In his essay, “Church Not State,” for The American Conservative, D.G. Hart makes an astute observation about “a central dynamic of 19th-century American Christianity that is still operative today.” This dynamic concerns the relationship between faith and public life. He writes:
What is important to notice is that the form of devotion—let’s call it “republican Christianity”—that has been most eager to assert the relevance of faith for the affairs of this world was also the one most responsible for secularizing Protestantism, while the other form of piety—designated here “Augustinian Christianity”—which objected least to the apparent secularization of American life, was the one that took faith in all its details most seriously. The lesson is, don’t let appearances deceive: the Americans who are the most devout may be the ones least likely to talk about their faith openly.
The roots of religious conservatism’s current predicament go back to the so-called Second Great Awakening. From roughly 1820 to the Civil War, a series of revivals enlarged Protestant denominations numerically and geographically. They also inspired a range of voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville regarded as one of the more salutary aspects of democratic society. The net effect of this movement was to establish the standard for genuine faith—conversion—and set the goal of a Christian society. Not only did many Americans “get religion,” but converts and churches supported organizations designed to rid the United States of wickedness and usher in the kingdom of God. This combination of revival and reform became the norm for republican Christianity, a faith intended to serve and strengthen the republic.
Augustinian Christians were not inclined to call this Awakening “great.” Some Christians—from Lutherans and Reformed Protestants to Roman Catholics—followed a different religious model. For them the institutional church stood at the center of religious identity. Weekly attendance at worship services, reliance upon sacraments, and instruction by pastors and priests were crucial to sustaining members through a lifelong pilgrimage. Augustinian Christians had less incentive to participate in the Awakening’s voluntary organizations because, for one, the idea of establishing a righteous society was utopian. For another, the identification of the nation with the kingdom of God denied the historic distinction between the spiritual and temporal realms, with the church and state possessing distinct divinely ordained duties.
I agree with Hart’s Augustinian corrective: “a truly conservative position is to contend for faith’s own inherent merits, quite apart from any benediction from the civil government.” That corrective risks “sounding liberal—or even worse, secular” to the ears of republican Christians who insist that “faith is important to the degree that it shapes public life—especially the workings of government.” “[A]lthough asserted with the most laudable of motives,” Hart says that idea “is in fact the great impediment to taking religion seriously.”
Why? Once republican Christians have secularized, generalized, and Americanized their ecclesial traditions through “a revised understanding of the church’s service to the nation,” those very traditions lose their needfully sectarian, particular, and transnational character. Who can take seriously a religion that evacuates its distinctive character in order to become relevant to the exigencies of the public square? The irony, of course, is that the politicization of Christianity has contributed to its cultural irrelevance. That is why sociologist James Davison Hunter urges Christians to decouple the public from the political, practicing what he calls “faithful presence.” Sooner than later, I hope we will rediscover, in Hart’s words, that “the significance of faith should not be judged according to crime statistics, stock market prices, public policy, or even the character of public officials. Instead, religion’s import may lie precisely in realms of human existence hidden from public awareness.”
Hart concludes his essay:
The difference between the republican and Augustinian Christian ways of taking religion seriously may have been best summarized by H.L. Mencken, the bad boy of Baltimore who had uncanny insights about the religion of the republic. In 1936 he wrote an obituary of his fellow Baltimorean J. Gresham Machen, the Presbyterian fundamentalist who as an Augustinian Christian was trying to prevent republican Christians from taking over the northern Presbyterian Church. According to Mencken, Machen:
fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works. … It is my belief, as a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters, that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony.
Modernists, Mencken continued,
have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again—in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mud-upbringing.
The great prospect we have now, and have enjoyed for several centuries, is that such a view of religion is a live option. No public officials are threatening to withhold state funds or to appoint the right ministers should the churches or synagogues take religion too seriously. Instead, the biggest obstacle to taking religion seriously are those well-meaning republican Christians who do not understand the inverse proportions that Mencken did, namely that the more deep-down-diving and mud-upbringing faith is, the less it will need to prove that it matters in national life.
Finally, here is a perceptive response to Hart’s article from a family friend and Baptist minister:
I tilt to the Augustinian side of this debate. Trying to find ways to make our Christian faith relevant is like those who strain themselves to make the Bible itself relevant. As I always told my students with regard to the Scriptures, don’t insult God’s word with such an effort. The Scriptures are inherently relevant by their very nature. Our job is to discover that relevance, not create it.
So with our faith as a whole. It is the culture that is irrelevant. Irrelevant to revealed reality (and therefore marching along to the drumbeats of insanity). Our mission is not to make the faith once for all delivered to the saints appear relevant, but with the help of the Spirit to cause those who are blind and imprisoned in insanity to see the light (reality) and at last find living relevancy in Christ.
To me, it is an absurd project to think that somehow we are going to Christianize this culture by somehow seizing the microphone (Philip Johnson’s metaphor) in the public square and dominate the conversation. The republican school of thought, to my mind, is always insistent that David take on Goliath in Saul’s armor. All we need to do God’s work in this culture and execute the Great Commission is go forth armed with the gospel, the sword of the Word of God, and the unanswerable argument of changed lives. Simplistic? They would say, yes. I would say, they just don’t get it.
Like Elijah in his exasperation, they want to come to the task of mission with fire and earthquakes to shake things up and to prove “we are relevant!’ More often God prefers to do His work more underhandedly, with a still small voices and despised, irrelevant looking messengers armed with only a sling and five smooth stones.