Charles Featherstone on American Civil Religion

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Charles Featherstone entitled “The Problem of Modernity“.  In this post he looks at American civil religion and how it is deeply influenced by the underlying assumptions of liberal modernity.

His jumping-off point is a public service announcement which aired during a December 1956 episode of Gunsmoke which strongly encouraged church attendance.  Believe it or not, it was possible to run a public service announcement like that back then.  (Just try doing something like that today and see what happens.)  As you read this PSA (I won’t quote it here because then you would have no reason to read Featherstone’s piece), pay attention to the arguments which it uses to promote church attendance:  (1)  The world is in a chaotic state and in order to survive, we need a nation of morally and spiritually strong people; you will get that from church.  (2)  You will face trying circumstances in your life, when you will need the comfort and support which can only come from regular participation in a church community.

Note that this PSA came out in a time when churches were packed, fully funded, and bursting at the seams with children and families.  No doubt many of you would love to see America go back to such a time; no doubt many of you are lamenting the cultural shifts which would make such a PSA impossible today.  But think, people.  Go back to the arguments it is making in order to promote church attendance.  Notice anything?  Notice anything missing?

I’ll tell you what’s missing:  Jesus Christ.

Where is Jesus Christ in all of this?  At best, nothing more than an outside observer, an assumed but unimportant presence.  Featherstone calls it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a term which has been used to describe much of American Christianity, whether conservative evangelicalism or the liberal mainlines.

Featherstone’s chief focus is the liberal churches, which had their own unique ways of making Jesus Christ not the center of our Christian faith.  (That is the world he lives in; he grew up Lutheran and went through the ELCA’s ordination candidacy process.)  But whether conservative or liberal, the underlying problem is the same for all of American religion:  A surrender to the modernistic liberal way of looking at things, in which the State is the end-all, be-all of human existence and the Church exists to support the State.  Thus the aim of the Church is to produce good citizens, because moral and spiritual strength is part of what it takes to make a good citizen.

Message to all you fellow conservative evangelicals:  The rot did NOT set in with the Supreme Court decision this year, or the cultural shifts of the last few years which made that decision possible.  Nor did it set in with Roe v. Wade, or the removal of prayer from public schools, or any of the other cultural shifts of the sixties which led to the disintegration of the American Christendom of the 40’s and 50’s.  The rot set in much earlier than that.  It began in the 1800’s and possibly before, when we in the American church accepted the presuppositions of modernistic liberalism and began to conflate the qualities that make a good citizen with those that make a good Christian.  (Heads up people:  They’re not the same.)

American Christendom is gone, people.  And it ain’t coming back.  That is a good thing.  Why?  Because we have a story to tell to a world which desperately needs to hear it.  The story of Israel and her encounter with God.  The story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how those events have changed the lives of all whom Jesus has called to follow (that’s you and me, people).  The church of America has been too busy telling a different story:  whether the liberal mainlines telling the story of progress and science and democracy and history and freedom, or conservative evangelicals telling the story of bringing America back to God with good old conservative values or how biblical principles can give you your best life now or how a return to proper doctrine is needed to bring the church and the world out of the pit (take your pick).

Let us stop mourning the loss of American Christendom, or trying to bring it back.  Instead, let us recognize that we have a story to tell to a world which desperately needs to hear it, and get busy telling it.

Read: The Problem of Modernity by Charles Featherstone