Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Only Real Christians Live In Denmark

I've just done a fascinating bit of reading over at Public Discourse, a conservative web journal. The article I'd commend to your attention is written by W. Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist. He opines at totally manageable length about the impact of social democracy on faith, drawing from a recent 33 nation study by two University of Washington sociologists. That study confirmed something many folks have noticed anecdotally: that nations that provide cradle-to-grave care for their citizens tend to be less religious.

For Dr. Wilcox, this reality poses grave concerns for the landscape of American faith during an Obama administration. Given this administration's focus on providing health care, a functioning infrastructure, and an educational system, things could get particularly ugly for the church if all of those things are successfully provided. Why? The answer is simple, says the good doctor:

"The bottom line: as government grows, people’s reliance on God seems to diminish."

Why is this? It isn't that folks aren't religious in countries like Norway and Denmark. There are Christians...just not as many of them. Why? In his review of the 33 nation study, Dr. Wilcox pulls out the core finding:

How do we account for the inverse relationship between government size and religious vitality? As Gill and Lundsgaarde point out, some individuals have strong spiritual needs that can only be met by religion. This portion of the population remains faithful, come what may. But other individuals only turn to churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques when their needs for social or material security are not being met by the market or state. In an environment characterized by ordinary levels of social or economic insecurity, many of these individuals will turn to local congregations

So let's make the shift from sociology to theology. What does this mean theologically?

It means, if we're attending to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, that the "success" of American Christianity only comes because most American Christians don't have a clue what Jesus actually taught. The findings tell us that we turn to God when we are seeking material well-being. We turn to Christ seeking physical security.

What we do not appear to be seeking is the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. We're as confused as the Samaritan woman at the well, who had trouble grasping the difference between water and Living Water. We come to Jesus not because we feel the yearning to be conformed to the will of God and transformed by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Instead, it's because we got us a jones for some a dat schweet, schweet Mammon, and we expect that Jesus in his infinitely beneficent blingitude will supernaturally serve it up if we ask real nice.

Perhaps, to flip Dr. Wilcox and his conclusions on their head, what a welfare state actually does is help separate the wheat from the chaff, the True Kirk from the Church of the World, the Heavenly City from the Earthly City. Those who would otherwise go to church seeking first their own interests and their own comfort find what they seek in the state, and fall away.

Those who recognize that there is more to our purpose life than material possessions and security...well, they keep seeking the Holy until they find it.