The United States of America is a secular, pluralistic, nation that is home to hundreds of distinct faiths, philosophies, and traditions living, working, and playing side-by-side. Our diversity has often been touted as one of our great strengths, that we don’t succumb to endless internal wars, chaos, and strife, that the American experiment largely “works.” That said, no matter how “pagan” our democracy, our republic, is, we can’t but acknowledge that Christianity has been a driving force in our collective history, and in the history of Western civilization as a whole. Christian colonizers pushed out indigenous peoples and beliefs, and tried to build a new Jerusalem, a “city upon a hill.” However, partially due to the strife between Christian denominations, our nation on its founding erected “a wall of separation” between (Christian) church and state, and our history has experienced waves of disestablishment and religious “awakenings” ever since.
Today, despite the softening Christian character of our nation, our politics and culture are dominated by a Christian narrative (more than 3/4 of Americans identify as Christian), with almost mandatory public shows of Christian piety from the majority of our leaders.
In the cover story of this week’s Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan says that Christianity itself is in crisis, and that the “ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes.”
In a live-chat discussing the story, Sullivan explicitly links the crisis of our current political dysfunction with the crisis of Christianity.
Reading the article, and the live-chat, the question came to me: what about us? What about the 22% or so of Americans who aren’t Christian? The “others” and “nones” on those surveys. How do we live in a society where the dominant faith is experiencing a crisis? How do we make our voices heard in a landscape that has devolved into “Democrat Jesus” vs. “Republican Jesus,” where all moral arguments are couched in the language of Christianity?
Where once President Franklin D. Roosevelt might utter the now-unthinkable phrase “the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance,” today the spirit of that epithet may as well be launched at Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, and other faiths that are seen as odd, suspect, or foreign. Meanwhile, Christianity itself grows ever-more polarized and the ranks of those who claim no religion (“nones”) swell to over %15 of the population. The “pagan” answer to this problem might be a better pluralism, embracing that we are entering a new age, and provide more seats at the table for a variety of moral and religious perspectives. To remember a world where embracing many gods wasn’t seen as a weakness, but a strength.
Sadly, most Christians (right and left) see the answer to this crisis as a return to “true” Christianity (whatever that means to them). Sullivan writes the same prescription that hundreds, if not thousands, of Christ-following “doctors” have written before.
I’m truly sympathetic to the version/vision of Christianity Sullivan describes, but no matter how eloquent the words, or how in tune with my personal morality it may be, it still comes down to fixing a problem by doing Christianity “better” (or “purer” if you prefer) in some fashion. The problem with this is the triumphalist thread that runs through the roots of all exclusionary monotheisms. Sullivan himself inadvertently touches that root when he approvingly quotes Catholic monk Thomas Merton (from the “New Seeds of Contemplation”), saying his words are “at the kernel of what I believe is the struggle we are all involved with.”
Even at its most poetic, its most refined, the ongoing slur within Christianity of gods that are not their God must always continue. I say that with sadness, because I greatly admire Merton, but even he was not immune to the notion that his faith was an evolutionary and moral step forward in religion. The idea that Christianity can be apolitical, except in times of great injustice, is a kind of folly as there will always be those who interpret the times as times of great injustice. For some, there will always be an “injustice” so long as other moral codes, other gods, dare to hold sway, or even stand their ground. When Sullivan endorses New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s new book (“Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”), I can only remember that Douthat is also preoccupied with fighting “Dan Brown’s America” (because, you know, Paganism) and is very, very concerned about Hollywood’s rampant pantheism.
My greatest concern within this crisis is how we tiny communities and groups, we of the 22%, weather the contractions of a post-Christian world being born. So long as our voices, our solutions, are ignored, I fear that we’ll always return to a status quo of Christianity competing with itself in a paper-thin American secularism, thinking its theological and political poles represent diversity of opinion and thought. Only a future of coexistence, not Christian dominance, is tenable for those of us who fall outside that faith’s borders. As the generational plate tectonics shift, as the anxieties of those in power grow, we need more who are willing to reach out their hands, to avoid the worst realities of such shifts. Make no mistake, we are caught in another faith’s crisis, and how that faith treats the “others” and the “nones” will reveal the tenor of our republic for generations to come.
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