God and Mammon

Before I start this post, a quick apology or proviso of sorts: in my last post, I held up typical Christian children’s books as an example of flawed “Christian” culture.  I do believe it is true that presenting the world as divided between “Christian” and “Secular” cultural spheres, with the “Christian” as ostensibly superior (but really just a whitewashed imitation of the secular), is a losing bet.  However, the problem confronting Christian children’s books is much the same as that confronting children’s books, and especially very young children’s books, in general: people tend to believe that, because small children are not mentally and emotionally sophisticated, you can foist off whatever doggerel you like on them, and they’ll love it.  On the contrary, small children are as challenging an audience as any–perhaps more than others, even, because of their limitations–and people like Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein are their Shakespeares and Mark Twains.  Little children only continue to have crummy fiction dumped on them because they are a largely captive audience, with little input into which books are purchased for them.  But this is not an exclusively Christian, or “Christian” problem.  See also Sturgeon’s Law.

With that said: there is a second major reason, in my opinion, why religiosity is fading in America today.  Like the first, I think it grew out of the Sexual Revolution.  Specifically, it developed in reaction to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.  As I understand it, what we now call “socially conservative” religious leaders, fired up by a seven-judge majority essentially steamrolling over conventional morality, offered a pledge of mutual support to Reagan and other GOP leaders.  The result was the prolonged disaster we know as the Religious Right.

A disaster for us, that is.  It worked out very well for Republicans, who used us much the same way their opponents tend to use minorities: they threw us a bone every now and then, whipped us up into a moral panic over this issue or that, but did nothing to resolve the underlying problems we were really concerned with, because those problems are inextricably bound to the larger American culture and cannot be cheaply and readily solved on a four- or six-year election cycle.  Certainly not without offending a large chunk of the Republicans’ other demographic bases.  Still, clever politicians were able to offer us little scraps from time to time.  They bought our fervent support for decades, and left us with nothing.

Or perhaps I should say, “less than nothing.”  We (and by “we” I mean “conventional Christians”) are far worse off now than we would have been had the bargain never happened.  I read C.S. Lewis’s “God in the Dock” not that long ago, and he manages to inadvertently predict, with startling accuracy, the results of our Faustian bargain.  In an essay entitled “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” he ponders whether or not a Christian political party should be formed.  His answer: certainly not.  He notes that actually devout Christians are not present in sufficient numbers to form a worthwhile voting bloc on their own; therefore, they should have to align themselves with some other political group, in the process compromising their principles and adopting some of the other group’s own.  The inevitable result would be a public backlash at no profit–and, since the group would be identified as “the Christian Party,” the backlash would be directed at Christianity in general, not the party in particular.

Yeah, that sounds about right.

There are some details Lewis did not predict, and could not have predicted given the differences between England in the early Twentieth Century and America several decades later.  First, the “Christians” in this case chose to align themselves primarily with the interests of business owners and foreign-policy hawks (and, to a much lesser extent, Libertarians).  That is to say, Christianity became associated with military aggression and the wealthy, neither of which is easily reconciled to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  You can be a wealthy Christian businessman, and you can be a Christian soldier.  But when “Christianity” is politicized in the name of wealthy militarists, it looks pretty bad.

And it went on, and on, and on.  Decades.  Over time, the disparate entities which make up the modern GOP fused together into one confused identity, to the point where our politicians treated an attack on one as an attack on the others, and could no longer even see the apparent contradiction.  In the last Presidential Election, the ostensibly devout Christian (okay, Mormon, but let’s not get into that) Romney wrote off the poor as bums and moochers who would vote for Obama no matter what, because they were too stupid and lazy to show some initiative and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  I believe it was his Catholic running mate Paul Ryan who praised Ayn Rand–a woman who once described Christianity as “a perfect playground for Communism,” an aggressive atheist who despised Jesus and everything He stood for–for her wisdom in teaching us the moral applications of economic activity.

Prayer breakfasts, the Moral Majority, big hair, big churches, big money–it all ran together in a big ugly smear.  Our first-past-the-post, two-party system encouraged ever greater extremism as time went on.  And, because Christians had withdrawn from the wicked and Godless culture, their opponents increasingly got to control the public dialogue.  So now we’re played out.  Gay marriage has won, and even those of us who can’t be pigeonholed as “bigots” are something of a political liability.  I don’t know where the Republican Party will go next, but I don’t think they have any use for us anymore.

I bet this sounds defeatist.  But it’s not.  Far from it; while everyone else seems to be saying that secularization is an inevitable and irreversible phenomenon, I maintain that it is primarily the result of two specific, very costly mistakes.  There is no reason why these mistakes cannot be reversed, in time.  Remember, the Nones are mostly not atheists.  They don’t really want to be atheists.  Most people don’t, I think; true or false, the nihilistic implications are hard to stomach.  We can win them back.  The healing will start when we stop being political pawns, and step out of our illusory “Christian” bubble.

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