Like Europe, the United States has now been “seized by secularism,” Newt Gingrich warned at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Wednesday. As evidence of the replacement of Christianity with secularism, the former House Speaker cited the following: replacing Anno Domini (A.D.) with the Common Era (C.E.), banning school prayer, striking out “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the court battle over the Mojave Desert Cross that commemorates World War I veterans. Gingrich explained how “secularist fanaticism” encouraged him to join the Church of Rome in 2008. He asked the audience to imagine themselves as the pope, facing a culture that tears down crosses and bans school prayer.
At the same time, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly was ruffled over the current TIME cover story, reporting the denial of hell by evangelical pastor Rob Bell in his book, Love Wins. O’Reilly said we need hell for the Pol Pots, Lenins, and Hitlers of the world, though he cited official Roman Catholic statements about those who try sincerely to do good as unlikely candidates for hell. So Ghandi is in, but Hitler is out. Ah, so good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell—and, of course, I’m a good person. If this isn’t a secularization of the Christian faith, I don’t know what is.
Also in the last couple days, MSNBC commentator Lawrence O’Donnell took on Rusch Limbaugh for distorting Jesus’s teaching. After a tirade against the Left for using Jesus as a mascot for socialism, Limbaugh used Jesus as a mascot for capitalism. Not “What Would Jesus Do?”, but “What Would Jesus Take?”, is the question to ask. And the answer, of course, is nothing. Jesus was against high taxes. Au contraire, O’Donnell responds, quoting Jesus’s conversation with the rich young ruler and the separation of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. For his part, O’Donnell invokes Jesus for a progressive income tax structure.
So what do all of these stories have in common? Lots of things come to mind, but I’ll mention two. First, all of these stories point up the remarkable ignorance of Scripture and a consequent inability to do anything more with it than find quotable sound-bites for positions that one would have if Jesus had never lived. Second, they suggest that there is indeed a creeping secularism that is threatening vital Christianity. However, I would suggest that the kind of Christianity that many worried souls have in mind is not really that different from creeping secularism.
In the 1950s, C. S. Lewis was asked by Decision magazine whether he was concerned about the “de-Christianizing” of the West, especially Europe. Lewis replied, “I’m not really qualified to speak to the question of the culture, but there is definitely a de-Christianizing of the church.” It’s one thing for Christian churches to lose their cultural influence. Fusing Christ with a particular civilization is already a gross distortion of the faith. Nevertheless, “Christendom” is over, regardless of whether you think it was a good or bad idea in the first place. Benign prayers to an unkown god in public schools, apart from the Mediator, is already a capitulation to secularism. Who cares whether crosses no longer dominate national memorials where Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, and atheists are buried? The question is whether the cross is proclaimed in our churches.
Maybe “fanatical secularists” who are so nervous about public expressions of faith have something to worry about, when burning Qur’ans and using Jesus for whatever left-wing or right-wing policy become the most familiar presence of religion in public life. Maybe it’s time for us to stop taking God’s name in vain and begin again to be Christians in a pagan culture.