James Rogers over at First Things nails it hard in this essay on the failure of the church in America to properly teach the faith, and teach Christians what it really means to sustain a Christian life. Because they could rely so heavily on the culture formed and created by American Christendom.
American churches grew up and developed in a context in which the culture played a significant role in policing moral behavior. Churches could ecclesiastically free-ride on this cultural moral consensus. Churches and congregations did not need to invest heavily in developing and policing their own moral boundaries. The culture did a large part of the moral heavy lifting for them. In parts of the U.S. today one can still hear echoes of this old consensus. “Why of course I’m a Christian. I’m a Texan.”
Because churches could depend on culture to police moral boundaries, they did not develop—because they did not need to develop—ecclesiastical mindsets and practices to inculcate and sustain basic Christian moral expectations. The moral membrane between church and culture was relatively permeable, but that was relatively safe at the time. This is not to say that they were the same. Nonetheless, it was relatively easy for individual churches to gin up the moral heat for their congregation when the starting point was a culture that kept things at least morally lukewarm.
Rogers holds the 1960s accountable for a cultural shift in America in which formerly prohibited activities suddenly became morally acceptable (though he acknowledges this began long before the 1960s rolled around), leaving the church incapable of addressing its problems because “the Church contracted out moral discipleship and church discipline to the culture. American Christians had gotten used to and easy-going, non-threatening permeability of church and culture.”
Fast forward to today when we hear about the need for churches to exercise the so-called Benedict Option. Basically, it means little more than churches need actually to reflect the full reality of what they’re supposed to be in the first place. But American churches are out of practice, ironically because of the power they once exercised over American culture.
As a result of developing the last 200 years of a “nation with the soul of a church,” Christians don’t have the ecclesiastical practices and habits that allow them easily and naturally to be fullness of the church.
These habits and practices, or the lack thereof, created all sorts of problems, even ignoring how they obscured the Gospel. Evangelicals naturally, if idolatrously, turned toward politics rather than to ecclesiology for the solution to the moral disorientation they saw in society. The Moral Majority, school prayer, “Take back America for Christ” campaigns, all reflected more of an attempt to reassert ownership of America’s moral public space than to save souls or spread the Kingdom or strengthen the life of the community of disciples in the churches. Recovering a full-orbed ecclesiology for the Church—not for the Church in the abstract, but for the practical lives of Christian layfolk and leaders in the churches—must be in initial imperative for the Church today.
This is in line with what I have come to think on the subject — too many Christians, liberals and conservatives, still confuse discipleship with good citizenship — and so I don’t really have much to add. But there’s an interesting point here that Rogers makes when he notes that the problem stems from “the power [churches] once exercised over American culture.”
Temporal power seems to be its own comeuppance in scripture. The fall of the powerful can frequently be traced to the very height of power — the division of Solomon’s empire into civil war and two competing polities can be traced directly to the costs associated with maintaining Solomon’s court and the massive army needed to hold the empire together. The people of Israel seek relief from both crushing taxes and conscripted labor to maintain the state, and when Solomon’s successor Rehoboam arrogantly refuses — even increasing the tax burden — half the kingdom follows the rebel Jereboam as he denounces the house of David and takes the northern portion of the state for himself.
Israel’s very wealth and power is the place where its downfall begins. The American Church is paying for its long period of power and influence with collapse, with idolatry, and is now metaphorically besieged on all sides by (metaphorical) Assyrians and Babylonians. I do believe there is a very biblical lesson about power in this — trust not in mighty men or in treasure, but rather in the promises of God. By the time prophets come, however, to tell the people of God to actually trust God, as opposed to their own devices, it’s usually too late.