Can an Americanized Christianity Sustain Itself?

COMMENTARY: Pseudo-Christianity has much in common with hard-left progressivism.

(photo: Shutterstock/Bobkeenan Photography)

Bruce Jenner, America’s most famous man-turned-woman, regards himself a Christian. Damon Linker, writing at The Week, asks: Who are we to judge?

Linker’s was the latest contribution to a discussion begun by Will Wilkinson in his essay on now-Caitlyn Jenner and American Christianity. Channeling Harold Bloom, Wilkinson suggests that Jenner’s transformation is emblematic of American religion, which forever quests after a kind of authentic inner self.

The drive to be the “real me” is, in the American understanding, more than sheer self-creation. It’s a spark of divinity that can be found within each of us, which both precedes and surpasses any objective laws of “nature,” such as Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas might champion. American spirituality is marked by a thoroughgoing optimism about the individual’s ability to access God directly, without the mediation of churches or patriarchs or perhaps even a Bible. As Wilkinson puts it, “You can just feel Jesus.”

This way of understanding the American sense of self and spirituality adds an interesting element to the standard analysis of the present culture wars, wherein traditional religion is pitted against an aggressive, bullying secularism. By Wilkinson’s interpretation, Jenner and his apologists may actually be the standard-bearers for authentic American religion, while religious conservatives defend an increasingly defunct and indeed un-American alternative.

Christianity isn’t being vanquished so much as Americanized — and Catholics (together with some of the more orthodox Protestants and Eastern Orthodox) should worry less about the secular left and more about the “further evolved” offshoots of their own faith.

There are some defects in Wilkinson’s essay. As Ross Douthat points out, he may be overconfident about the inevitability of Christianity’s further Americanization. Mainline Christianity has been declared to be on its deathbed on multiple occasions but has proven quite resilient over the long term. Further, Wilkinson fails to draw appropriate connections between the soft spirituality of personal discovery and the hard secularism professed by much of America’s cultural elite. They’re more compatible than he seems to realize, in large part because “God within” spirituality is so metaphysically undemanding that it can be grafted onto an enormous range of philosophical views without obvious contradiction. (And if it does contradict, what of it? I am large; I contain multitudes.)

At the same time, Wilkinson’s essay makes some compelling points. Secularists wouldn’t have advanced so far so quickly if they hadn’t developed some sort of unholy alliance with branches of American religious life, making the overthrow of traditional norms palatable to the less-committed middle — which might range from “not religious but spiritual” types to “I was raised Catholic, but I’m not that kind.” In this sense, progressive incursions into mainstream culture do have a quasi-religious cast to them, which religious conservatives may be inclined to overlook.

From the standpoint of an orthodox Christian, this is a helpful insight into the nature of the threat. Yet others, like Linker, are basically content to embrace our freewheeling, ever-evolving American Christianity. They argue Christ’s message itself — “among the most radically subversive ever uttered” — paved the way to a radically egalitarian and anti-authoritarian religion, which has adapted itself to a dizzying array of cultures and political orders precisely because it finds its core in something more personal than structural.

Judaism and Islam are built around a complex set of divinely given laws which believers must somehow incorporate into their society and culture. Christianity, by contrast, is “explicitly founded in a declaration of independence from Judaic law,” and all that matters for the Christian is “loving God and one’s neighbor and maintaining a pure heart before the eyes of God.” Linker goes on to imply that the Church betrayed the spirit of Christ’s message by modeling itself “on a form of imperial Roman legalism with no warrant at all in the text of Gospels.”

The upshot, naturally, is that we should feel free to embrace, in the spirit of authentic Christian egalitarianism, an Americanized version of Christianity that has room for tinkering with family structures (Linker has long been a vocal proponent of same-sex “marriage”) and for gender-bending Bruce/Caitlyn Jenners.

These are old arguments, however. The Church’s detractors have long been cursing Constantine for corrupting the Christian message with his soul-destroying institutionalism. Every reformer since the first century has claimed warrant for his proposed innovation in Christ’s “radically subversive” message. But the context of the current discussion highlights the importance of answering these old canards with renewed vigor.

If our calls for greater religious freedom and more tolerance of Christian practice are falling flat, it might be due to our compatriots’ failure to see the tensions between the progressive agenda and Christian faith. What’s wrong with a Christianity that can adapt itself to changing times and customs? Isn’t malleability the very strength that has enabled Christ’s teachings to resonate across two millennia?

Yes and no. The truth is, it’s fairly easy to develop a religion that is either malleable or uncompromisingly rigid. What’s hard is to manage a religion that is both at the same time.

This point becomes particularly obvious when we examine the myriad of Christian heresies that have arisen over the centuries. Generally speaking, heretics start small. There is one particular element of mainline orthodoxy that just doesn’t sit right. It might be the dogma of the Trinity. (Three in one? What sense does that make?) It might be the hypostatic union. (How could Christ be fully God and fully man? Surely one was more real than the other.) Some have wanted to solve the problem of evil by postulating a bad spirit equal and opposite to the one true God. And then, of course, there are those who just can’t quite believe the institutional structure of the Church we see in Rome is the same Church founded by Christ on the rock of Peter.

In most cases, a heresy’s particular point of departure seems on its face to be more reasonable than the orthodox position. The dogma of the Trinity is, frankly, quite strange; how can three things also be one? It makes more intuitive sense that there should be either three separate gods or just one (perhaps with two deputies or just three different names). And the idea of an omnipotent God taking on the form (and limitations) of a mere human raises all sorts of problems. It’s easier to wrap one’s head around the notion of a god who looks like a man or a superman who perfectly obeys the one, true God.

In short, it’s usually pretty easy to understand why a particular heretic was inclined to dissent from the orthodox position. On the microanalysis, the Church often looks like the unreasonable or obstinate party, maintaining an inscrutable old dogma in the face of a fresh and more accessible modification. And yet, once we step away from the path, heresies can unravel with remarkable speed. Often, within a few years, we find reasonable-seeming dissenters jettisoning most of the sacraments or advocating suicide by starvation or telling people they can become gods.

The Christian package, as it turns out, is quite delicately balanced, and the apparent madness of the early Church councils bequeathed us a faith (and institution!) that has survived two millennia and spanned the globe. That kind of rigid flexibility is painfully difficult to achieve (as our Islamic cousins have discovered in recent years).

Innovations like same-sex “marriage” or Jenner-esque gender fluidity really don’t reflect any new discoveries about sexuality or the human condition. They are fashions, mirroring a new social consensus that can best be explained by the advance of both secularism and the pseudo-Christian spirituality described by Wilkinson and Bloom.

Christianity has survived as long as it has by holding to its core principles — especially when the world maintains these principles are cruel, mad or both. And historically, those who chase after the right side of history tend to peter out, while the foolishly orthodox remain to tell the tale.

Can Americanized Christianity remain Christian? Can it even remain? Right now, progressive reformers have the wind at their backs, but winds have a way of changing. My money is on the people who haven’t set themselves adrift on the breezes of cultural approval. They have a way of sticking around, even when the very gates of hell seem to be against them.

Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.