Updated: May 6, 2021
Christianity has played a unique role in the history of America — if not since the Founding Fathers, then certainly since Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835. For the past century, America has resisted the secularization of Western Europe, even though for half that time, some American sociologists have predicted that American secularization was inevitable.
In the 21st century, Anglican church planters have shown that many Americans are hungry for religion — either because they are drawn back to something they’ve lost, or they sense the God-shaped hole in their lives. This latter view won unexpected support last week, as reported in an April 30 post by Mark Tooley at Juicy Ecumenicism (the orthodox Methodist blog) entitled “Rechurchifying America.”
Left leaning commentator Matthew Yglesias, who’s Jewish, tweeted today: “Think I’m becoming a Straussian/Putnamist who instrumentally wants to get everyone to go to church again.” Columnist Ross Douthat, who’s Catholic, responded: “Be the change you seek.” Yglesias retorted: “Not gonna sell out the chosen people like that! But I’m gonna go neocon and root for the Christians vs the post-Christians.”
Robert Putnam is the author of the legendary Bowling Alone, a study of the decline of American social and community institutions in the late 20th century. Leo Strauss was a Jewish political theorist who emigrated from Germany to New York in 1937. Tooley continues:
Savvy non-Christian commentators like Yglesias recognize that de-churched America or post-Christian America is not good for democratic, civic-minded America. Americans detached from traditional religious institutions are more susceptible to political extremes, to social isolation, to conspiracy mindsets, to identity politics, to apocalyptic perspectives, to fears and despair that mitigate against good citizenship.
Churches and denominations were central to building America’s democratic ethos. They civilized and socialized the early frontier. They created a wider civil society supporting politics, education, charity and community building. Regular church goers have never been a majority in America. But churches as institutions were foundations and pillars of wider society that benefitted all. Typically savvy non religious people have recognized their centrality to American culture and civic life. …
So America needs to be rechurchified. Certainly we need evangelism and converts to genuine faith. But such converts may fail as believers and as citizens if they are not catechized into the wider institutional church. It’s fashionable now even among the religious to mock and disdain organized religion. Supposedly we can all access God without it.
But no branch of Christianity or any traditional monotheistic religion believes God calls His people to absolute autonomy and isolation. Traditional religion always involves a community and institutions. They often fail but no more so than do individuals.
Sustaining religious communities requires compromise, sacrifice, grace, mercy, patience, humility. And all of these qualities are needed for wider society and nation. Hence churches are nurseries and building blocks for decent and sustainable society.
So Matthew Yglesias is wise, as a non-Christian who cares about society and America, to hope more Americans go to church, to the benefit of all. Will more Christians share in this insight?
In the Anglican Catholic Church, the Diocese of the Holy Trinity has published a special Litany for Mission and Evangelism, which is prayed regularly at all the DHT’s Mission Communities. The last five petitions adapt New Testament passages as a call to evangelize both those who have fallen away, and those who have never known the Christian faith:
That it may please thee to convert hearts through our ministry and add continually to our number those who are being saved; (Acts 2:47) We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please thee to bless our ministry of Word and Sacrament, opening minds to understand the Scriptures and making thyself known in the breaking of the bread; (Luke 24:45, 35) We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please thee to make us ready always to give an answer to any one who asks the reason for the hope that is within us; (1 Peter 3:15) We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please thee to put it into our hearts to seek out and find thy lost sheep, and bring them back into thy fold; (Luke 15:3-7; John 10:14-16) We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please thee to fill us with such love for one another that all may perceive in our midst the presence of Christ and be drawn into his holy fellowship and service. (John 13:34-35) We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.