Reflections on Republocrat: The Secularization of America

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Reflections on Republocrat: The Secularization of America

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This post continues my chapter-by-chapter review of Republocrat, by Carl Trueman (Part 1, Part 2). The chapter in focus here is the second, entitled The Slipperiness of Secularization. It’s thesis is that the US may seem to be less secularized than Britain, but probably isn’t. The reason is that here in the US, the church itself has become secularized in many ways. Hence, even though church attendance and religious language are far more common here than in the UK, these do not reflect genuine Christian faith and practice. To put it another way, Britain only seems more secular because it is more authentic about its unbelief rather than dressing it up like we do here.

After brief introductory paragraphs, Trueman develops the chapter under these headings:

  • America: The Exception? (p. 22)
  • British Christianity: The Dying of the Light (p. 23-25)
  • The USA: Secularization, Religious-Style (p. 25-28)
  • Secularization: Subtle and Speciously Orthodox (p. 28-32)
  • The Patriot’s Bible and Beyond (p. 32-36)
  • The Celebrity Syndrome (p. 37-39)
  • Conclusion (p. 39)

Most of the chapter consists of ways in which the American church has adopted “secular values”—Trueman’s term for attitudes and affections that mirror those of the unbelieving culture surrounding us. The first two sections of the chapter contrast the British experience of secularization with the American. In Britain, people gradually walked away both from the mainstream Protestant faith and from church, mostly in the years following WWI. Along with open departure from faith and church, the nation openly abandoned religious language and religious arguments in connection with public policy.

In the US, however, secularization has taken the form of subtle (and some not so subtle) capitulations to secular thinking.

The question I want to ask here, however, is this: Is it actually the case that the American church has maintained the loyalty of large sections of the population by essentially becoming a secular institution? (p.26)

The book’s examples of this “secularization” include some that fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals would see as obvious—but Trueman suggests a few more subtle and interesting ones as well.

Health and wealth ministries

After pointing out that prosperity preachers such as Osteen and Hinn make for a “soft target” for “conservative, confessional evangelicals” (p.27), Trueman focuses on how more orthodox Christians are guilty of problems that are, in his view, similar.

The nature and degree of similarity is left pretty vague, though. For example, in the context of prosperity preachers, Trueman asks, “[D]on’t many Christians who claim to be orthodox actually nurture similar ambitions?” The author doesn’t seem to have “ambition” to embrace the prosperity gospel, or teach it to others, in mind. But if he means that many orthodox Christians are interested in good health and financial prosperity, I have to say “so?” Since all human beings desire abundance and good health—because they are human, not because they are sinners—it’s a strain to see this as an example of secularization of the church.

Fortunately, the other examples in the chapter are much stronger.

Consumerism, individualism, “rights culture”

In his discussion of secularization in general, and “rights culture” in particular, Trueman cites David Wells’ No Place for Truth and The Courage to Be Protestant. From the latter, he passes on this interesting observation.

Wells points toward the way in which the therapeutic concerns of modern America, the substitution of the language of “values” for morals, and the rise of a “me first” individual-rights culture have come to dominate not only the secular American landscape but also that of the evangelical church. In his account, both megachurches and emergent churches represent not so much countercultures but different accommodations to the prevailing culture. (p.28)

Later in this section, Trueman argues that the strong American interest in rights—on both the political Left and the political Right—“plays itself out in the church” (p. 30). For evidence, he sites the often omitted vow church members take “to submit to the leadership of the church” (p. 30).

It’s possible that Trueman’s analysis is correct, but he fails to make a case that this way of seeing church membership is “secular” as opposed to simply a different way of understanding the relationship individual believers have with Scripture and, as a result, with their local churches.

But this description of many professing Christians today certainly rings true:

They want to treat the church as they treat, say, a supermarket or cinema: they go along and take what they need without the troublesome issues created by a personal commitment. (p.31)

Trueman bemoans the ease of church-hopping in this section as well, though he seems to want to blame too much on the automobile.

[The commitment to church membership] is also the vow that has been most weakened by the thing that lies at the very heart of the American dream—the automobile, the means by which we can conveniently run away from any specific church authority when the fancy takes us. (p.31)

I’m not sure what Trueman really intends to say about motorcars here. We could just as easily argue that the abundance of churches is “the means by which we can conveniently run away…” (And let’s not forget that the car is also how we get to a good not-secularized church if one doesn’t happen to be next door.)

An observation later in the same section got me arguing in the margins of my copy.

My point here is that those who are confessional and rock-solid in their doctrinal commitments need to realize that secular values can yet pervade the way they think about church, and the Christians of the political Right can be as guilty of this as anyone—perhaps even more guilty, given the Right’s radical individualism, as opposed to the typically more communitarian Left. (p.31)

The first half of that observation is well taken, but the political Right and Left are both individualist and “communitarian” in different ways. The Left strongly emphasizes moral/ethical individuality over traditional mores and long term commitments. (See William Godwin, Nicolas de Condorcet and later thinkers in that tradition. It’s still very much a part of the fabric of Left social ethics in the US). The conservative tradition, by contrast, emphasizes the inability of human beings to devise proper standards of conduct for themselves—and the need to rely on revelation or “providence” (or both) to produce these over time in social traditions. (See Hobbes, Burke, Smith et. al.) In short, when it comes to morals, the Left is radically individualistic and the Right values the community (including that of the past).

Where the Left emphasizes a “more communitarian” perspective is in the matter of responsibility. Because liberal political philosophy sees human nature as truly improvable, and sees society as having the power to do that improving, “society” (which Left thinking tends to equate with government) has the responsibility of improving the plight of individuals. Here, the Right emphasizes individuals’ responsibility to make the most of the relatively little government is truly capable of accomplishing (recommended reading: Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions).

Patriotism confusion

As the chapter continues, Trueman addresses “secularization” in the area of church-state relationships (p.32 ff)—overall, a strong section.

On the promotional video for The Patriot’s Bible:

A series of images and captions makes the point: Adam and Eve, and George and Martha Washington—first families; Moses and Lincoln—freedom fighters; Jesus and the disciples, and the Continental Congress—founding fathers….the video ends with the the statement, “Sometimes history does repeat itself.” Really? Well, no, in this case it actually doesn’t repeat itself. Biblical, salvation history is not repeated or recapitulated in the history of the USA or any other nation, for that matter. To make such a claim is puerile, blasphemous nonsense. (p. 33)

The section includes these gems as well:

I am a personal admirer of a number of aspects of Jefferson and Paine, but orthodox Christians they emphatically were not. (p.33)

[T]he politics of nations and the destiny of God’s people, the church must never be identified. The Bible gives us no basis for doing that. (p.35)

We have every reason to view our nation’s heritage and blessings as a gift from God and as our stewardship, but it’s a serious error to see the church’s destiny has dependent on what happens to any nation.

Celebrity syndrome

The final “secular value” Trueman identifies is the celebrity mindset. His discussion of how our Christian-celebrity thinking parallels the errors of Corinth is insightful and persuasive (p. 37).

The world has Access Hollywood; the church has—well, you insert the name. But the name has to be of someone who is able to build a big church, gain a big name, and offer a sanctified equivalent of the movie-star magic. This is secularization of the church just as surely as The Patriot’s Bible or the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch. (p. 39)

The chapter was a stimulating read. One question that dogged me throughout—why call these problems “secularization”? We have a word that is older and, arguably, more lucid: worldliness.

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Aaron Blumer's picture
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Evolution

Against the thesis that USA is really just as secularized as Britain....

http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=38944

(I suspect British numbers for belief in creation are much lower)

 

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Health and wealth

I haven't read Trueman's book, but if he didn't make this argument regarding the fundamentalist/evangelical version of the health and wealth gospel, he could have:  Even in churches that would never teach "name it and claim it" or other explicit prosperity gospel tropes, most members learn well (and wrongly) that their external circumstances correlate directly with their godliness.  God blesses obedient Christians and punishes disobedient Christians.  So, a prodigal child is the result of spiritually deficient parenting (while, on the flip side, children in professional ministry reflect spiritually superior parenting); financial reversals are God's judgment for . . . something; numbers (attendance, decisions, baptisms) are a measure of God's blessing; etc.  Call it worldliness or call it secularization; either way, we too often use fleshly measures of success and call them God's blessing, and we envision a God whom we control -- if we keep the external rules, we can count on good circumstances; if you don't have good circumstances, you haven't kept the external rules.

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Job

Sorry for such a long rambling post. I'm sure all this can be said in a about three sentences, but it's after 8PM so... ain't gonna happen.

Trueman doesn't really go into that subtopic in Repub. (at least, not so far). But the book of Job explores the topic thoroughly.

We run into trouble oversimplifying. Job's friends oversimplified the "retribution principle," as some call it. So, to them, suffering=judgment of God on your sin, always in every case. Job, on the same premise, says God has wronged Him. Elihu--and God as well--basically say God's ways not so simple.

Others overstate the situation in the other direction and suggest that your quality of life is not related to whether you sin or not. Neither is quite right, though. In at least two ways, obedience tends to produce positive short term results. 

a) Obedience always means effectiveness in God's agenda. More often than not, that includes some success in the ways we're serving Him. (Of course, exceptions are easy to name. Jeremiah ... still effective in God's agenda. That agenda just didn't happen to include much success in Jeremiah's lifetime. ... it usually did in Paul's case, to use a counterexample.)

b) God has graciously designed the world in such a way that decent clean living yields all sorts of rewards, even for those who have no idea they are complying to some part of God's law.

Scripture often appeals to self-interest in relation to "b," because we're all wired to care about our comfort and prosperity. This is partly why I took exception to Trueman's attempt to suggest a kind of parity between prosperity gospelers and people who hold to the true gospel but want to be healthy and prosper. 

There really is a better life--other things being equal--in old fashioned good behavior.

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