THE TIME FOR ORTHODOX UNITY IS NOW!

Trump Can’t Save American Christianity

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A precinct clerk preparing Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Tampa, Fla., for use as a polling site for the Republican presidential primary in 2012. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Source: The New York Times

By 

According to Genesis 1, in four days, God made the heavens, the earth and all the vegetation upon it. But four days after Anthony Scaramucci’s filthy tirade went public, Team Trump’s evangelical all-stars — pastors and prominent laity who hustle noisily around the Oval Office trying to find an amen corner — still had not figured out what to say.

Fortunately, the White House relieved them of that onerous task by firing Mr. Scaramucci — not, please note, on the president’s initiative, but rather at the request of John Kelly, the new chief of staff. Meanwhile, the Christian Broadcasting Network ran a puff piece proclaiming that a “spiritual awakening is underway at the White House,” thanks to a Bible study with what “has been called the most evangelical cabinet in history.” That ought to still any skepticism emerging among the true believers for a while.

Is there anything Donald Trump can do to alienate evangelicals and other conservative Christians who support him? By now, it’s hard to think of what that might be. These are people who would never let men with the morals and the mouths of Mr. Trump and Mr. Scaramucci date their own daughters. And yet, Team Trump has no more slavishly loyal constituency.

This is not only wrong, but tragically so. The most pressing problem Christianity faces is not in politics. It’s in parishes. It’s with the pastors. Most of all, it’s among an increasingly faithless people.

The truth is, Christianity is declining in the United States. As a theologically conservative believer, I take no pleasure in saying that. In fact, the waning of Christianity will be not only a catastrophe for the church but also a calamity for civil society in ways secular Americans do not appreciate.

But preparing for this post-Christian future requires a brutally honest assessment of both the modern church and the contemporary world. This is painful, but denial will only make the inevitable reckoning worse.

First, Americans are falling away from the church in unprecedented numbers. According to a 2014 Pew study, more than one in three millennials refuse to identify with a religious tradition — a far higher number than among older Americans. Most of these young adults are likely to stay away from church as they age.

This generational shift is a watershed. Last year, the sociologists David Voas and Mark Chaves concluded that the United States is no longer a counterexample to the West’s secularization. America is on the same path of religious decline pioneered by Europe and Canada.

Second, the faith American Christians profess is, from a moral and theological perspective, shockingly thin. Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, has been leading a long-term study of the religious and spiritual lives of millennials. Mr. Smith finds that what he terms “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” has displaced authentic Christianity as the true religion of American Christians.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a pseudoreligion that jettisons the doctrines of historical biblical Christianity and replaces them with feel-good, vaguely spiritual nostrums. In M.T.D., the highest goal of the religious life is being happy and feeling good about oneself. It’s the perfect religion for a self-centered, consumerist culture. But it is not Christianity.

“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer,” Mr. Smith told me. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”

Since the 1980s, conservative Christians unwittingly participated in our own marginalization by placing too much hope in Republican politics. There’s nothing wrong in principle for Christians to bring our faith to the public square (if you disagree, take it up with the abolitionists and the civil rights movement). But the standard “religious right” model, based on the idea that the American people are a morally sound majority led by decadent liberal elites, was inaccurate.

Conservative Christians helped elect Republican politicians, but that did not stop the slide toward secularism. True, the church gained some access to power, but it failed to effectively counter popular culture’s catechetical force.

Too many of us are doubling down on the failed strategies that not only have failed to convert Americans but have also done little to halt the assimilation of Christians to secular norms and beliefs. Mr. Trump is not a solution to this cultural crisis, but rather a symptom of it.

These are not normal times. Pope Benedict XVI himself once said that the spiritual crisis the West faces is worse than anything since the fifth-century fall of the Roman Empire. This is why St. Benedict of Nursia is so relevant to Christians today.

The monk founded the Benedictine religious order amid the chaos and decadence of imperial Rome. He was merely searching for a way to serve God faithfully in community during a prolonged civilizational collapse. After his death in 547, hundreds, and then thousands, of monasteries arose in Western Europe, all following his “Rule of St. Benedict.” They helped preserve the faith through the Dark Ages and laid the groundwork for the rebirth of civilization out of barbarism.

Lay Christians in the 21st century are certainly not called to be cloistered monks. But Christians are going to have to step back to some meaningful degree from the world for the sake of building up orthodox belief, learning the practices of discipleship and strengthening our communities. The everyday practices and disciplines of Benedictine spirituality can be adapted to ordinary Christian life in the world.

And if we don’t? Father Cassian Folsom, the retired prior of the monastery in St. Benedict’s hometown, told me that Christian families and churches that don’t do some form of the Benedict Option are not going to make it through the trials to come with their faith intact.

There’s little reason to be optimistic, but every reason to be hopeful. Christian hope does not expect worldly success but believes that even suffering and defeat can work mysteriously for the greater glory of God. St. Benedict did not set out to save Western civilization. He only wanted to serve God in a time of unprecedented trouble, and lead others to do the same.

Today, we in the West owe an incalculable debt to the saint and his early medieval followers, whose visionary, disciplined faith bore spectacular fruit long after their deaths. This experience shows Christians that we have to think not in election cycles but in centuries.

In 1981, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, observing the continuing cultural fragmentation of the West, said that we await “a new — and doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” If we Christians don’t quit looking for a political white knight to save us and open our eyes to the stark reality of Christianity’s exile status in our American Babylon, we will not see this new St. Benedict when he comes.

What would he say to the church, standing bedraggled on the beach of a culture-war Dunkirk? We have been routed, and are surrounded on all sides by a powerful enemy who holds the high ground and the initiative. If we are going to live to fight another day, we have to get on those little arks, sail toward safer harbor, then regroup, replenish and rebuild.

In the early Middle Ages, the churches and the monasteries were those tiny arks carrying the faith and the faithful across a dark and stormy sea. They can be once again. And must.

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5 Comments

  1. I enjoyed Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, but his pessimism and fixation on Trump is tiring. He keeps chastising Christians who support Trump saying they shouldn’t view him as a savior of Christianity and Christianity can’t be saved by politicians, and on and on. The trouble is that I can’t find any actual Christians who think that way. Trump supporting Christians don’t view him in that way. But what we do see in Trump is finally a politician who is making good on his promises to Christians. Unlike any other presidential candidate that ran against Trump or that came before him, we are actually seeing a politician taking actions that benefit Christians. So Rod, get over it. He won, he’s at the very least the President that has been the best for Christians. Quit focusing on the Trump bashing and pushing your good message about what Christians need to do among themselves.

  2. Blaming clerics grasping for what seems the only available life preserver (a politician who professes Declaration principles) seems really misguided, especially when the only other alternative even considered is (surprise!) The Benedict Option (Copyright Rod Dreher – 2017). Anybody defending the essential moral fiber of Trump was always deluded. However, might it be possible that he is not completely corrupt, as is both the stupid party and the evil party? They wake up every morning, not knowing the question, but knowing that the answer is ALWAYS more government. To place one’s hope on the only option opposing that scheme is not irrational. It’s last gasp sensible, regardless of the outcome. You might be right. But when every time you appear in print, it’s the only tool you have, hammering everything as if everything is a nail. A soupcon of humility would go a long ways.

  3. Presvytera Seraphima Shagoury on

    This is not an intriquing article; its pretty obvious that OCL has posted this to keep people reading its website and commenting. This is the reason I will not join OCL; I am not interested in what your non-orthodox peers think, OCL, and I am not interested in articles that drag non orthodox like our President into the picture unless it is an article about an orthodox making a positive and measurable goal possible with the aid of the President. Poorly done, OCL.

  4. George D. Karcazes on

    I have heard it said that: “Every Saint has a past, and every Sinner has a future.” Supreme Court Justices who follow an “originalist” judicial philosophy and the plain meaning of the words of statutes may prove to be a bulwark against the abuses of government encroaching up the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the US Constitution. Halting, or even slowing down the pace of government sponsored assaults on religious freedom is a good thing, regardless of whether it comes from a Saint or a Sinner. Having said all that, Orthodox Christians in America should not be looking to President Trump or the “State” to revitalize the Church.

    The KGB/Putin/Kyrill model in “Holy Orthodox Russia” shows how the Church can be used to bolster a corrupt dictatorship, which in turn corrupts the Church itself.

    America’s 240 year old experiment in democratic government guarantees against the imposition of an “Established State Church” and insures “the Free Exercise of Religion”. As a result, the responsibility for the flourishing of religion rests exclusively on the people and their chosen religious institutions. America should have proven to have been fertile ground for the blossoming of the Orthodox Church, if only the institutional church was united administratively under transparent and accountable leadership. United, transparent, accountable leadership can inspire knowledgeable, engaged, inspired followers and growing, vibrant parishes. Without unity and that type of institutional reform, the future of Orthodoxy in America will continue its downward spiral and may well be found only in the fundamentalism of the Ephramite Monasteries. . Orthodox America’s unhealthy version of the Benedict Option.

  5. I agree with George in his response to Dreher’s op-ed in the New York Times. The American experiment is unique in that there is a separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson was well aware of the influence of the English church on British politics. He specifically wanted to be remembered for being a staunch supporter of religious freedom and the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

    Early settlers of this land came from Europe to escape religious persecution–Puritans, Quakers and Jews among them. Today, this scenario continues with persecuted refugees from Asia and the Middle East. Regrettably, the present administration is ignorant of the American Jeffersonian legacy.

    As for Dreher’s book The Benedict Option please see George Demacopoulos’ researched review:

    https://publicorthodoxy.org/2017/06/28/benedict-vs-the-benedict-option/

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