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Secularization In 'Christian' America (Part 1)

Posted by on in Modern Reformation
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(In honor of our September/October issue, ‘Secularizing Religion’, MR contributor Carl Trueman (Paul Woolley Professor of Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary) and P&R Publishers have graciously permitted us to post this abridged version of Chapter 2, “The Slipperiness of Secularization” from Dr. Trueman’s book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative.  We’ll post the second half tomorrow.)
RepublocratAmerica, the Exception?

Given the First Amendment, the religious nature of so much political discourse in the States is surprising but does fit in general with what has been seen, at least until recently, as part and parcel of American exceptionalism. This is a wide-ranging thesis which basically argues that the way society has developed in America is exceptional in that it does not follow the pattern of social development that is found elsewhere. Religion is central to this argument: while the development of modern technological societies elsewhere in the world has led to the decline of public, institutional religion, this has not occurred to anything like the same extent in America. The obvious evidence for this is attendance at places of worship, which is still very high in the US but now pitifully low in Europe.

In fact, as the years roll by, it looks increasingly as if it is secular Europe that is the exception, and not America. Religion around the world seems to be on the rise, particularly in places such as Africa. Only in Europe, among the old, indigenous populations, does religion seem to be in any kind of terminal decline; elsewhere, the religious future looks really quite rosy. The rise of modern society does not seem, in general, to be quite as opposed to traditional religion as was once supposed.

I want to ask the question, however, as to whether America was ever that great an exception to secularization, or whether it is rather the case that secularization can take various forms, some of which, ironically, look really rather religious at first glance. Could it be that both Britain and America are really both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such? And could this actually create more problems for the American church than she typically likes to assume?

The U.S.A: Secularization, Religious-Style

In the USA church attendance, while varying from state to state, is much higher than in Europe. I remember being at a worship service in Grand Rapids in the mid 90s and hearing the pastor lament in a sermon that 'the tragedy of this town is that only 1 in 2 people will be in church this morning.' Wow, I thought to myself, that’s a tragedy? Back home we’d call that a revival beyond our wildest dreams. In context, of course, the figures no doubt did represent a decline from earlier generations; and it is also easy to become so used to minuscule church attendance that one can become very jaded about what is really the tragedy of half the population not worshipping on a Sunday; but my point is that, while Grand Rapids may be exceptional even by American standards, this points to the generally very much higher church commitment there than in Europe.

Historians and sociologists will probably debate the reasons for the difference between America and Europe for years to come. Various factors probably play in to the difference: Europe’s twentieth century was one of declining world influence, America’s of increasing, thus helping to foster pessimism and optimism within the respective cultures; Europe saw horrible slaughter and genocide, and significant civilian casualties in a series of major conflicts, while American soil was by and large protected from such, even as she lost large numbers of young men overseas. America also never developed the kind of labour movements found in Europe, had no state church, and contains vast tracts of land where the economy and the lifestyle were rural, agrarian and thus typically conservative and traditional in culture.

The question I want to ask here, however, is: is it actually the case that the church has maintained the loyalty of large sections of the population by essentially becoming a secular institution? Secularization might merely have taken a different form in America to that which we find in Europe.

We can start with a soft target: the health, wealth and happiness teaching of men like Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn. One listens in vain to their addresses for the kind of talk one finds in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, where not only does he talk of the cross as providing a logic both to God’s saving action in Christ, but also as providing a paradigm for ministry. The suffering that marks his life is essential for his ability to minister to others who suffer, that he might bring them comfort (e.g., 2Cor 1). Instead, Osteen and Hinn, in their different ways, point their listeners towards an allegedly happy life, free of pain, want, and distress, that is just there for the taking if their advice and spiritual guidance is followed.

Somebody asked me recently if Osteen and Hinn were big in the UK. My answer was simple: no, not at all, nothing like they are here in the US. Why is that? Came the follow up, to which I replied: they simply wouldn’t work in the UK because the idiom is all wrong; the British do not respond to religious language in the way many Americans do; thus, we have self-help gurus, not prosperity preachers. Of course, both preach the same message: prosperity through realizing your own inner potential; but while the British equivalent is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity.

Prosperity preachers are a soft target, particularly from the perspective of conservative, confessional evangelicals. But the identification of worldly or secular ambitions with the gospel is no monopoly of the positive thinkers and the prosperity Pentecostallers. The vision--or at least the sales pitch--of all politicians, Left and Right, is more prosperity, more comfort, better health etc. etc. We may tut-tut at Osteen as he pushes his message of health, wealth, and happiness; but is it not the case that many Christians who claim to be orthodox actually nurture similar ambitions themselves? I will argue in the next chapter that the connection often made between economic prosperity and Christianity by conservative Christians is but a more sophisticated and rhetorically toned-down version of the Osteen gospel. At a more mundane level, how many of us assume that God’s favor towards us will be typically demonstrated in the categories of health, wealth and happiness? How many of us, if you like, are as guilty of Corinthian style conceptions of what Christianity should look like, as Osteen and company? Maybe the difference is that Osteen is just more open and honest about it.
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  • There seems to be multiple issues here that can be joined by a single question. The first issue regards America being an exception which was also described as American Exceptionalism. The problem with these two ways of trying to say the same thing is that they don't. Saying America is an exception merely says America is different. But the phrase American Exceptionalism qualifies that difference as being significant and better than in relation to others.

    The other issue concerns itself with a demise in the Church. Has the Church in America unknowingly compromised itself by retaining its spiritual language while becoming secular? Of course, one didn't have to use Hinn & Osteen as examples of secularization. We could also point to churches that take pride in the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. With either sets of examples, we see a syncretism, that is a pounding of the square peg of something secular into the round hole of the Gospel.

    The single question that joins these two issues is, how significant are the claims we make about ourselves? How important is the American claim to be exceptional when America's actions are as unjust as those of other countries? And what is the significance of claiming. And how significant are our claims about how we follow the Gospel when we are serving mammon as much as the average secular person?

    I guess that the point here is that religious language covers a multitude of sins.

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  • I would say that not only are prosperity preachers like Hinn and Osteen, and other such "celebrity" preachers, manifestations of American secularism in religious garb (which they are, as Trueman so eloquently states). They are also contributing factors in the process of secularization, for such big name preachers and celebrity mega-church revivalist-types, and the movements they create, do one thing really well: empty smaller, local churches. Historically confessional and other "traditional" churches are daily losing members to the assimilating Borg of the area megachurch (the "church of the next-big-thing") built upon the cult of celebrity of preacher X. I'm no prophet, but I would suspect that within a generation or two such megachurches will themselves empty out, leaving in their wake former members (or the children of such members) who are burned out and thoroughly secularized. One suspects that, barring a mighty work of God, the religious landscape in America will soon look very similar to that of Europe, with the historic Christian churches being a small, insignificant minority and membership in such churches being typically quite small. The only biblical way to combat this is for the churches to abandon the folly of the megachurch movement and to return to the "old paths" of gospel-centered Word and Sacrament ministry, historic liturgy, creedalism, and pastoral nurture. It is a way that looks foolish to the world (and to a worldly church), but it is the only thing that has staying power.

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