25. Modern Secularism
and the Church: III
How did the modern view of life as a "machine" produce bitterly competing secular philosophies in the 20th century?
How did the 1960s mark the height of the modern secular Liberal-Democratic spirit--at least in the "West"?
- On the one hand it produced modern Liberal-Democracy--with the view of the State as the secular mechanism uniting the total number of individual humans into a single community, guided by the "nerve center" of the machine elected by the people. Liberal-Democracy has not been totally efficient--but tries to be fair and responsive to the will of the people it draws together.
- On the other it produced modern Authoritarianism--with the view of the State as the secular mechanism under the uncontested command of the all-important nerve center (the Dictator and his men) directing all the individual humans under his control. This "elitist" approach to modern politics was cruel but very efficient in the redesign of the mechanism of State.
- Produced the Emperor Meiji's Japan
- Produced Ataturk's Turkey
- Produced Stalin's Russian Soviet system
- Produced Hitler's German Third Reich.
- Produced Mao's Communist China
- World Wars One and Two and the Cold War: a bitter feud between these competing modern secular philosophies.
How did the 1970s and 1980s see much of this spirit in disarray?
- The most important impetus for this Liberal-Democratic spirit was found in the vast material success for America and subsequently for the "Free World"--as "testimony" to the superiority of the Liberal-Democratic state and society.
- In part it rested also on the decision to resist the potential appeal of authoritarianism/Communism through teaching the youth to challenge all authority--to think strictly on their own.
- Liberal philosophy was founded on the idea of all standards of judgment as being strictly natural/strictly internal to the human being. Even the authority of the past cultural legacy must be challenged.
- Deconstructionism: tear down all the corrupt old in order to make room for the new and perfect to grow up in its place.
- Mid 1960s: Hippie or Boomer Revolution challenging "authoritarianism" in our own society:
- corporate industrialism
- the massive State (especially the Department of Defense)
- even the ("patriarchal") family system.
How was the church and Christianity challenged by 20th century modern secularism?
- There were major difficulties:
- the inability of Boomer Hippies to form viable human relationships
- the need for drugs and political crusades to create a synthetic mood of togetherness
- the failure of drugs and crusades ultimately to sustain Boomer hearts (producing the resulting retreat into "self")
- the massive breakdown of families
- The rising post-Boomer generation thus ended up in a personal drift--and an attempt to repair the psychological damage caused by the Boomer parents through finding a new "self" in secular professionalism.
How did the American church attempt a comeback in the last half of the 20th century in the face of the secularist challenge?
- In many places the church was itself intimidated into submission to the authoritarian state--or simply eliminated altogether.
- Hitler forced the German church to get in line with its Nazi program (The German "Confessing Church" resisted and was driven underground)
- Stalin simply closed the church, confiscated all its properties and made the practice of Christianity illegal.
- Mao followed the same policy as Stalin (his successors in the 1980s permitted "state-approved" churches, but banned independent churches).
- In Europe since World War Two the challenge has been more subtle:
- In Europe, the church is supported by state taxes. This is about all that keeps the churches of Europe alive. The European church today has no longer any strong moral or spiritual influence on the European secular culture. At best the European church serves occasionally to offer traditional rituals (baptisms, weddings and funerals) to mark key personal and family milestones along life's ways. Otherwise churches are almost totally empty: merely museums.
- Because the Christian faith poses in Europe no serious challenge to secularism, by and large the secular culture around it simply ignores Christianity.
- In America the situation is more complex because Christianity continues to command the loyalties of a large number (though by no means the majority) of Americans.
- American secularists have been just as determined as the secularists of Europe and elsewhere to chase Christianity off the stage as the underlying culture of America.
- But this is not an easy task because unlike European Christianity, American Christianity has been closely identified in the past not with the ways of reaction but the ways of progress. Christianity strongly supported the American War of Independence in the 1770s and 1780s and the Abolitionist Movement of the mid 1800s that stood for the end to slavery. Throughout the Civil War Christianity was the major cultural influence in directing people's hearts toward the war. Christianity was closely identified with the cause of democracy in both World Wars One and Two in the first half of the 20th century. And Christianity was closely identified with the cause of the "Free World" against "godless communism" in the 1950s and 1960s.
- But Christianity surprisingly found itself targeted by secularist attacks in America beginning in the 1960s--attacks which have not let up since then.
- In part Christianity found itself under attack because of its close connection with the culture of the World War Two Veteran generation--a culture that the younger Boomer generation was hotly opposed to because it supposedly stood for the interests of "authoritarian oppressors." Certainly this is how young Boomer Hippies of the late 1960s and early 1970s viewed the strongly pro-war attitudes of their parents' generation concerning the war in Vietnam.
- In part Christianity came under attack for its hypocrisy in the American South where it was used as "religious" justification for continuing White suppression of Southern Blacks. The fact that it was Christian clergy from the North who were among the most vocal in their opposition to this Southern use of Christianity did not seem to have an offsetting impact on Christianity's critics.
- Atheists such as Madeleine Murray O'Hare and devoted secularists such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took up the crusade (early 1960s) to drive Christianity from its public position as America's cultural/religious/moral foundation.
- Because Christianity still enjoyed strong favor among Americans, these secularists avoided Congress and State legislatures where the voice of the people was strong and where the secularists would not have been successful in their crusade. Instead they focused their efforts on influencing a handful of federal judges who, because of their powers to decree law, could bypass the legislatures in getting new laws against Christianity established (this method had a lot in common with the "elitist" methods of Europe and Asia).
- Thus prayers in public schools (1963) were declared illegal by the federal courts--as first line of attack against Christianity's foundational position in American society. [Just before her recent death she was working hard with the Federal Communications Commission to stop Christian TV and radio stations from broadcasting their programs on the "public" airwaves.]
In the meantime, what is happening to the Presbyterian church?
- The generation that formed the segment of American society that fought World War Two (the "Vets"--sometimes also called the "Builders") and came out of the experience to build a new, scientific, prosperous America, basically refused to see any real contradiction between Christianity and secularism.
- Though most of them were not "Liberals" by political identification, they nonetheless simply absorbed most of the Liberal ideas into their brand of Christianity.
- Scripture was no longer given serious study. Instead their Christianity was built more on a number of "common sense" principles of good behavior--supposedly modeled by Jesus (whom, however, they did not read very closely).
- This generation lost interest in the ancient focus of the Christian faith, namely the saving sinners from eternal damnation. The Vets believed that this was not an important issue in America. If you were basically a decent person (a well-behaved American) you need not worry about your eternal soul. In fact it was not good to talk about sin and hell because that only scared people needlessly.
- Thus to them, Christianity was not about sin and salvation but was about being decent, about being nice--following in the footsteps of the ultimate nice-guy, Jesus.
- Sunday sermons were focused on the topic of how to get nice things out of life by being nice ourselves.
- Sunday school was dedicated to the teaching of the Vets' children (the Boomers) about being nice--like Jesus and all of the good people of the Bible (as they imagined these people to be).
- In other words, in the hands of the Vets, Christianity during the 1950s and early 1960s simply gave in to secularism, becoming indistinguishable from secularism, maintaining its own identity only by the Vets' keeping of old Sunday habits of showing up in church to go through the rituals of the Christian faith--even while the content of that faith was missing.
- The situation shifted during the 1960s because the mindset that produced the Boomers was infecting the character of Christianity.
- Boomers had been taught to be crusaders for social justice--just as America saw itself as the ultimate defender of social justice in the world. The secular spirit of the times claimed that a perfect world was just around the corner--and that with just the right kind of push from right-minded people, we could expect to see a perfect world come into being.
- God had little to do with the coming into being of this world of social justice--though it was thought that God certainly would approve of such human efforts to bring heaven to earth. But basically it was a man-made program. Perfection on earth was understood by the rising generation of the 1960s to be the responsibility of man--not God. It was up to crusading men and women to bring this perfect world into being.
- Christianity made its own adjustment to this new mood in the 1960s--by focusing itself now in remaining "social justice" issues. To younger Boomers who viewed themselves as good Christians, their faith was more likely to be practiced on the picket lines for hungry workers, in the protest marches through the south, in the attacks on American militarism, in attacks on American industrial polluters--than it was in attending Sunday services and going through the old worship rituals with their Vet parents.
- Consequently church attendance (and membership) began to drop after the middle of the 1960s. Church-going rituals had very little meaning to this next generation of Boomers.
- Clearly the Boomer generation did not feel the need to clothe their actions with the "churchiness" that their parents clung to as a mark of their own righteousness. The Boomers had their own set of moral-ethical principles and they did not need to identify them with Christianity in order to believe in them.
- In fact the Boomers were just as interested in the teachings of the Hindu civil rights hero, Mahatma Gandhi. They were more interested in the social-justice language of Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh (which drove their anti-communist parents crazy).
- By the 1970s, the churches in America seemed to be following the churches in Europe into decline.
- Boomer spiritualism was more likely to be tied up with the study of Zen Buddhism or Taoism than with the serious study of Christianity. Even "Native-American" spirituality came into vogue.
- The New Age movement was more characteristic of the Boomers. The New Age movement supported almost any sort of spiritual fashion--with the exception of the Christianity of the Vet generation, which was considered taboo.
- And of course drugs became a definite part of the spiritual scene of the Boomers--something the church of the Vets was not likely ever to approve of.
- But in the late 1970s two new developments within American Christianity seemed to breathe life back into the church:
- 1. The first development was the revival of Christian pentecostalism in the form of the new "charismatic" movement--which worked in close cooperation with the new "prosperity gospel." This new movement was aimed toward Boomers who had given up on social justice crusading because it had brought them so little personal satisfaction. The idea of God blessing them seemed a wonderful alternative to hearts hungry. Pastors promised them that if they simply believed in God strongly enough God would satisfy all the desires of their hearts. Of course this sense of blessing tended more toward material or secular satisfaction (just plain old wealth and material success) than to the kind of deep satisfaction that Jesus taught the world to expect if they were to give up exactly just those very kind of material ambitions and yearnings.
- Unfortunately this focus on believing God for wealth and riches produced some horrible scandals among prominent and successful pastors (especially TV evangelists) who promoted this kind of prosperity gospel. But still, people continued to cling to this gospel--because it offered them hope that they could not get elsewhere. If not God, who when was going to make their lives prosperous?
- 2. The second development was the return to prominence of Christian Conservatism. In an age of increasing lack of moral standards, of even intellectual and spiritual standards, Christian conservatism was appealing. It seemed to offer something firm for people to believe in, to stand on. Of course a person had to accept the "factual" assumptions of American Conservatism--but it was exactly just such fundamental truths that people were looking for.
- They didn't want to keep searching for Truth. They were not on a spiritual pilgrimage. They wanted immediate satisfaction with knowing absolute Truths immediately.
What is God up to? Will He breath the fires of revival back into the church? Only time will tell.
- Basically the Presbyterian church is graying as its members get older. Presbyterian congregations are made up basically of aged Vets--who hang in there and hope to keep the doors of the church open long enough to receive a decent Christian funeral.
- Their clergy are only slightly younger--aging Boomers--who never abandoned the faith but live on in the hope that it still will bring social justice to the world some day soon. [The Vets learned to tolerate the peculiarities of their clergy and Vets and Boomers that have remained behind with the church have agreed to coexist peacefully.]
- There are younger, evangelical pastors of the Gen-X variety coming into the clergy (though not into the congregations). This new generation of pastors hopes to see the church turn back to the older gospel concerns of sin and salvation. But this puts them out of step with the older congregations that they are called to serve--for the language of the evangelicals, much less their zeal for saving sinners, is largely incomprehensible to the older church crowd. Many of the Gen-Xers have decided simply to start up churches of their own rather than do battle with older Presbyterians over these issues.
- But sadly, if the decline of congregations and church members has been slow but constant over the past 35+ years, the decline in the number of Presbyterian pastors is even faster. People are coming into the pastorate at a much slower rate--and even these tend to be older, second career individuals. Presbyterian churches are having a hard time finding pastors to fill empty pulpits.
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Miles H. Hodges - 2002