The demise of the functionalist understanding of religiosity has undermined the notion of state churches, which are mostly cultural museums for the culture at large in the states who still have them (France and England, for instance); and it has also undermined the notion of the American denominations, all which used to have some sort of preferenced say on moral…not legal…issues in the U.S. (again, I wrote about this in the previous blog). This latter point is especially pertinent for us. As I already talked about, persons such as Reinhold Niebuhr…who was once a pastor in Detroit, president of Union Theological Seminary, and in many ways a national Christian theologian and commentator…had moral authority within the United States really up through the 60s; and these “public theologians” had a say not merely within a specific church demographic, such as a Rick Warren does, but in the society as a whole…as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. points out in this article.
What I have said this demise of functionalism (and thus denominationalism) has caused is a sense that the church is no longer necessary to the social order. Whether the churched readers like this statement or not, the social order as it stands no longer recognizes the church as having a genuine role in the moral governance of the country. And because the general social order lacks this recognition, there is, metaphorically speaking, no room for the church to speak up as a church in the contemporary debates. In many parts of this country (certainly not all), to speak as a church, as a Christian, means nothing whatsoever; it’s about the equivalent of standing up at a town hall meeting and saying, just prior to speaking one’s mind on the issue at hand, that “I prefer to wear only one sock to bed at night.” While this person might find their single-sockedness an important point of identification thought ought to buy them public respect, no one else cares. In the same way, no matter how dear the church holds its own identity, it no longer holds any moral authority in the public eye.
I need to briefly take a step back here in order to, perhaps, more clearly define just what this social order is that I’m talking about. In the U.S. and in other countries that have sought with varying degrees of success to promote civil rights, there exists, in many ways, no direct “common good.” In other words, there is no direct economic, political, or moral goal that the government seeks except the civil liberties of the people. This statement is no doubt an ideal statement. Of course the government gets involved in issues beyond the protection of civil liberties and often oversteps the bounds it set for itself, but usually only justifiably for the sake of the preservation of the conditions that allow its population to flourish as free individuals, that is, as individuals with civil liberties. So there are city, state, and federal highways that allow us to visit one another and provide an economic infrastructure for us to create materials through which we live; there is a military to protect our way of living; and there ought (in my not so humble opinion) to be health care to protect our common health. What the government does and does not get involved in is decided, however, not by the governing bodies and politicians themselves (another ideal statement), but by the people (or lobbying groups) whom they represent. This means that the direction of the country’s governance is supposedly defined by the people, legislated by the politicians, and promulgated by the courts.
The U.S. democracy is supposed to be one for, by, and of the people. Being “of” the people and what that means is important. What it means is that there is a general sphere of civil dialogue (and I mean “civil” legally, not morally, as recent town hall protestors have shown) in the country. There is a public debate taking place through newspapers, town hall meetings, and now the internet through which a series of public opinions are formed and developed , helping to set the trajectory of our legislative priorities as a country. This dialogue is, in many ways, a negotiating table at which many corporations, think tanks, unions, etc. have a say (it’s something like the U.N.’s Security Council, only more dysfunctional). These various groups hammer out their agreements and disagreements, trying to sway public opinion to their side, and thus political actors to their side.
It is in this context that I say the moral authority of the church is gone. In other words, I am saying that our seat at the negotiating table has been taken away by the public at large, and that we’re now left in the waiting room. And this is the precise reason we not only don’t, but really can’t, say anything about contemporary debates as a church and be taken seriously by our secular contemporaries. So it is good that the UCC stands for single-payer health care, and (in my opinion) it should; but no one in the populace beyond the church cares. I should also add as a bit of an aside for now that we may not like this status, but we ought not feel too terrible about it either. Not only might it be a good thing at the end of the day, but also we’re not the only “organization” that has suffered this loss of prestige. Without trying to figure out the previous century’s political players, what I can say is that economic pseudo-prophets (also known as economists) and “scientists” (a term that unfortunately has very little definite meaning anymore) have begun to hog most of the seats at the moral and legal negotiating table, making for one of the many issues that I will soon try to deal with in future blog posts.
So what can the church do? I will not try to say what the mission of the church is other than to say that the church is, religiously speaking, Christ’s breath in the Holy Spirit into this world. So, whatever we believe that means, we must first acknowledge that we gain our value-systems from precisely this point. Our faith very much defines who we are, the diversity of questions and concerns that we have, and the various ways our respective churches see them through and act on them. We ought to continue to let this sense of divine breath drive our value-systems while simultaneously acknowledging that most of the rest of the social order thinks we’re pointless, at least for now. And, in light of the loss of our place of moral preeminence, we might think of reengaging the world on two points.
For one, like Chevy and Chrysler, we need to rebrand. We need to show (to use somewhat crass terms) that the product we purport to give is as good if not better than any competitor’s. Thus, in the long term, we ought to stand as the church as a loving example of Christ, whatever that might be interpreted to mean; we ought to stand in such a way that we might at least buy back a place of prophetic significance with some of the negotiators at the negotiating table. Whether we will ever again have a seat at the table itself may neither be possible nor desired. But that’s a question for a different day.
Secondly, and in the short term (which I’m more interested in right now) we ought to allow our value structures to inform our beliefs, but translate those beliefs into the most rationally and rhetorically compelling arguments that we can. We ought to try to influence public opinion in its own terminology while finding the core of our values in the breath of Christ. Thus by “rationally and rhetorically compelling,” I think we must acknowledge that the language of the church does not hold; rather, the values issuing forth from the faith must be argued for in such a way that the public at large might see them as good. I will try to provide some examples in the blogs to come as to how we might do this, precisely through the socio-economic and political terms generated in the modern secularizing movements. In other words, for all the hurt secularization might be perceived to have cause the church, I will show why it might be a good thing and how certain trends in it might be used by the church to the social-order’s advantage, even on issues such as the contemporary health care debate.