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Reflections on IRDRichard John Neuhaus’s (1936-2009) October 2005
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, distinguished Christian writer, Catholic priest, former Lutheran pastor, and an IRD founder, addressed the IRD board outside Washington, D.C. in October 2005, following the death of IRD President Diane Knippers. Below is a transcript of his remarks.
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, distinguished Christian writer, Catholic priest, former Lutheran pastor, and an IRD founder, addressed the IRD board outside Washington, D.C. in October 2005, following the death of IRD President Diane Knippers. Below is a transcript of his remarks.
Thank you. Jay [Jay Budziszewski], then IRD board chair] has been marvelously non-directive in suggesting to me what I should do beside from reflect upon IRD and its past, present, and possible futures. So let me begin with the first sentence of the first statement of IRD: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” And that, I think, has not only guided but impelled the entire enterprise of IRD and, whatever redirections may be appropriate for the future as the board decides, will I trust continue to guide and impel everything that this organization attempts to do.
If we look back to the founding there are so many to whom we are indebted. Diane Knippers has already been mentioned several times; what a great gift of God she has been to IRD and to all of us personally. Ed Robb [United Methodist evangelist and IRD founder], who brought to this organization a Texas-formed evangelical zeal for the Gospel, that some thought a little bit rustic and even rough. But the great gift of Ed is that he was totally un-intimidated by those, if I may use the Marxist phrase, in the charge of the commanding heights of culture. He found it rather puzzling and even amusing that people thought the way these people apparently thought. And that was an inestimable gift. Another person who was never formally part of IRD, but without whom I think it is true to say there would’ve been no IRD, was Paul Ramsey [Princeton ethicist and ordained United Methodist], who in that period in the 1970’s and 80’s in American Christian life represented a independence of mind and a courage of argument that really was a point of reference and inspiration for many of us who were, as it were, present at the creation. The great – or among the many, many – contributions of Paul Ramsey you recall is that after one of the assemblies of the World Council of Churches he wrote a book called Who Speaks for the Church? As he always liked to point out the title page of that book was unusual in that it not only posed the subject matter but provided the answer: underneath, it said Paul Ramsey. In myriad ways, Paul’s question, “Who speaks for the church?” has been the question persistently addressed by IRD. And then of course there’s David Jessup [United Methodist layman, AFL-CIO official, and IRD founder], who I hope someway will be found to acknowledge his contribution. David in many ways kicked it off – and old Democratic-Socialist, Shachtmanite, ideologist in many ways associated with the AFL-CIO under the direction set by George Meany and Lane Kirkland, who was simply outraged by what his children were being taught in the United Methodist church. And outraged by the way in which the resources, including financial resources, of the United Methodists were being deployed on behalf of what, as a Christian, he perceived to be causes alien to the cause of Christ.
One might date the beginning of IRD, as we were discussing last night with Alan Wisdom [IRD Vice President] and others, from the first board meeting in April of 1981, or organizing meeting I suppose you could call it. Or to the letter of David Jessup which he wrote Ed Robb in December, right? Or was it August of 1980? That would have been right. And I was struck because that letter is included in the packet of materials that were sent out and David Jessup wrote to Ed Robb that this organization should be “confined to church involvement in international affairs.” Interesting statement. That was the original proposal. And I think one could say, not only was that the original proposal but that was pretty much the fact in the early period of IRD. Now obviously there’s been a long trajectory in thought, in external developments in the world, and in the programmatic structure of IRD since that time. And one is struck programmatically how much now the focus is on questions of family policy, especially marriage as it touches upon proposed “same-sex marriage.” And, more generally, especially under the leadership, the inestimably valuable leadership, of Tom Oden [United Methodist theologian and IRD board member], to the question of a confessional renewal, a revival, within some of the mainline, now old-line, increasingly sideline, churches of America. It’s an interesting question to be raised, and Tom Oden and I have discussed this many times, this confessional renewal that IRD has pressed for along with others. It is a recovery of a theological and moral identity on the part of these communions. But it is confessional without the historic polemic that gave birth to many of these communions, either to the intra-Protestant polemic between Anabaptists, sacramentalists, predestinationists, et cetera, et cetera. It’s important for us to remember that these bodies, the three bodies in which programmatically IRD seems to be most focused – Presbyterian, Episcopalian and United Methodist – at one time distinguished themselves from one another, confessionally speaking, almost as strongly as they distinguish themselves from the “or” distinction, the fundamental distinction, that gave birth to them, namely the distinction from the Catholic church.
This is an interesting project on which Tom Oden and many others are engaged. And whether that confessional renewal can, without the historic polemic that attended the identification of these bodies to begin with, now lead to an authentic ecumenism. And as you’ll see as I move along here, this I think has to be very prominently on the agenda for IRD or any similar organization. Are we in a new moment, under the providential guidance of God, in which we can envision a quite different form of Christian unity? A Christian unity that is profoundly ecclesial in character. Which is to say that is not simply, to uses a phrase in one of Alan Wisdom’s papers that he sent out to us, not simply cooperation across denominational lines – which in many ways is a good thing in itself – but in which we move, and help the Christian community to move, beyond denominations to a new understanding of “the church,” the Christian community in the United States of America. So that is one question to consider, and I hope the board will give it some serious attention. In what way is the unity of the Christian people, the unity of the church, on the agenda of IRD, beyond simply strategic and tactical cooperation between existing ecclesiastical institutions?
Reflecting, and what I’m going to do in these few reflections on where we are now, then going back to the beginnings as to how we got here, and then looking a little bit – well quite a bit more in historical reach – to the beginnings of movements of Christian renewal and attempts to influence American policy historically, and then I will end up with some perhaps suggestive thoughts with regard to the future.
Where we are now. In what way is IRD – if you look at the history of religion, culture, politics in America – part of the “Religious Right”? In what way does that situation, that placement of IRD, adequately define what this organization attempts to do and to be? And in what way does it not capture the fullness of the constituting vision of IRD? In what way are we part if we look at the, as our Marxist friends used to say, the correlation of forces in American life – cultural, religious, political – in what way is the correlation of forces one in which we accept the fact that this institution is part of what is politically perceived to be, with some justice, the base of the Republican Party? And to what degree is there a critical distance between IRD’s mission and partisan cause? An interesting question to ask in that connection is, why is it that IRD has not programmatically, programmatically, been a major player in the pro-life movement? Which I would suggest is the core issue that has brought about the reconfiguration of religious, cultural, and political forces in American life. Now in asking all these question keep in mind, these are not criticisms of IRD; they’re simply questions that we should be thinking about. And obviously, as with any institution, you operate by a division of labor. In other words, in asking what it is we should do you look around to see what other people are doing, other organizations, and you say, “Well, what is it that’s not being done that we very specifically are equipped and maybe even called by God to do?” But it is an interesting question. How, if at all and in what ways, do we distinguish IRD from this remarkable insurgency that has rewritten the map American culture and politics over the last 20 years, of evangelical, Catholic, generally conservative, religiously inspired political activism, dismissively called by our opponents the “Religious Right?” How did it happen, one might ask, that IRD became in many ways an ancillary, supportive, coordinating agency for insurgencies within these three denominations – the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church-USA, and the Episcopal Church? What were the alternatives to that? Or did it just kind of happen willy-nilly because we happen to have people who were particularly fired-up by the questions posed as they were posed in these denominations? Or was that a strategically conceived consequence?
An interesting question along the way is, what are all these Catholics doing connected with IRD? I mean, they have obviously been very, very much part of this from the beginning and now you’re chairman, Jay, somewhat belatedly one has to admit…[Laughter] But then who am I to say “but belatedly.” [Laughter] What is going on here? And I think that’s an interesting question for the organization to ask. There are some, one thinks for example of Mark Noll at Wheaton [now at Notre Dame], the foremost historian of evangelicalism in American and in some ways of Christianity in America. And Mark says, well, what’s really happening and has been happening over these last 15 years or in initiatives such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, IRD, and others is that basically evangelical Protestants who have lacked a rich tradition of social doctrine are becoming more Catholic in incorporating ways of relating explicit Christian faith to public discourse through such conceptual frameworks as natural law and a stronger role of reason in creating a public discourse that is marked by the political question, response to the political question, which of course is - Aristotle put it and I don’t think anybody has put it better,- the political question is, how ought we to order our life together? Free persons deliberating the question, how ought we to order our life together? Understanding right from the get-go, as Aristotle did and as the Catholic tradition embraced that understanding, that politics is inescapably, inherently an extension of ethics. And there is no other human and humane way of understanding the political task.
So these are some of the questions as to where we are now, that if you were an observer from outside this community of discourse that is IRD, I think they are some of the questions people would ask. You know, is it part simply of the Religious Right? What is distinctive about it? Is it really concerned for Christian unity? Or simply for continuing denominational separatism within a pattern of cooperation along certain conservative trajectories, et cetera? And what’s the Catholic-Protestant dynamic that’s going on there? And how do we think about that?
Now let me go back a little bit to the beginnings of IRD and the formative circumstances that gave birth to this. Of course, we would have to say it was overwhelmingly the Cold War, as Graham Smith [Episcopal priest and IRD board member] pointed out. It was a minority of Christians – not absolute minority but a minority certainly in terms of the control of some of the mainline, old-line bodies – who perceived a clear, not simply political and military challenge, but moral and, if you will, theological challenge with regard to the difference between freedom and tyranny, between democracy and totalitarianism. That was the circumstance in which we tried not simply to correct what we saw as the misdirections of the old-line leadership and not simply to protest what we saw as the wrongheadedness of their directions, but to propose an alternative. And I think the first statement – in which I admit I have some authorial pride, I hope not entirely misplaced – the first statement, “Christianity and Democracy,” proposed an alternative. We wanted to engage in argument. We wanted to say that the leadership of the churches were not simply perceived by us to be the enemy or the fellow travelers, although God knows many of them were, but to say let us come and reason together. Do you know what you’re doing? Something awful is happening here and we need to think it through together. Needless to say, those who were on what we perceived to be a dreadfully wrongheaded course did not entirely welcome this invitation to debate. And so it became, at times, a rather bristly, adversarial relationship. But I think the intention always was to propose an alternative, to say to the Christian communities in America, “Look, there is a better way. Here’s a better way for the human future, a way more in accord with our understanding of God’s providential purposes in history.”
Now, a question that certainly has to be on the agenda, I would suggest, is, do we not face a somewhat similar circumstance with regard to the rise of Islam? That if we are looking in the larger picture, a challenge posed by Islam – or by at least powerfully controlling forces within Islam – that is as antithetical to our understanding of a free and just society as was Soviet Communism. At least as equal to that. Are we and are we to be a part, a central part perhaps of the mission of IRD, to be doing now what we set out to do as represented by the statement “Christianity and Democracy,” doing that now with regard to the Islamic challenge? What ought to be the role of IRD in reflecting morally, even theologically, about the proposed role of America in advancing the democratic project as that role was articulated by the Bush administration? How much do we want to, with whatever degree of a critical edge, provide a moral, theological legitimization for this understanding of God’s intention for America in world affairs?
IRD has had a very powerful influence. Again, some of us were discussing last night, I think that one can date the, in retrospect, precipitous decline of institutions such as the National Council of Churches and the cultural-political influence of the social action agencies of the old-line churches. One can date it pretty much from the emergence of IRD. This is not to say that IRD was the sole cause, by any means. But it was a precipitating factor of very dramatic importance. Going back to the period of ’81, ’82, the 60 Minutes program, the Reader’s Digest articles … the NCC never recovered from that. I mean, you can look at something so very mundane as the financial resources of the National Council of Churches and its press – its degree of being acknowledged in the great questions of public life – it starts declining from that period. And it is today the case that the National Council of Churches, which we have to remember was once part of the American establishment, an institutional representative of those in charge of the commanding heights of culture comparable to Harvard University, to the American Medical Association, to the American Bar Association – the NCC, the successor body to the old Federal Council of Churches, represented for most of the governing class of America the institutionalization of religious leadership in America with, of course as they perceived it, Catholics challengingly and threateningly trying to exert themselves and in that world of evangelical fundamentalist reality out in the woods somewhere down in places like Mississippi and God knows where. And that was the construction of reality; that was the worldview that the governing classes of the United States operated by. All of that now of course is shattered, at least with regard to the religio-cultural dimension of American influence. And it happened with remarkable rapidity. Some may say, “Well, thirty years is a long time.” Not really, in terms of major reorientations of the power centers of a nation’s life. The National Council of Churches now is, as Mark [Tooley, of IRD staff] has pointed out, if I understand the data correctly receives more income from left-wing Democratic political sources than it does from its so-called member churches; which is an indication of its fringe, hanging on by the nail to its institutional life.
Now I’m sure that around this table there is a temptation to the sin of schadenfreunde. I doubt that many tears have been shed on behalf of the National Council of Churches’ unfortunate demise. But it also, if you were to put in summary form … well, what happened there? One of the favorite phrases back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, on the part articulated by the National Council and by the Board of Social Ministry [sic] of the United Methodist Church and others, was this phrase, “America is on the wrong side of world history.” That was very, very commonly used. And here 25 years later it is obvious that these institutions placed their bets on the wrong side of world history. Now, we have to, I think morally and theologically, not get too self-congratulatory about this because the directions of world history are not necessarily the directions of God’s providential purpose. But, with respect to some very fundamental questions – most basically, perhaps, the question … you could call it an anthropological question, human beings in their relation to the aspiration toward freedom – IRD was, within this historical framework at least, on the right side of history. And the National Council and its cognate bodies clearly have been refuted by the very history that they appealed to for vindication. That’s a big difference: they appealed, as did the Marxists, to the final judgment of history. History was the final adjudicator of whether the commitments they had made were right or wrong. That was not true for IRD; it was not true for orthodox Christians. It was defeated precisely by the history to which they appealed for vindication.
Needless to say, this has great political implications. And again we come back to in what ways IRD willy-nilly becomes part of the Religious Right, part of the base of the Republican Party. We see the Democratic Party attempting through collaboration with my dear friend Jim Wallis, among others, to ratchet up its image as being faith-friendly, sympathetic to religion, et cetera. Again avoiding the sin of schadenfreunde – which we can indulge a little without grave sin –this effort of the Democratic Party seems to me rather pathetic. I mean, Jim Wallis proposes the prophet Isaiah’s version of the federal budget, which strikes me as taking the apotheosis of one’s political prejudices to new heights of “Thus saith the Lord.” And there’s very little traction, I expect, for that effort and indeed, so far as we can see by survey research and other methods, it is having very little success. And increasingly the American people perceive the Democratic Party as being less sympathetic to if not overtly hostile to religion with every passing month. But again, that comes back to the question: how much is the mission, if you will, of IRD engaged with these political reconfigurations?
Now let me go back and take a much larger picture of trying to see IRD within what we might call the storyline of Christian efforts in America to think Christianly about the American experiment. G.K. Chesterton famously said, “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” We’re all familiar with that. And that strikes me as accurate. Yes, if there’s one thing that – among many others, but very strikingly – distinguished America from other national stories, from stories of people, it is that Americans have from the beginning – at least the settlers, leaving aside the Native Americans for a moment, the European settlers from the beginning – understood that America had a distinctive, if not unique place, in God’s providential purposes. A nation with the soul of a church. And not only with the soul of a church but I would suggest that the strengths, but more striking weaknesses, of this intuition about America is that America often became the church for those who thought of it in providential purposes. From what has been described as the “Puritan errand into the wilderness.” Again, now why am I going back to all this? Because IRD should be thinking about itself, especially in a board meeting 25 years after its founding. What’s our place within this larger story of religion in American public life and of a Christian sense of providential purpose? The Puritan errand into the wilderness in which the American people were the new Israel and America was in some sense Jerusalem even, in its more utopian flights of theological imagination, the New Jerusalem. America was the repository of temporal and even eschatological hopes for many of the Founders. And this, in what today we call a somewhat secularized form – “secularized” is not quite the right word but in a less explicitly Christian form, but still indisputably Christian in its assumptions – informed the Founders, the national Founders in the late eighteenth century, and their way of thinking of America.
The great seal of the United States that’s on the back of every dollar bill describes America as the novus ordo seclorum, the new order for the ages. And Protestant Christianity in America was generally very supportive of this understanding of the conflation of the Biblical story with the American story and of the Biblical hope with the American hope. Now this took various directions; there were permutations of this idea of the nation with the soul of a church. Obviously in the mid-nineteenth century, the beginnings of what used to be called, up until the last 50 years, “liberal religion in America,” meaning the Unitarian Universalist, non-Trinitarian, rebellion against orthodoxy, represented most powerfully by Ralph Waldo Emerson. His history changing, I think one could describe it, 1838 address to the Harvard Divinity School in which he urged upon them to abandon all of the burden of the past, of Christian tradition, doctrine, dogma, ritual and to assert simply the religion of the soul. Harold Bloom – the literary critic, kind of polymath – a few years ago wrote a book, The American Religion, in which – and he’s very much in the Emersonian tradition, a non-observant Jew in the Emersonian tradition – who makes the argument, Harold Bloom does, that the religion of America is represented by Emerson and most properly designated, described as Gnosticism; namely that each individual is a spark of divinity, temporarily and inconveniently embodied in moments of history and human corporeality but destined toward a transcendent relationship of a radically individualistic character with the divine. That became a very, very powerful force in American life. I mean, today we look at Unitarianism or the Unitarian Universalist Association, et cetera, and it seems so marginal to American life. I mean, I think the actual membership is something like 110,000 or something like that. But we forget how much they, that way of thinking, has permeated American culture. I mean all you have to do is go into your local Barnes & Noble and look at the shelves upon shelves upon shelves of “spirituality.” And it is, to a very large extent, Emersonian Gnosticism. And it’s permeated our churches, all of our churches. Sometimes very subtle ways, sometimes quite overt and obvious; which deeply weakens the capacity of the Christian community to have a sense of place that was distinct from the general culture. It weakened the capacity of the Christian community to have an actual church, if you will, distinct from the church of America. To have a place, a kind of contrast society, if you will, between the American experiment and that continuing pilgrim people through time that insisted, “Jesus Christ is Lord”; that held the American experiment and American role in the world under the judgment of the Lordship of Christ. This capacity was radically and is radically vitiated, gutted, weakened. And that is not entirely new to our time, as I’m saying it goes back to the nineteenth century.
We speak of our time as a time marked by culture wars. And I think that’s an accurate statement. That is to say, the political conflicts are to a significant extent if not a dominant extent, a reflection of fundamentally different understandings of the culture, of who we are, what are the ideas by which we hold ourselves accountable, how do we understand the good life – the most fundamental ideas. Our politics have become, in many ways, a war of ideas, a war over the definition of American culture. This is not entirely new. Again, going back to the nineteenth century, simultaneous with Emersonian Transcendental Gnostic flights of individual escape from historical placement was an enormous culture war centered – as today it is centered, I think most importantly, in the conflict over abortion – centered then in the question of slavery. And at that time in American life it became evident that the American constitutional order which, as Leo Strauss has put it, was built on foundations old and solid, that they were not solid enough to maintain the national experiment. Or, to change the metaphor, the constitutional order was not wired for first principle questions; namely, who belongs to the political community that deliberates the question how ought we to order our life together? And because it was overloaded, to use the same metaphor, by the question of slavery – by the most fundamental question of who’s a human being entitled to what rights appropriate to being human – the whole thing broke apart in the bloodiest civil war, the bloodiest war, of our history. And from that emerged a retelling of the American story and its relationship to providential history. Most magnificently in the voice of Abraham Lincoln, who has accurately, I think, been described as the greatest theologian of American civil religion. Not of American Christianity, but of American civil religion; of this strange amalgam of the Enlightenment-oriented novus ordo seclorum with providential guidance through time. And Lincoln posed in a way that is not dissimilar, you see, from the ongoing posing of America’s purpose in the world that a nation so conceived and so dedicated was an experiment upon which God’s purposes for history in some way were, if not predicated, at least God’s purposes were implicated in a deep, deep way. And he encouraged the nation to think of itself in this way.
Moving along very quickly, following the Civil War you have a time in which all Protestants, for all practical purposes almost all, considered themselves evangelicals, called themselves evangelicals. There was, under what was described as the Third Great Awakening, the creation of the Benevolent Empire in which you had an enormous sense of Christian self-confidence in America. The institutions of social welfare, of foreign missions, of prison reform, on and on and on, Protestantism in America was vibrant, vigorous, flourishing. And following the catastrophe of the Civil War, it seemed that something like a recovery of the Christian storyline had taken place. But as we all know, there arose from within that evangelical world what today is called the Social Gospel, with such impressive figures as Walter Rauschenbusch, with a clear goal and an unapologetic, confident goal of Christianizing America and Americanizing Christianity. A goal which incidentally assumed, or so it seems to me, the ecclesiologizing – if I may use that word – in an explicit way of the American experiment; of a nation not only with the soul of a church, but a nation that had in some sense become the church. And of course this Social Gospel movement segued in ways that are fascinating historically to trace into an adoption of a theological disposition imported chiefly from Germany by the late nineteenth, early twentieth century and going under the banner of modernism, at least as its opponents and its critics dubbed it – but as it itself described itself in many ways. And, of course as we all know, there came the great fracture of the Benevolent Empire and of the confident, historical mission of evangelicalism in America in the 1910’s and in the 1920’s, symbolized of course by the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee, the so called monkey trial, of the division between fundamentalists and evangelicals – then called fundamentalists and modernists, rather. And the fundamentalists then basically, in part, they lost the battle institutionally, as we all know; massively lost the battle. They lost the seminaries; they lost the church bureaucracy for the most part. With their tails between their legs, so to speak, the fundamentalists went into their own wilderness, their own errand into the wilderness. And for all practical purposes, were forgotten by the governing classes of America, except for occasional Menken-like gestures of derision toward these redneck, yahoos, bourgeoisie, et cetera, et cetera.
But their errand into the wilderness turned out to be a great deal more purposeful – as errands often are – then simple flight, simply escape. In the wilderness over the late 1920’s, 1930’s they built willy-nilly with no central coordination, direction, really, a remarkable array of educational, evangelistic, other institutions. And by the beginnings of the Second World War and then finding its public voice at the end of the Second World War under the banner of neo-evangelicalism, people like Carl Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of American Fundamentalism; very importantly the ministry of Billy Graham, which I think most historians have not understood how critically a catalytic agent he was for brining that large exiled community, if you will, back into the American storyline. And something new had happened. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Will Herberg’s marvelous book, Protestant-Catholic-Jew; a very important book, culturally formative book, and a very wise book in many, many ways. And a dear friend of Tom Oden, Will Herberg was. But it’s worth remembering that, if you read Will Herberg’s very insightful book, the kind of settlement that he thought had been reached in America in which religion – Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish – simply became a personal designator of one’s place within a public realm in which religious difference had largely come to mean to make no difference. In that description even what we today call evangelical Protestantism, what then was called fundamentalism still, really played no significant role at all. It wasn’t on Will Herberg’s radar screen in any significant way, and certainly not on the radar screen of the governing classes of which Will Herger was part although very courageously critical in many ways.
I’ve skipped over other parts of the way in which the Christian story, the story of that community that says “Christ is Lord,” and the American story have intersected and interacted and been held in tension and in relationships also of mutual support. John Dewey, in 1934 – John Dewey, who for 60 years, died at age 92, for 60 years certainly was the most influential public intellectual in American life – in 1934 published a little book called A Common Faith, in which the premise was that historic Christianity with its authoritative traditions, and scriptures, and accounts of miracles, and divinity and so forth was clearly outdated and was no longer usable in public. A few particularly retarded types might still hang onto the remnants of it, but for the American future, for the future of progress of which America was the prime bearer in history, there was needed a new common faith divested of the superstitions, authoritarian patterns, et cetera of the past.
Needless to say, John Dewey’s common faith did not catch on; in largest part because most Americans, however ambiguously and confusingly, thought that they already had a religion called Christianity. And one of the striking things in terms of that popular assumption is how constant has been the belief of the overwhelming majority of Americans that they are, again however confusingly, Christians. If you go back and survey research which begins in the early 1920’s that moves into the great Middletown Study and up to the present, one of the most striking things – as far as you can tell by that kind of research – about religion in America has been the constancy, the stability of religious belief and practice. Of course, this doesn’t receive much attention in the news media because the news media is about what’s new and what’s different. The remarkable thing is that Americans have stubbornly, incorrigibly, frequently mindlessly, let it be admitted, thought of themselves as a Christian people. And all of the current chatter about the “New American pluralism,” et cetera, and the role of Islam and Buddhism and the other Eastern religions have changed that picture very, very little. 80-87% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. The totality of non-Christian identified religionists in America is certainly less than 4% of the general population, including a little under 2% Jewish and then the rest of a whole amalgam. There are many Christians, including evangelical Christians – Christianity Today is prone to this – of saying that we live in a post-Christian society. And by that they’ll either buy into Harvard’s Diana Eck business about how, you know, there’s this burgeoning of Eastern and Muslim and other religions, which is statistically false. Or they will say it’s post-Christian in that the great majority of Americans, while nominally saying they’re Christian, in fact have embraced Harold Bloom’s American Gnosticism, et cetera.
My own view is that it’s a self-serving cop-out on the part of Christians to pretend that this is not continuingly, incorrigibly, confusedly a Christian nation. It’s easy for us to say, whether on the conservative side, the evangelical side as Christianity Today does, or on the left as Stanley Hauerwas, a very influential theologian and a dear friend of mine, says from the left that America is post-Christian, that the church is now in some sense in exile. I don’t believe that. And I think it’s an abdication of responsibility. We have to accept the fact that, however embarrassing the state of American Christianity may be – and it is deeply embarrassing – this is the community of which we are part and for which we bear an important measure of responsibility in terms of defining the relationship of the community that says, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” to the continuing American experiment.
There are still some today who represent, articulate a John Dewey-like vision of a vaguely Christian America divested of its orthodox baggage. Richard Rorty, very influential contemporary thinker – grandson, not so incidentally, of Walter Rauschenbusch – Richard Rorty has revived the Dewey call for a common faith. Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, “America has displaced God as our ultimate desire”; a kind of radically pro-American-from-the-left vision of America on a continuity of carrying the banner of progress, as he defines and his fellows define progress.
In the course of this whole history, there have been other Christian forces of course. We’ve already mentioned Paul Ramsey, who gave a great deal of thought to these questions. And Reinhold Niebuhr, who – whatever one might think about his theological deficiencies – had a profound, indeed I would say Augustinian sense, a sense similar to that of St. Augustine’s great City of God, of the ambiguous, winding of the pilgrim people, the winding of their way through the vicissitudes and changes of history. But always an identifiable community that could not be conflated with, could not be simply equated with, the American experiment.
[John Courtney Murray] in 1960 wrote a book called We Hold These Truths; a book that I would suggest is, if not singular, certainly in a select company of books that should be read by every board member of IRD. Murray is best remembered today for his contributions to the Second Vatican Council and its declaration on religious freedom. But, in fact, Murray was a new thing on the American scene: a Catholic, a powerfully credible Catholic, voice entering into the ongoing discussion of what is the American story in the light of God’s providential purpose in history. And relative to my earlier question about the role of Catholics in IRD – and not only in IRD – Murray had the notion which some found presumptuous and audacious, that already in his time he saw that the Protestant establishment – which was usually referred to as the WASP establishment, which was the keeper of the flame of the American story within providential history – he saw already in the 1950’s the evidences that the Protestant establishment was tired of the story, or no longer had theological or moral nerve to tell the story. And Murray already in the 1950’s said we must anticipate the day in which it will be the case that Catholics in America will catch the falling flag that the Protestant establishment had dropped, in terms of telling the American story within a providential history that was anchored in – and this brings us back to my first mention of G.K. Chesterton and a nation with the soul of the church – that was anchored in an ecclesial reality that is distinct from, and in some sense in contrast to, and necessarily in tension with the American story. Namely that there is a church, needless to say for John Courtney Murray preeminently the Roman Catholic Church, that provided a universal point of reference – universal chronologically, diachronically, through history, and universal in terms of contemporary cultures, histories of other nations, peoples, et cetera – that provided a necessary tension between the church and the world; the world in this case being that part of the world that is the American story.
I, you will not be surprised to learn, am very intrigued by and always have been by Murray’s way of telling the story and Murray’s claim that the fatal telling of it, the failed telling of it, in the past are primarily attributed to the fact that the essentially Protestant American experience had no ecclesial reality by which the story could be tethered to a history that could hold the American experiment under judgment. The Protestant weakness was constantly to conflate America with the church, indeed to make of America a church.
Well, that’s the history within which IRD, it seems to me, should be seen. IRD is one small, but not insignificant, Christian effort in the latter part of the twentieth century to retell the American story relative to God’s providential purpose and most specifically to God’s creation of human beings wired for freedom. That’s how we started. I mentioned the new challenge posed by Islam, comparable in some ways and limited ways to be sure – this needs all kinds of qualification – in some ways to the challenge of Communism, which was our beginning point as an institution. There is also, in very interesting ways, the new development of a Christian movement that is increasingly not centered in the American reality. It’s very important to understand how much in the nineteenth and early twentieth century the assumption was that America was the heir of European Christianity and the platform and the launching pad for world evangelization; so that America was in the cockpit of world-historical change. With regard to the Christian movement today, that is much less the case. And it will become much, much less the case as – Philip Jenkins and David Martin and many others have pointed out – the dynamics of the Christian movement are increasingly toward the southern hemisphere, in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia. And all of that, of course, will become much, much more dramatic if and when China really opens up – which, I think, is more a question of when than of if. And Americans will become aware in a new way that there is a disjunction – as the Benevolent Empire couldn’t have imagined – that there is a disjunction between God’s movement of the Holy Spirit and the evangelization of the world, and the American story; that we’re no longer in charge. At a time in which, however, at present and for the foreseeable future, politically, economically, and in some ways culturally America will continue to be the superpower. But you see what there is which has not been before in this telling of the American story by Christians, is a disjunction between American political, economic, military power on the one hand, and the Christian mission on the other. And an interesting question for IRD and similar organizations to ask is, are we more American or are we more Christian? In this sense, as we see our moment in history, are we oriented to, engaged with primarily the Christian movement in world-historical change, or simply with the American influence in whatever may be God’s providential purposes? A fascinating set of questions that raises.
Ok, let me wrap up then. We are willy-nilly, not by anybody’s designed calculation I expect, part of what is seen as the “Religious Right.” Part of that is inevitable. Part of that is by choice; not so much mega-choice as simply a choice in terms of day-by-day battles. No human being and no organization has the privilege of choosing its battles and choosing the time in which we live and choosing the issues that’ll be thrown up to us, the challenges that’ll be thrown out, and the partners that form a coalition in responding to those challenges. So much of that is … you can say it’s willy-nilly. Perhaps God has a hand in the will-nillyness of things. And so you find yourself at a particular point in which, sometimes, you’re surprised. You find yourself in coalition and alliance, with people whom you have not really expected to be doing battle on the same side of the lines. But there you are. So we don’t, in that sense, have a choice. We’re not sitting on the top of Mount Olympus, choosing our moment in history and who it is that we’re going to contend with and contend against. Although, I think Jay intends this retreat to be about as close as an institution like this can get to Mount Olympus. And it’s always important to do it, to make the effort, to look at the big picture.
Maybe IRD being part of the “Religious Right,” base of the Republican Party, doing the distinctive thing, as Alan said in one of his papers he sent us, being distinctive by being the only organization that is focused upon the mainline, old-line sideline – which I think is probably an accurate description – and coming down essentially, for most programmatic purposes, to those three denominational clusters, maybe that’s what IRD should be. And we just say, “OK, that’s the task that’s been given us that others are not doing. And we’ll continue to do it and by the grace of God try to do it better.” That may be the case. But I think we should at least be provoked and maybe a little bothered by the fact that when we started out as an organization we had a larger purpose; which was not simply to contend against the naïve and sometimes not so naïve friends of totalitarianism within Protestant denominations and the National Council, but a larger purpose to propose a better way. At least that’s how I understand the beginnings of IRD. How do we propose, then, a better way in this new and admittedly confusing circumstance? How do we propose something like a religiously informed public moral discourse for understanding the American story and the story of Christians in America who proclaim that, “Jesus Christ is Lord”?
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