"Our society, for the most part, decided long ago that it's embarrassing and intrusive to try to drag God into a conversation about education or politics or entertainment or family or economics or art." That's what Joel Belz, a columnist in World Magazine, writes this, this week, in a article devoted, as he says, to "Practical Atheism," something he claims is far more destructive to a believer than the frontal attacks Christianity has been taking from a rash of recent best-sellers by people like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
The major point in his essay--that it's the more subtle rejections of faith that are most insidious to believers and the common weal--probably is on the money. But I dislike, horridly, the mind-numbing silliness of his assertion, in part because all too often it's the rallying cry of Christian fundamentalists. It's the fear lies beneath the curmudgeonliness that eveangelical Christianity has become today, in the name of some vague "Christian" America. Fear is the fossil fuel that keeps demogoguery steaming. Without fear, where would the religious right be?--that's what I'm thinking.
I might even be inclined to believe Mr. Belz if I didn't read, for instance, the NY Times of the same day. I might even be inclined to believe Mr. Belz if I hadn't heard--that same day--goodly sized chunks of Mitt Romney's interesting speech on his faith, on American faith, and on American politics. I might even be inclined to believe Mr. Belz, if I hadn't watched Tucker Carlson and Chris Matthews, whose shows were devoted, on that same day, to dialogue about Romney's speech, about faith in politics, and the role of faith in our lives.
I might have believed that assertion that "to our society" Christianity is "embarrassing or intrusive," if the only person I'd listened to or read that day were Joel Belz.
We evangelicals can find ourselves quickly in the pairing Garry Wills uses as a title in his new book, Heart and Head: American Christianities. We're all heart; only rarely, it seems, do we use our heads. What evangelical Christians have not done well, especially during the last eight years, is analyze, in part because so many of those who lead do so by fear, by stating something we Christians somehow flove to hear: that this culture and its ways is on its inalterable way to hell, and we're the last eskimos on the iceburg.
Religion/Christianity/faith ain't disappearing. Not for one minute. It's likely never--at least not in the last half century--played as great a part of the national conversation. Too blasted many die-hard believers simply buy the premise that the culture is going to hell in a handbasket, so they take up arms and get just as ugly as Chuck Colson ever was in his pre-sanctified days. Makes me tired.
The conversation now ongoing in this country all around us makes it abundantly clear that faith isn't gone, that Christianity isn't dead, that belief isn't scorned. But that conversation, like Mitt Romney's speech, also makes abundantly clear that the subtitle of the Wills' book is on key: there are, in this country, American "Christianities." Thank goodness we're not all of one mind.
And as long as we're on that point, David Brooks, in yesterday's NYTimes, one of the finest minds we've got analyzing contemporary culture--and he's a conservative--didn't like Mitt's speech precisely because he's trying to have it both ways: saying his faith (Mormonism) shouldn't count, but his faith (Christianity) sure as anything does.
Here's Brooks: "In order to build a voting majority of the faithful, Romney covered over different and difficult conceptions of the Almighty. When he spoke of God yesterday, he spoke of a bland, smiley-faced God who is the author of liberty and the founder of freedom. There was no hint of Lincoln’s God or Reinhold Niebuhr’s God or the religion most people know — the religion that imposes restraints upon on the passions, appetites and sinfulness of human beings."
Strikes this Christian as being right.
And more: "He wants God in the public square, but then insists that theological differences are anodyne and politically irrelevant." They aren't.
And finally this: "Romney’s job yesterday was to unite social conservatives behind him. If he succeeded, he did it in two ways. He asked people to rally around the best traditions of America’s civic religion. He also asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end."
David Brooks is spot on. Really, Christians have as much to fear from Romney's bland characterization of God as we do from Time magazine's--if Belz is right--subtle atheism.
But enough about fear.
It's Advent, and the message of Christmas is the song of the angels out on some lonesome plain, a choir that appeared, Northern-lights-ish like, to a gaggle of silly shepherds. Those heavenly singers were bound and determined to deliver the good news of a child/king, saviour of the world, and the first line of their chorus every last one of us remembers: Fear not.
Sounds good to me. Sounds like blessed assurance.