lutheran. He wanted to create a pious, churchgoing German Empire after 1871. That was the aim of much of his government’s social legislation, was to create space for piety and church engagement. Instead, Germany got social clubs, beer gardens, sports clubs, and — worst of all, from the standpoint of Bismarck and his allies — social democratic clubs and parties. And church attendance, never particularly high, collapsed in the 1870s and 1880s. Which puzzled and angered Bismarck no end.

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  2. I hadn’t heard that about Bismark’s Germany — very illuminating. But even decades before then, Kierkegaard was writing books anonymously in a kind of cautious round-the-bush style, because he was already in exile within a Danish church which he thought had already lost the gospel. Today, Danish clergy are just civil servants fulfilling a function and getting a paycheck.

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