Hope, History, and the American Church After Obergefell

While there is hope that the Church will survive present cultural attacks, it may be shaped and function differently in the future.

At some point in the next generation or two, we will likely be tasked with helping to rebuild our local places (and not just the evangelical churches and institutions in those places), though the exact form that will take is not clear to anyone right now. But when we do that work, we will almost certainly not be rebuilding the old order of vaguely Christian American civil religion. I suspect that option will simply not be available to us for a variety of reasons, one of which is quite possibly that many of the institutions we built before Obergefell may no longer exist. We will be building something new.

 

It’s a truth universally recognized by anyone who has ever talked about the BenOp that a person who expresses concern about the church’s future is in want of a person to quote Tertullian at them.

Sorry, is that cheeky? Here’s the quote and we’ll get to why it grates on my ear so in a moment: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” (UPDATE: An astute reader informs me that the more accurate translation from Tertullian is “the Christians’ blood is seed.”)

The problem isn’t that Tertullian is always wrong. The problem is that this quote has become a sort of truism reflexively recited by American evangelicals who can only imagine that government-sanctioned opposition to the church will be a good thing for the American church. And while there will likely be some benefits to come from opposition, it’s essential that evangelicals not be overly sanguine about the American church’s short-term prospects.

The Historical Precedent for the Death of Regional Churches

The first point we need to get clear is that, historically speaking, it is simply not true that persecution always helps to strengthen and refine the church. Sometimes persecution simply destroys a church. Once upon a time there were thriving churches in northern Africa, the Middle East, China, and Japan. Then they died. (You can read about them in this fine book by Philip Jenkins.)

Those churches were all either destroyed (in the latter cases) or driven to the very edge of society (in the case of the two former groups). Indeed, what little remained of the historic churches of the Middle East has been largely eradicated by ISIS.

Thus we need to first figure out why these churches were destroyed or simply made into permanent extreme minorities. There are a number of factors in play:

  • In some cases, the church was closely tied to a ruling elite and when that elite was overthrown the church lost its standing and was crushed.
  • In other cases, the faith was actually only professed by a small minority of social elites and never penetrated into the mass population.
  • Finally, in still other cases, Christian identity has become conflated with a set of other characteristics or cultural values which, over time, erode the distinctly Christian characteristics of a people. So there is still a superficial Christianity, but it is badly compromised by its close ties to nationalism. Greece is a good example of this as somewhere between 88 and 98% of the population profess to be Greek Orthodox but only 27% of those people actually attend church weekly. Elsewhere in Europe the numbers are even more dire. In Denmark, 80% of the population is Lutheran but only 3% attend any kind of church service weekly. This critique also applies to cities and states in the USA that are historically Catholic, such as Chicago or Boston. The gap between those who claim to adhere to a specific faith and those who attend church weekly is enormous.

What all this means is that there are a number of conditions that have historically caused local churches to crumble and regional churches to disappear or lapse into a kind of permanent minority status. And the key thing to get clear is that this is very much a live possibility in the United States.

How would this happen in the United States?

To some extent, you can argue that it already is happening. Consider the gap in polling between evangelicals who do and do not attend church weekly and support for Donald Trump. You might also consider that the only conservative religious groups that have reliably opposed Trump are Mormons and Dutch Reformed Christians—two groups that have developed thick cultural identities in specific places that largely avoid the sort of milquetoast cultural Christianity that has so weakened the church in so many places in the contemporary west.

That suggests a kind of hollowing out of the larger American religious bodies as their adherents either leave the faith entirely or fall into a civil religion that maintains Christian trappings but is more nationalistic than Christian.

But there are other possibilities here as well. Two are worth paying special attention to because they directly impact the long-term viability of evangelical institutions in the United States.

Tax-Exempt Status for Churches

First, and most obvious, churches that do not affirm the morality of homosexuality could lose tax-exempt status. It took a New York Times religion reporter all of two days to call for precisely that in Time magazine. There are a number of complications here, of course. The most obvious way to do this would be to remove tax-exempt status from all churches and other religious organizations.

But such a move would probably be a bridge too far as that box includes a lot of organizations that even many progressives would be reluctant to see lose tax-exempt status. (It also would be relatively easy to spin such a strategy in the media as being anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic, which would create major problems for the supporters of such a move.) Thus there would need to be some kind of legal mechanism for removing tax-exempt status from religious organizations that discriminate against protected classes while preserving it for non-discriminatory organizations.

That mechanism may already exist actually, in the form of the Equality Act. Friend of Mere O and former contributor Andrew Walker has written about it for National Review and Sarah Pulliam Bailey has raised this possibility in a story for the Washington Post.

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