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The God of Crisis

» Newsweek: Christianity in Crisis (Andrew Sullivan)

Give Sully credit for being able to spark some debate. But I can't quite bring myself to fully embrace where he goes with this ...

The Catholic Church’s hierarchy lost much of its authority over the American flock with the unilateral prohibition of the pill in 1968 by Pope Paul VI. But in the last decade, whatever shred of moral authority that remained has evaporated. The hierarchy was exposed as enabling, and then covering up, an international conspiracy to abuse and rape countless youths and children. I don’t know what greater indictment of a church’s authority there can be—except the refusal, even now, of the entire leadership to face their responsibility and resign. Instead, they obsess about others’ sex lives, about who is entitled to civil marriage, and about who pays for birth control in health insurance. Inequality, poverty, even the torture institutionalized by the government after 9/11: these issues attract far less of their public attention.

For their part, the mainline Protestant churches, which long promoted religious moderation, have rapidly declined in the past 50 years. Evangelical Protestantism has stepped into the vacuum, but it has serious defects of its own. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explores in his unsparing new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, many suburban evangelicals embrace a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that living a Christian life will make you successful and rich. Others defend a rigid biblical literalism, adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministry, and are copies of copies of stories told by those with fallible memory. Still others insist that the earth is merely 6,000 years old—something we now know by the light of reason and science is simply untrue. And what group of Americans have pollsters found to be most supportive of torturing terror suspects? Evangelical Christians. Something has gone very wrong. These are impulses born of panic in the face of modernity, and fear before an amorphous “other.” This version of Christianity could not contrast more strongly with Jesus’ constant refrain: “Be not afraid.” It would make Jefferson shudder.

I'm sure that if we could time-travel back to 2002/2003, something like this might goad someone like me into attempting a good ol' fashioned fisking. But in the absence of time travel, I'll offer only a few points to interrupt the banging of my head against a wall after reading the entire article:

- Way too much effort is expended to try and re-make Thomas Jefferson into "the one who got it." It's almost the inverse of what David Barton does to deify third-tier propagandists from the 1700s who made some point that Barton now seeks to enact. Jefferson's views on faith/Jesus/religion were a bit more complicated than Sullivan offers up.

- Losing the timeless by dwelling on the messiness of the timely. Easily the most frustrating of aspects here. Yes, all the chatter about birth control will certainly maintain some attention. But is it really at the core of why American Christianity is going through something that's already been witnessed in European Christianity decades (if not centuries) before?

In fact, there's plenty of good material to lay out a case that "power" has corrupted both churches in a fairly systemic way. But I guess it's better to just throw in a cheap nod toward the fads of the day. The points Sullivan does make with regard to the abuses of power tend to be the most compelling. But if you want more along those lines, I'd heartily recommend giving Greg Boyd's 2004 sermon series on "The Cross and the Sword" a spin over the Easter weekend. Boyd's thesis is one that I've been a fan of since reading "The Myth of a Christian Nation." Boyd borrows heavily from John Howard Yoder's earlier writing, if you're inclined to go further back for "source" material. Compared to reading both authors, it's hard to read Sullivan's article as a prescriptive with appreciation. As a diagnosis, it's no doubt better.

And since we're at the obligatory Easter weekend (where something approaching everyone goes to church), I'll simply note that I'll be spending the next three days with these folk. I can't say enough good things about the place.

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  1. I know a lot of Catholics, and not a one of them (that I know of) believes in the Church’s opposition to contraception. They think for themselves.

    People who hate something, then speculate on that something’s decline (for which they fondly wish, but cannot necessarily prove), are really not qualified to do anything but gossip. Their lack of awareness is every bit as severe as the ignorance they decry.

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