It is always good to let those who say it well speak on behalf of those with lesser skill. There is a little piece by Outhouse saint DG Hart called Mainstream Protestantism, “Conservative” Religion, and Civil Society that has always warmed the cockles of this Confessionalist’s heart. The heat gets especially white as one moves to the end section under “Learning from Liturgicals.” I have here extracted it. Whenever I am accused of being “too heavenly minded for any earthly good,” I like to point to the way Hart zigs and zags around the all too regular and mistaken charge that we Confessionalists put no value on earth. No, you are thinking of the pietsists, which we are not; we are the world-affirming folks who begin with the notion that God created material and called it very good. If I am not accused of stowing my polish by someone in the world of Transformationism I am being accused of being “carnal and worldly” by those Evangelicals who begin with more Gnostic tendencies and think earth is hands-off and only touchable if one dons the evangelism spacesuit. In calling for being what he deems a “Christian secularist” in his most recent A Secular Faith, Hart here shows how one may at once place a high value on the material world while also reducing the stakes placed on public life.
Tracking now with what Hart calls the “Liturgicals”…
“Learning from Liturgicals
If Protestant liturgicals actually represent a viable way for conservative believers to participate in public life, they may also provide an escape from the impasse that has bedeviled recent discussions about the relationship between religion and civil society. 60 Ever since 1980 when the religious right emerged as factor in electoral politics, the typical approach to religion and public life assumed a bipolar perspective. Either the public square welcomes or excludes religion; either religious convictions are private or they legitimately inform the aspirations that guide public life. 61 In other words, no middle ground exists. If evangelicals are going to participate meaningfully in public life, the wall between church and state has to come down. Or, at least, some gates have to be added to allow for passage back and forth. In this way of looking at the problem, the religious right and secularists are made for each other. As much as evangelicals try to say all areas of life belong to God and so religion should not be excluded from public affairs, secularists see that such divine possession can likely end up dispossessing those who do not believe in the deity of evangelical Protestantism. 62 Of course, this is not the first time such an impasse has arisen. The bipolar character of most discussions about religion and public life is [End Page 36] the legacy of Anglo-American Protestantism’s political philosophy. Ever since the heady days of the American republic’s birth, when the United States tried to live without the older authorities of monarchy and established church, evangelicals have operated according to a simple political formula–if it is divine it is trustworthy, if it is human it is suspect. 63 Though responsibilities as presidents, chemists, parents and umpires have forced evangelicals to modify this formula, it still lurks within the evangelical soul and plays havoc with Protestant efforts to relate their religious convictions to non-religious walks of life. 64
Liturgical Protestantism offers a way around this impasse. A different way of putting it is to say that liturgical Protestantism represents a way for Protestant believers to support the wall between church and state. By looking for religious significance not in this world but in the world to come, liturgical Protestantism lowers the stakes for public life while still affirming politics’ divinely ordained purpose. The public square loses some of its importance but retains its dignity. It is neither ultimately good nor inherently evil; politics becomes merely a divinely appointed means for restraining evil while the church as an institution goes about its holy calling. 65 For some evangelicals, the liturgical Protestant approach to public life is not a solution but rather a sell out. 66 Religious convictions demand unswerving allegiance in all spheres. In fact, the moral absolutes of Christianity require the same kind of conduct at home and city hall. To admit otherwise is inconsistent and leads inevitably to moral relativism. But if Daniel Bell is right about the nature of modern society, liturgical Protestantism may very well be the best approach for Protestants. In his 1978 foreword to The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Bell described himself as a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture. “Many persons might find this statement puzzling,” he explained, “assuming that if a person is radical in one realm, he is a radical in all others; and, conversely, if he is a conservative in one realm, then he must be conservative in the others as well.” But modern capitalistic society does not permit such ideological consistency. According to Bell, “[S]uch an assumption misreads, both sociologically and morally, the nature of these realms.” 67
In the end, the most important lesson the religious right could learn from liturgical Protestantism is not how to negotiate public life but how to prevent a legitimate concern for politics from distorting the faith. Here the religious right could well take a page from one of their neglected heros, J. Gresham Machen. A Presbyterian fundamentalist, Machen almost single-handedly fought liberalism within the northern Presbyterian Church during the 1920s until he was suspended from the ministry and started a new Presbyterian denomination. 68 What is more, he was particularly [End Page 37] active in fighting legislation that undermined, in his view, family life and the legitimate authority of parents. In other words, Machen would appear to meet the religious right’s theological and political litmus tests. But he was keenly aware that religious liberty in the United States prohibited Christianity from providing the norms for public life. In fact, Machen ridiculed the hypocrisy of liberal Protestant churches that took pride in theological diversity while also supporting legislation aimed at achieving Anglo-American cultural homogeneity. Mainline Protestants were guilty of such duplicity precisely when they argued that religion was beneficial for community or public life. For example, Machen wrote, “there is the problem of the immigrants; great populations have found a place in our country; they do not speak our language or know our customs; and we do not know what to do with them.” So religion is “called in to help.” It is “thought to be necessary for a healthy community.” And in the process, Protestants “proceed against the immigrants now with a Bible in one hand and a club in the other offering them the blessings of liberty,” or what some called “Christian Americanization.” 69 For Machen, the norms of America and the churches were necessarily distinct and to conflate them violated religious liberty.
But Machen was even more concerned about what politicizing religion did to Christianity. In order to make religion relevant to public life, he argued, Protestants had turned to the Bible only for its ethics while ignoring almost completely its ultimate message about sin and grace. This was one of the reasons for Machen’s opposition to prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Aside from questions surrounding the separation of church and state, even more alarming was what this practice did to the gospel. “What could be more terrible,” he asked, “from the Christian point of view, than the reading of the Lord’s Prayer to non-Christian children as though they could use it without becoming Christians?” In effect, a politicized Christianity ends up being little more than moralism. “When any hope is held out to lost humanity from the so-called ethical portions of the Bible apart from its great redemptive core,” then, Machen concluded, “the Bible is represented as saying the direct opposite of what it really says.” 70 Curiously enough, H. L Mencken, who admired Machen while abhorring the fundamentalist’s Presbyterian colleague, William Jennings Bryan, the leader of the 1920s religious right, agreed with Machen’s assessment. Mencken wrote:
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, [End Page 38] 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. . . . That, it seems to me, is what the Modernists have done, no doubt with the best intentions in the world. They 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. 71
Mencken did not think one needed to be a partisan to see what politics was doing to the Christian religion. For him, as for Machen, the logic was simple. Anytime religion is forced to perform a function it cannot do, it necessarily becomes something different.
The lesson for the religious right should be obvious. The effort to bring religious values to bear on public life is similar to what Protestant modernists did seventy years ago when they advocated prayer and Bible reading in public schools, Prohibition, and a rating system for Hollywood’s movies. And like the Protestant establishment during the middle decades of the twentieth century, today’s advocates of public religion could presumably add greater dignity and decency to American society. But at what cost? What will happen to the non-evangelical citizens of the United States if they do not comply with evangelicalism’s moral code? Even more important, what will happen to faith once delivered to the saints that evangelicals are so eager to share? As difficult as it may be to find a common ethical platform for public life without the foundation of revealed religion, the difficulties on the other side are just as great, if not greater. To be sure, the desire to make Christianity relevant for public life does not automatically force someone to deny the virgin birth or the resurrection of Christ. Neither is it immediately obvious, however, what these articles of belief have to do with limited government, free markets, or family values. And so, a comprehensive biblical program for American society and politics turns out to be little more than the second table of the Ten Commandments, the ones having to do with love of neighbor. Loving neighbors is a good thing. But historic Christianity involves much more. The irony is that by reducing Christianity to its ethical teaching the religious right and its defenders could be making one of the greatest concessions to modern secular life imaginable. For that reason it may be better to scrap altogether the project of public or civil religion. 72 In the case of Anglo-American Protestantism, such efforts have not worked out well either for the republic or for the churches.”