The latest Christian uproar on social media and blogs, this time over comments made by President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast, is yet another manifestation of how Christians continue to marginalize themselves in the public square. It offers some comfort that the Christians quick to condemn President Obama are themselves being chastened by fellow believers. (Personally, I have appreciated Michael Gerson and Patrick Connelly, among others.)
John Fea, demonstrating his usual historical wisdom and humility, has remarked on the similarities of Obama’s remarks with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Fea contends if you dislike Obama’s words, you should dislike Lincoln’s words, which echoed Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount. I would like to suggest another parallel with the Civil War and this latest outcry by some American Christians. It will require a lengthy quote from another historian of American religion, Mark Noll.
In his book The Civil War As Theological Crisis, Noll argues that the deadlock Christians reached over how to interpret the Bible, either in favor or against slavery, resulted in the marginalization of Christian witness in matters of national consequence.
The issue for American history was that only two courses of action seemed open when confronting such a deadlock. The first was the course taken in the Civil War, which effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. As things worked out, military coercion determined that, at least for the purposes of American public policy, the Bible did not support slavery. The second course, though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War. That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretation of Scripture.
The result of following that second course since the Civil War has been ambiguous. In helping to provoke the war and greatly increase its intensity, the serious commitment to Scripture rendered itself ineffective for shaping broad policy in the public arena. In other words, even before there existed a secularization in the United States brought on by new immigrants, scientific acceptance of evolution, the higher criticism of Scripture, and urban industrialism, Protestants during the Civil War had marginalized themselves as bearers of a religious perspective in the body politic.
The effects of that marginalization and consequent secularization have been mixed, but all observers should consider much of it positive. As a considerably more secular country than existed before the war, the United States became more genuinely hospitable to Protestants who were not from Britain, to Christians who were not Protestant, to theists who were not Christians, and to citizens of any sort who did not believe in God. In addition, the United States has been spared, at least to the present, further shooting wars caused by the kind of strong but religiously divided self-assurance that fueled the Civil War. The republican traditions of liberty and the strong commitments to procedural democracy that have continued in this more secular America have also done a great deal of good at home and abroad.
On the other side of the ledger, however, in the more secular America brought on by the Civil War, it has been much harder for deep, religiously rooted moral conviction to exert a decisive influence on the shaping of public life – be it, to take some examples, against unfettered capitalism, against violent ethnic discrimination, for environmental protection, for the unborn human fetus, for equal educational opportunity, or for universal medical protection. In other words, since the Civil War theological arguments have only rarely been able to overcome the inertia behind institutions and practices sanctioned by the evolving usages of a voluntaristic, democratic consumerist culture.
In the lead up to the Civil War and then throughout the conflict, the overwhelming witness of Christians in both the North and South was that of self-righteous patriotism. From nearly every pulpit preachers harangued their sectional opponents with theologically shallow analysis that would fit comfortably into today’s social media sound bites. It was the rare Christian sermon that recognized, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and thus sought to explore the mutual culpability of a horrific and unjust war. Accounts such as Harry Stout’s moral history of the Civil War, Upon the Altar of the Nation, read like a prophet’s lamentation. In the end, it took a religiously unorthodox politician to deliver the most theologically sophisticated and faithfully Christian interpretation of the nation’s great sin. But by then Christians had no ears to hear and the South turned its sinfulness into a greater evil while the North continued to turn a blind eye.
The latest outcry by some American Christians continues in the tradition of a theologically shallow American civic religion. It is a tradition that flinches at self-criticism and confession and repentance, calling any hint of such rhetoric weakness and just what our enemy wants. But for Christians willing to bypass sound-bite outrage and do the hard work of traveling to theological depth, there is an irony in all of the criticism of Obama and the fear of Islamic radicalism. Self-criticism and confession and repentance do show weakness and is just what our Enemy wants. But that is exactly the place Christ would have us, a place far less marginalized than we are now.