By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
What I found so disconcerting about David Gushee’s column on March 17 in the online edition of the Religious Herald, the newspaper published by the Associated Baptist Press, was that I could find no way to challenge his thesis. Gushee is a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and a regular columnist at the Religious Herald. What did Gushee say that left me unnerved? He stated flatly that American Christians have no choice but to “say goodbye to Christian America.”
Christian America? Didn’t the First Amendment’s “no establishment clause” make clear that there was to be no such thing? Gushee is not hamstrung by the secular liberals’ attempt to sell us on that notion. “For almost 200 years it was both legally forbidden to establish Christianity as the official religion of the United States and culturally a fact that Christianity was the unofficial religion of the United States. Call it legal disestablishment and cultural hegemony. That was who we were.”
Gushee elaborates: “[T]he legal disestablishment of Christianity was often fictive. The city council opened its work with prayers by the Baptist preacher, juries were instructed with Bible quotes and politicians ran for office exuding Christian rhetoric. And the kids were led in the Lord’s Prayer over at the elementary school. There was one more or less coherent moral world, and it was drenched in semi-official Christianity.”
One has only to look at the movies that Americans watched in the middle years of the 20th century to see that Gushee is correct. Priests and Protestant ministers were part of the plot in dozens and dozens of the films of that era.
All that has ended, argues Gushee. Whether it be on abortion, school prayer, or censorship issues, court cases ended that semi-official status. Beyond that, the polls indicate unmistakable changes on issues such as same-sex marriage and extramarital sex, especially among younger Americans.
“Here are some staggering numbers,” writes Gushee. “White Protestants and Catholics constitute 69 percent of the U.S. population 65 or older, but only 25 percent of the population 18-29. Only 11 percent of the over 65s claim no religious affiliation, compared to 31 percent of the 18-29 year olds. We live in one physical territory, but in a very real sense we do not live in the same country.”
And the country with the Christian consensus is old and dying out. The new secular America is on the rise.
Gushee’s advice for his fellow Baptists is to accept the fact that these changes are real: “If the numbers hold up, Christians will have no choice but to face the end of their cultural hegemony and the tightening up of what disestablishment is taken to mean. Those who lead Christian communities will face the challenge of communicating the possibilities, and not just the losses, facing a now-minority church.”
As they say, we are entitled to our opinions, but not to our facts. Gushee has the facts on his side. It does little good to ignore the polls about the growing secularist bias among younger Americans. There are too many polls that say the same thing. But what does “facing this challenge” mean?
For starters, it does not mean we should soften or water-down our beliefs in an attempt to win over those who reject Christianity. A powerful cultural shift was responsible for the current secularist bias among younger Americans. Who is to say that there will not be a future cultural shift — a new “Great Awakening,” if you will — that will move the country back toward its Christian roots? Consider how, as a result of persistence of pro-life groups and the sonogram images of unborn children, the polls have moved in recent years on the issue of abortion on demand. God writes straight with crooked lines. A wishy-washy defeatist Christianity will appeal to no one.
Moreover, just because Christians with traditional beliefs are no longer a solid majority does not mean we will be without clout — if we stand strong for what we believe. If traditional Christians are now a minority, we are a sizable minority that politicians will ignore at their peril. One has only to look at how Jews, a tiny percentage of the country, have been able to influence public policy because they make clear to the politicians what it will take to gain their support on Election Day. We could also point to how homosexual activists, another tiny minority, have been able to shape public policy by standing firm for their demands as a voting bloc. The Christian hegemony may be gone, but all that means is that Christians will have to work harder to make their voices heard.
There is another angle to Gushee’s thesis that we must face. If his numbers are correct — and I think they are — there is no longer a “silent majority” of Americans with traditional values waiting to be mobilized on Election Day. This means that Catholics loyal to the Church and the Magisterium are often going to find themselves faced with only “pro-choice” proponents of same-sex marriage on the ballot when they go to vote. The secularized American Gushee describes will not vote for candidates with traditional views on these issues. What does that mean for Catholics in, for example, San Francisco or New York City?
How should they react to the candidacy of a law and order, pro-defense, fiscally conservative candidate who is socially liberal on abortion and same-sex marriage, someone along the lines of Rudolph Giuliani? Remember now, if Gushee is correct, we are not likely to find the alternative of a pro-life champion of traditional marriage with a chance of winning on the ballot. Is it a prudent choice to not vote at all in such a situation, and thereby help clear the way for a hard-core left-wing candidate?
If not, what should our calculations look like? I can see the logic of those who insist they will never vote for a pro-abortion, pro “gay rights” candidate. There is something to be said for fighting for lost causes. But in this instance it would mean fighting for a lost cause that helps advance the agenda of the secular left. That complicates matters. I submit that this is a discussion that has to take place among Catholics with traditional values.