Friday, July 23, 2010

America's Always Done It That Way

America is, or so we are often told by people who should know better, a Christian nation. It's a fairly common refrain among those on the far right, those who would self-describe as ultra-conservative. They see resisting change as a battle against the forces that are gradually, insidiously turning this country into some unrecognizable socialist horror. You know, like the People's Republic of Canada. Change is to be resisted.

I found myself yesterday musing at the irony in this.

Conservatives in America tend to be church folks. And church leaders know that the kiss of death for any church comes when it is governed by one particular and pernicious phrase: "We've Always Done It That Way." As a theory for the primary cause of church demise and decay, it's well tested. If a congregation is not open to change, not open to responding creatively to the new challenges in its community and the world, then it will die. It might take a while. But that church will eventually calcify and crumble and fail, because it has ceased to be a living entity.

Here I'm not talking about changing the central governing values of the church. I'm talking about changing the structural and procedural mechanics of church. You know, the crap that doesn't matter. Big, vibrant churches...which, paradoxically, are often the conservative ones...know this. You modify the form, while maintaining the essential content.

Observing the intensity of the resistance to some seemingly obvious and necessary structural changes in our country, I marvel that a nation filled with successful churches should be so ferociously resistant to change. Take, for instance, our approach to transporting our selves and our stuff. A car-based system of mass transportation is obscenely inefficient, abusively wasteful of both our time and our natural resources. But we LIIIIKE it. It's the way we've always done it. It feels comfortable. So even though it can't be sustained, we resist any efforts to change it. Just drill more! Just make more long as you don't make us pay for them. And keep gas cheap, so we can drive our big lumbering Suburbans just the way the Founding Fathers intended.

We choose to ignore that things are changing. We refuse to realize that the easy and abundant energy that comes from carbon-based sources of energy was the only thing that makes the inefficiencies in our system possible. We close our eyes to the approaching end of the Oil Age. We are, as a culture, like that college-town church that clings to organs and stained glass and high pulpits and robes. It might, for a time, survive. But eventually, clinging to forms and structures that no longer reflect the reality around us will be the end of us. Assuming we're not dead already.

Any halfway competent pastor could tell you that.


  1. This feels a bit apples-to-oranges to me. Learning new worship songs vs limiting one's mobility?

    People want to feel like they're in control, even if they aren't (hence general elections). What matters here is whether the common folk trust those communicating the need for change. I think we'll see change once pastors start warning against consumerism and exhorting stewardship of the earth.

    Tangentially, I wonder how much a church's tenuous tax-status has to do with some pastors' reluctance to expound certain practical (read: political) applications of biblical principles. My pastor seems to tip toe around political statements.

  2. US a Christian nation? The Post office delivered mail on Sunday for years.

    On the other hand disestablishment was for the Federal Government only. Coneticutt had an established church until 1926. It is the 14th amendment that gives the Supreme Court the ability to make decisions about religion.

  3. I have to go with Pastor Bob. People who think that the USA was not a 'Christian nation' really don't read much history - at the same time, it wasn't a dogmatic country at the federal level in the same way even some of the states could be, or the way many 'establishment' nations were for quite a few centuries. Still, it was a nation that thought of itself as upholding the standard of the cross and pursuing Christ as a community (with some very particular and somewhat ostracized exceptions). That people didn't entirely agree on what pursuing Christ meant was not uncommon in Europe at the time and certainly isn't unexplainable now, even among people who devote their whole attention to the task.

    The so-called separation of Church and state that supposedly keeps the IRS out of churches only if they keep out of politics was a creation of LBJ because he was upset that many Christ followers opposed his candidacy and misguided values. Disestablishment had already spread to the point that the 14th amendment wasn't imagined to somehow impact the issue of church and state in the 1860s, but is currently used to explain the propagation of the misread disestablishment clause to all levels of government.

  4. Seriously, folks? Does no one remember their high school government classes?

    The process by which the rights and protections of citizens guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are applied to the state governments is called selective incorporation. Without it, if you were arrested for a state crime and could not afford an attorney, the state would have no responsibility to provide you with one.

    The 14th Amendment says "No State shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.". In the 1960s, the Supreme Court started interpreting "equal protection of the laws" to mean all of the protections in the BoR, including the ones prohibiting the establishment of religion and guaranteeing the free excercise of the same. There wouldn't be much point, the justices reasoned, in allowing tyranny just because it was on the state, not national, level.

    The United States has never been a Christian nation in any meaningful sense of the term. Establishment of religion was disallowed by the First Amendment. Nor would the framers have wanted it any other way. Most of the Founding Fathers were Deists. In fact, the only major FF who seems to have been a bona fide Christian was John Adams. (Being presbyterian, I am sorely tempted to include the Rev. John Witherspoon in a list of major Founding Fathers, but I must resist the urge.)

    On an unrelated topic that was sort of raised in the original post, I happen to be a college freshman who prefers her church with an organ and as much stained glass as possible, but I realize I am an abnormality.

  5. I agree, America was not originally a Christian nation. But the original Bill of Rights prevented establishment of a particular denomination as the true church for the whole USA. This did not prevent states from establishing particular churches as the true church in that particular state. The Bill of Rights also said clearly that anything not mentioned in the constitution or the Bill of Rights was retained as a power of particular states. It was the 14th amendment that prohibited all states from establishing particular denominations for the individual states. Curiously this was no longer needed in any state. Conn. removed the Congregational Church as the established church in that state in 1826.

    The further interpretations by the Supreme Court fleshed this out.

    BTW the Constitution and its amendments never talks about the separation of Church and State. This was how Jefferson talked about it and encouraged (and succeeded) to place those words in the constitution of the state of Virginia.

  6. America was not originally a Christian nation. But the original Bill of Rights prevented establishment of a particular denomination as the true church for the whole USA.

    Don't try to sell those t-shirts at a Tea Party conference. And don't bother trying to show them those dratted history books. Those surely weren't on the Texas textbook list...

    What so many people have forgotten is that the original settlers came to be freed from state-sponsored religion - from the English version of Christendom. And as long as we have Fox News trumpeting about "attacks on our Christian nation" or "America's Christian culture," our Tea Party brothers and sisters will continue to believe the lie.

    Lyle Schaller wrote in The Interventionist that the next year in most churches' planning calendars is 1951. It seems to be that way in our government, as well.

    For some reason (can't imagine why) this particular cartoon is enjoying a resurgence of interest.