Acton Institute Powerblog

For religion to be national, it must first be personal

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As vibrant personal faith in a Christian creed has been replaced by a vague spirituality or “harmless” universal ethic, the American public square has become more divided and self-obsessed, not less. Do we need a Third Great Awakening? […]

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What does it mean for a nation to be Christian? Does the United States of America fit the description?

At its founding, the United States was undoubtedly a Christian nation. To foster a society of religious freedom and pluralism, the Founding Fathers intentionally did not establish a national religion and took care to separate the domains of church and state in the founding documents of our country. Those very documents, however, express an adherence to the Christian faith that, while leaving room for the expression of different sects, was clearly almost universal among Americans. Religion provided the foundation for the rights and duties inherent in and incumbent upon all men, and the founders openly acknowledged it.

Some 250 years later, can we still call America “Christian”? How have religious belief, affiliation, and expression changed in our country across denominations? How would your average American Christian today differ from his counterpart in 1776? And what do those differences portend for the future of Christianity in the USA?

I don’t claim to answer all those questions, but to determine the trajectory of the Christian faith in America, let’s examine a few major historical figures’ impressions of it over time. First, consider a prediction from Elisha Williams in 1744 on the effect of religious freedom on the colonies’ diverse Christian denominations:

As the exercise of private reason, and free enquiry in a strict and constant adherence to the sacred scriptures as the only rule of faith and practice, is the most likely means to produce uniformity in the essential principles of Christianity as well as practice; so this is certainly the most sure method of procuring peace in the state” (emphasis his).

Williams seems to expect that the religious freedom offered by America will lead to a greater unity of faith and practice among denominations, in addition to providing a peaceful, stable society. Was he right?

A hundred years later, we get the following observation from Alexis de Tocqueville (1840):

I have seen no country in which Christianity is clothed with fewer forms, figures, and observances than in the United States; or where it presents more distinct, more simple, or more general notions to the mind. Although the Christians of America are divided into a multitude of sects, they all look upon their religion in the same light.

This again implies a certain unity of faith and practice between denominations, a positive outcome of pluralism. However, the lack of emphasis on external forms of religion and the simplifying of religious ideas in the minds of churchgoers noted by Tocqueville reveal the first seeds of a worrisome trend.

Another hundred years pass and Jacques Maritain provides more insight into the religious character of the American people (1958). He expresses this hopeful statement:

It is unlikely that, however powerful it may be, the antagonistic trend toward secularism will ever be able to tear away from American civilization the religious inspiration. (Maritain, 81)

Yet Maritain also gives a warning:

This same religious inspiration…appears rather as…a temporal projection of religious belief which holds, in actual fact, for a number of individuals who have slipped away from religious faith, though it can obviously preserve its vitality only if in many others it is not cut off from living religious faith. (82)

Thus, while acknowledging the fundamental Christian ethos of American society and even praising the unity between denominations, preserved from the founding era, Maritain is starting to see the danger of this “religion inspiration” departing from its source and retaining only a temporal, social character. He is warning against a breakdown of moral society in America that could result if “living religious faith” ceases to be cultivated.

Here I think we can point to a trend that has gone from hypothetical to real in the past 50 years. From sociologist Peter Berger, analyzing the effect of religious pluralism in 2008, we read: “Most Americans are somewhere in the middle on the cultural issues being fought over by the activists, professing… “golden-rule Christianity”––a somewhat vague and broadly tolerant form of religion” (12). He goes on to say: “In recent years…there has occurred a proliferation of ‘spirituality.’ People will say: ‘I am not religious. But I am spiritual.’ The meaning of such statements is not fixed. Quite often it means some sort of New Age faith or practice.… But quite often the meaning is simpler: ‘I am religious, but I cannot identify with any existing church or religious tradition’” (14–15).

Berger is identifying the threat Maritain foresaw as a fact of American Christianity today. Yes, the majority of Americans still say they believe in God, so there might be some nominal unity of belief, but there is widespread ignorance across denominations of the fundamental content of the Christian religion. We have lost contact with many of our faith traditions, perhaps for seemingly well-intentioned reasons such as making religion “accessible” or “modern” or “universal.” This has led to the watering down of religion in the name of toleration, so much so that much of America does not know what it means to be Christian anymore. The kind of faith vibrant among Christians of Williams’ America is dishearteningly rare, and no one can deny that morality has gone into a tailspin as a result.

What is the solution? Can the America of today, with such a rich heritage of religious and political freedom, rediscover authentic Christianity and revitalize a largely amoral culture?

The key is to start seeing our Christian faith less as a rubric for “how to be a nice fella” (as the late Norm MacDonald observed) and more in its true sense––a gift from God, transcendent, redemptive, foundational, and, yes, universal. The salvific and sacrificial content of Christianity cannot be overlooked or underemphasized. Only when we embrace the full significance of what it means to follow Christ on an individual level, only if the faith is truly alive in our hearts, can the expression of that faith in the public square contribute to and preserve a moral society.

In the words of Maritain: “Temporalized religious inspiration runs the risk of terminating in a failure…if, in the inner realm of human souls, faith in supernatural Truth and obedience to the law of God, the fire of true love and the life of divine grace are not steadily growing.”

Sarah Negri

Sarah Negri is Project Coordinator for the Research Department at the Acton Institute.