Ethically stunted? The moral morass of Evangelical America

Circles of hellOne of the chapters of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis pulls the threads of that 20th-century moral philosopher (for that was what he was, at his core) for his medieval and classical ethical sources.

Befitting a book that proposes to unpack for evangelical readers a “care package” from what most would consider a very unlikely source – the Middle Ages – I am doing my best song and dance to draw them in. Part of that is putting “Saint Lewis” on the cover. But another part is starting each chapter with a clear and compelling portrayal of “the modern situation” (if you like, postmodern situation) that we find ourselves in: the problem that needs fixing.

This is only classic marketing protocol: state the problem, then give the solution. I’ll let you judge whether I manage to do this well in this draft of the introduction to the chapter tentatively titled “The moral fabric of medieval faith”:

I had finished the first year of my seminary Masters program. Back home, my evangelical pastor pulled me into his office: “How can I address the character issues in my congregation without seeming legalistic? Anything I say on morality seems to pull against the Gospel message of grace!” The question was heartfelt. But after a full year in a church history program, I was at a loss for a helpful answer.

The history of Protestantism, in particular, seemed unhelpful.

I did know that Luther and his heirs had been accused of teaching that we can’t expect attain to any real moral change. Luther hammered on “imputed righteousness”: being covered by the blood of Christ, making up for our complete inability to be good.

I knew that in the generations after the great Reformer, critics said this had led to “antinomianism,” which is a fifty-dollar word for moral lawlessness. I knew that whether there was anyone around to call them antinomian or not, the early Protestants of Lutheran ilk did follow their Master in holding the “spiritual disciplines” in high suspicion (even as late as the 20th century, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer convened a quasi-monastic experience at his underground seminary as a pushback against what he termed the “cheap grace” taught in his era’s church)

I also knew that a century later, in the 1600s, the Puritans and Pietists had pushed back against the moral torpor of state-church Christianity—whether in Lutheran or Reformed forms: charging that the lifestyles and actions of too many church-goers belied their professions of fidelity to Christ. They reengaged some ancient modes of spiritual discipline and invented some new ones – journaling, for instance, and the contemplation of “emblemes”—images allegorically rendering passages of Scripture.

And I knew that in the 1700s John Wesley and his helpers had pioneered small-group modes to increase accountability and discipline among laypeople.

But none of this seemed to offer a ready-made solution to my pastor’s problem. He was right: This conundrum of how to train believers in the moral good while also teaching a radical message of grace still plagued the evangelical brand of Protestantism.

In the past century, evangelical scholar-journalist Carl H. Henry wrote about The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Historian Richard Lovelace identified a “sanctification gap” plaguing his co-religionists. Philosopher Dallas Willard identified a “Great Omission” in evangelical proclamations of the gospel (the failure to address the discipleship along with the evangelism described in the “Great Commission” of Matt 28).

The “news from the front” has been grim:

In 2005, sociologist Christian Smith surveyed kids who had been brought up in Christian (including evangelical) homes in America and discovered that their religion consisted in the vague sense that if they were just nice to people, a kindly grandfather-God would not keep them out of heaven (he called this “moralistic therapeutic deism”).[1]

That same year, progressive evangelical Ron Sider wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, drawing on survey data that showed evangelical Christians were no more moral than anyone else—manifesting the same hedonism, materialism, racism, and so forth as their secular neighbors. His conclusion: evangelicals suffer a complete disconnect between their belief and their practice.

Two years later, in fall 2007, Bill Hybels, pastor of the 32-year-old Willow Creek Community Church, in South Barrington, IL, admitted that though his seminal megachurch had attracted plenty of people to the faith through their “seeker-sensitive” model, they had utterly failed to help congregants mature in their character.

One may point the finger, in part, at America. This seems to be a difficult place to practice a distinctively Christian ethical life. Throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a gaggle of pundits and pollsters, building on the legacy of Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism in the 1970s and Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart in the 1980s, have argued that from “Gen X” to “Gen Y” to the “Millennials,” each new generation seemed to be slipping deeper into an inward-turned, selfish, and morally torpid condition. The supposed culprits for this misshapenness of character are varied: wealth, leisure, and the consumerist culture of instant gratification. The solutions, too, have been varied. Interestingly, Lasch, brought up in a radically progressive/secularist home, found the answer to this syndrome of narcissism and moral emptiness in this same Western tradition where Lewis found it (though he never professed Lewis’s “mere Christianity”).[2]

Yes, we must take all such generational assessments with a grain of salt—after all, they generally issue from older commentators waggling their fingers in the faces of the younger generation—a sort of “point of privilege” of middle age as long as there have been parents on the planet.[3]

But ironically, we may also be encouraged by the very frequency of such exercises in sociocultural hand-wringing: A historian can’t help but notice how they echo the tone and content of those most earnest of believers, the late 17th– and early 18th-century Puritans. These persistent expressions of concern even in supposedly “post-Christian” America indicate that the cultural heritage of Christian moral thought is – in the immortal words of the Monty Python leper – “not dead yet.”

But as for the bigger question – whether we indeed face a modern crisis in public and private morality among those citizens who, by the lights of their own religion, should be leading our society in probity and good works – the sheer volume (in both senses) of such jeremiads may indicate that there is indeed fire—with more than a whiff of brimstone—beneath the billows of outraged smoke.

[1] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[2] Eric Miller, Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

One response to “Ethically stunted? The moral morass of Evangelical America

  1. Good Lewis reflection. Thanks for sharing.

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