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October 27, 2009

Comeback Time for Christians

The Holy Father – Pope Benedict XVI – offers to let Episcopalians and other Anglicans of Catholic disposition join the Roman Catholic Church, while retaining characteristics of their Anglican identity. And who in the booming pagan market cares a flying broomstick what the pope does about anything?

Not the Wiccans, an estimated 340,000 strong. Not the worshippers of Wotan or the fallen gods and spirits of the pre-Christian world. Not best-selling God revilers such as Richard Dawkins. Not secularist lawyers arguing in behalf of secularist clients against the display of religious symbols in public places.

The American Religious Identification Survey says the United States is home to 2.8 million members of “other religions” and of the New Religions Movement. Compare that with 2 million or so Episcopalians (versus the 3.6 million the church counted in 1965). Rome, Canterbury, Geneva; the Eastern Orthodox, the Lutherans, the Southern Baptists; the Trinity, the Sacraments, heaven – mere abstractions to the growing colony of secularists and neo-pagans hopeful of liberating America from God.

And likely to get away with it? The “redemption” of the world from Christianity and Judaism looks about as likely as a Presidential Medal of Freedom for Bernie Madoff. Still, the times are tough for traditional organized religions, not least because those who say they profess the faith seem sometimes to agree more with its antagonists than its defenders.

Odd as the idea might seem, secularism has a major constituency inside religion, including the Anglican expression of religion. The pope’s offer to Anglicans proceeds from internal warfare in Anglicanism between those who see feminism and gay rights as gospel causes and those who, shall we say, don’t.

Anglicans as a breed may be tolerant to a fault and disinclined to pick fights with one another. Nevertheless, the cultural strains and stresses of the 20th century have put increasing distance between so-called “liberals” and “conservatives,” the latter having come to fear that the former – who control most leadership posts – are tearing down all moral, scriptural and theological guardrails. (For more information, see, ahem, my “Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity.”)

The trouble with modern times, from the standpoint of the conservatives, is all the emphasis they place upon diversity and individual choice. A thing doesn’t have to be “true” or to suit a classically meditated set of beliefs; it merely has to catch the eye and interest of a few. We wouldn’t try to stifle individual viewpoints, would we? It wouldn’t be tolerant, would it? Tolerant of what? Tolerant of whatever turns you on. Such as Wicca. If it feels good, sounds good, looks good – well, do it, and bless you. Don’t you feel that 1960s spirit coming on?

The spirit of diversity, of course, implies a spirit of No Truth, rather than one of Truth, because, look, if we’re really open and accepting of everything, nothing binds, nothing restrains and anything goes. Witches, Jesus, Zeus, Moses, Baal – whatever turns you on, man.

Yet pushback inevitably comes. If Truth really is True, instead of merely relative to various perceptions, a strong coterie of believers is going to declare as much and insist Truth be maintained, just as conservative Anglicans do in their warfare with liberal leaders who seem to see them as a bunch of troublesome yahoos.

Parishes and whole dioceses have formally separated from the Episcopal Church, whose bad-tempered response involves suing for property and trying to strip departing priests and bishops of their authority so much as to minister the sacraments. This, while Wiccans and Druids multiply and scoffers such as Dawkins thumb their noses at the idea of a transcendent God.

Pope Benedict XVI has some idea of the stakes in the battle. Secularism, not to mention Islam, has thrown down the gauntlet to Christianity. The pope sees the world as ripe for intensive and faithful presentation of the Christian message; he wants all the allies he can get. The alliance he offers to Anglicans of like conviction is more than mere pushback. It’s comeback – on specifically Christian, specifically countercultural terms.

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