Recently I drew parallels between the apparent decline of our nation and the decline of Christianity’s influence within it. I opined that in order to restore true American greatness, not simply economic and military power, Christianity needed to be fixed as well. How to do so is a big question. I suggested that some changes in how we “do” Christianity institutionally were in order. I am not the only one thinking along those lines and there are lots of ideas about what to do.
One of the most discussed, and I have discussed it here as well, is Rod Dreher and his so-called Benedict Option. All my discussion of Dreher and “the Option” has been based on his blogged thoughts and/or discussion thereof. I have not yet had the opportunity to read his book on the matter. The May 1 issue of The New Yorker carries a profile of Dreher and discussion of the book by Joshua Rothman that spurs further thought while I continue to attempt to clear my reading list sufficiently to get to this particular book. Rothman summarizes the Benedict Option a bit differently than I have previously seen it summarized and it bears examination. Essentially he describes the Benedict Option as a return to personal piety developed through accountability as created in small, close and relatively cloistered communities that may or may not be set in the context of a larger community. This actually is a form of “crafting” a Christian that I proposed in the post I linked in the preceding paragraph and therefore I found the summary quite intriguing.
The nit that I would pick with the Benedict Option as summarized by Rothman, I assume with some reasonable accuracy, is the hopelessness it carries with it. Says Rothman of the book:
It asks why there aren’t more places like St. Francisville—places where faith, family, and community form an integrated whole.
Dreher’s answer is that nearly everything about the modern world conspires to eliminate them. He cites the Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe a way of life in which “change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify.” The most successful people nowadays are flexible and rootless; they can live anywhere and believe anything. Dreher thinks that liquid modernity is a more or less unstoppable force—in part because capitalism and technology are unstoppable. He urges Christians, therefore, to remove themselves from the currents of modernity. They should turn inward, toward a kind of modern monasticism.
I do believe our institutions of faith should be capable of standing against the forces that surround them, but their reason to do so is not to hide but rather to provide a place for rest and resupply from which can sally forth the forces of Christianity. I would draw an analogy to the cavalry forts of the Old West rather than the monastic cloisters of medieval times. I do not think modernity any more or less relentless nor evil than other opposition the church has faced in its long history. We need hide from nothing. We need rather to be of sufficient strength and capability to tame these forces as we have so many in the past. (Rom 8:31; Rom 8:37-39)
I have been forming a hypothesis in recent weeks into which much reading is necessary to bring it to maturity and the time for such exploration has begun.
America’s apparent failings, which we have discussed parallel Christianity’s, also parallel the fading of traditional mainstream, denominational Protestantism as distinguished from modern congregation-based Evangelicalism. Let me make clear the distinction between denominational Protestantism and Evangelicalism. The distinctions are actually myriad. The biggest is structural. Denominational Protestantism has a hierarchical structure – congregations are accountable to higher bodies which may in turn be accountable to even higher bodies. In Evangelicalism accountability stops at the congregation – these congregations may be united in a convention of some sort, but they are not accountable to that convention. Thus Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians represent Denominational Protestantism while Baptists, Pentecostals, and the thousands upon thousands of independent congregations are Evangelical. Methodists straddle a middle ground between the two.
These structural differences explains much of Christianity’s lost influence. The higher levels of organization within Denominational Protestantism simply make it more effective as a cultural and political voice. As the Hillary Clinton campaign has taught us organization matters. Evangelicalism is hard to get a distinct handle on because there are as many stories as their congregations, but it largely emerged in protest to Protestantism. The roots of the Protestant denominations lie in state-established church divorce from Roman Catholicism. This meant that the denominations often experienced “corruption” through their state establishment, being used as political tools rather than as God’s tools, that caused essentially a repeat of the forces that brought Protestantism out to begin with. The state established nature of the roots of the denominations also give them background and training in cultural and policy effectiveness that Evangelicalism does not enjoy. As a summary statement, Denominational Protestantism is establishment while Evangelicalism is populist. While the establishment may loose touch with the population, they certainly know how to govern better. Historically, Evangelicals or their antecedents were the first to come to America in search of freedom from the state established denomination (whatever one it may have been) but it was Denominational Protestants that forged us into a nation.
Why has Denominational Protestantism faded as it has? If you ask the average Evangelical, especially those that grew up in Denominational Protestantism, you will likely hear about theological and political liberalization. That undoubtedly has a great deal to do with it. If one takes the Hillary Clinton campaign as a measure of what liberalism can do to organization, then it would seem it is corrosive. But why then has Evangelicalism not be able to rise in the vacuum created by that fade. Is it purely structural? That’s unlikely as our democracy has thrived on the premise that generally different people can associate for cultural and political ends. Rather I think it is because Evangelicalism has in it the same myopic view of ecclesiology that liberalism has created in the denominations.
As the denominations have liberalized one has seen a change in focus from the church to the individual. The denominations were traditionally organized as God’s agency on earth and people were invited to join in that agency. As they have liberalized they have come to view themselves as servants of the individuals within rather than servants of God asking individuals to join them. Rather than focus on God’s work in the world, they are focused on the work of their members in the world, hopefully but not always on God’s behalf. Evangelicalism, with its overwhelming emphasis on personal salvation, is in essentially the same boat. Evangelicals focus on serving individuals by bringing God to them and then hoping that they then act on God’s behalf within the society – generally by bringing God to other individuals. Evangelicals view the church almost exclusively as an agency only for evangelism. It is only in recent decades as Christianity’s culture and political influence have faded that they have grafted such concerns onto themselves. But even then they still see themselves organized primarily for evangelism, not influence.
In the end, Dreher’s Benedict Option suffers the same problem. It focuses on preserving individual piety rather than organizing as God’s agency in the world wholly. Piety in those within the agency is indeed necessary for the agency to function properly, but the agency must be about more than simply producing piety.
Catholicism retains its view of itself as God’s agency. However, unlike Protestantism and Evangelicalism, it grants piety to its adherents through the priestly role of its clergy rather than having the adherents work out their piety “with fear and trembling.” In this way the Roman Catholic church becomes not just God’s agency but His regency. It is a different discussion for a different time as to whether that is actually God’s ultimate intention, but it is antithetical in a limited sense to democracy.
I have come to believe that recovering true and total American greatness lies in restoring Christianity’s influence (not dominance or control mind you, influence) in the nation and that the key to such is a restoration and revival of traditional Denominational Protestantism. I do not know whether that will come by means of revival in the current remnants of the denominations or by means of structural adaptations and changes of emphasis inside Evangelicalism – but I know it must come.