Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Michael Spencer on the Coming Collapse of Evangelicalism: The Price of Idolatry

The story I uploaded earlier about the Cardinal Newman Society’s attack on Notre Dame University for inviting President Obama to give its commencement address (here) confirms, I believe, two important points that evangelical Christian thinker Michael Spencer made recently in an article in Christian Science Monitor. Alternet picked up the article last week (here).

Spencer argues that evangelical Christianity is on the verge of collapse. He suggests a number of causes for this collapse, which, he believes, will occur within ten years. Chief among the causes Spencer identifies are the following:

1. “Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. . . . Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can't articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.”

2. “We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we've spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it.”

I find Spencer’s thesis about the collapse of evangelical Christianity compelling. I agree with his theological analysis of what is producing this collapse. I think, however, that the analysis applies equally to American Catholicism. American Catholicism is rapidly hurtling towards a fate similar to that facing evangelicalism in America, and for the same reasons.

To the extent that American Christians of the right and center-right, whether Catholic or evangelical, have identified faith with loyalty to a single political party and its agenda, they have made the future of their churches perilously dependent on the fate of that party and its agenda. Such behavior is what the scriptures decry as idolatry. It substitutes faith in God as the artisan of a future full of hope with faith in fallible human beings. It equates living the gospel with slavish fidelity to an ideology that increasingly betrays the core values of the gospel.

The problem to which I am pointing here is clearly apparent in many responses to the article by Joe Feuerherd discussed in my previous (here). Read those responses, and tell me you have no concern about the future of a religious body that can produce such virulent, partisan, uninformed tirades on behalf of a single political party. Read those responses and tell me if the positions they defend are rooted in the gospel or in any deep understanding of what it means to live the gospel in the world today, as a Catholic Christian.

The current leaders of the American Catholic church have led it to the same dead end to which evangelical churches have marched in the period of neoconservative domination of American religion and politics. Every bit the same: the same idolatrous blindness to the shortcomings of partisans who, while proclaiming to respect life, betray the Christian ethic of life in the grossest possible ways; the same failure to fire the imaginations of the faithful and inform their minds with theological instruction rooted in the gospels.

Read the responses to Joe Feuerherd’s posting about the Cardinal Newman Society, and you will hear the voice of a church in serious trouble—a church headed quickly to obsolescence. We have only begun to taste the bitter fruits of the pastoral betrayal of the church by a generation of American Catholic leaders. Those leaders have betrayed their flocks by equating Catholic fidelity with voting for a single party. They have betrayed us by turning a blind eye to the glaring faults of the leaders of that single party, while ignoring the many ways in which the leaders of other parties more adequately embody Catholic values.

The pastoral leaders of the American church have tragically weakend the church they are charged to lead, by silencing one theologian after another in the same period in which they struck their fateful alliance with one set of partisan leaders. They have silenced the very members of the body of Christ most gifted at helping us read the gospel in light of contemporary culture, and responding to culture transformatively and faithfully. They have dumbed down an entire generation of Catholics by substituting a debased (and politicized) "Catholic answers" approach to catechetical instruction for authentic catechesis, in which the gospels are read in light of the rich, diverse tradition of the church and with an eye to their significance for the contemporary world.

We have only begun to taste the bitter fruits of that pastoral betrayal . . . .