Hold the Funeral! --BY JOHN FEA
I have been a fan of Diane Butler Bass’s work ever since I read her award-winning Standing Against the Whirlwind: Evangelical Episcopalians in Nineteenth-Century America (1995) during my graduate school years. I have not read some of her more recent books on American religious practice (although I hope to get to Christianity for the Rest of Us soon—waiting for the paperback!), but I do look forward to reading her occasional columns on sojo.net. (If you ever attended a vacation Bible school as a kid you must read Bass’s “Sock Puppet Church”).
Her most recent Sojourners essay, “American Christendom, RIP,” is a reflection on the death of D. James Kennedy, the Ft. Lauderdale Presbyterian minister who was a major leader of the Christian Right. (At last check a whopping 187 people had commented on the piece!). Like many pundits, Bass argues that Kennedy’s passing and the recent death of Jerry Falwell mark a “generational shift of leadership now occurring in evangelical Christian circles.” She focuses much of the piece on Kennedy’s enthusiastic cheerleading for the idea that America is a “Christian nation.” Indeed, Kennedy spent a good part of his final decades preaching sermons, writing books, and producing videos that extolled America’s Christian founding. Much of this work was done under the auspices of his recently closed Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. According to Bass, a new generation of evangelicals, particularly those who read theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon and are affiliated with the emerging church, is no longer interested in Kennedy’s “Christian America” because his “nostalgic world bears no resemblance to their own.” Young evangelicals find no use for Kennedy’s Christian civilization of the 1950s and prefer a progressive, confessional, and Anabaptist-informed political theology that understands the church as a countercultural agent in the world.
Fair enough. Bass has her finger on the pulse of the emerging church movement. It is true that the leaders of the emerging church have hitched their wagons to the wisdom emanating from Duke Divinity School. But perhaps we should wait just a bit before we hold a funeral for “American Christendom.” As Paul Harvey noted yesterday on this blog, a recent poll from Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center found 55% of those surveyed believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation. While it should not surprise us that 74% of Republicans surveyed believe that the Constitution should be interpreted in this way, it is a bit shocking to find that 50% of Democrats and 47% of Independents also hold to this view.
I do not know much about the First Amendment Center or the reliability of their polling data (I tend to agree with Paul that these numbers seem a bit high). But it does seem that Bass may be too optimistic about the impending doom of Christian Right “history.”
I hope to get back to the triumph of Christian Right history in a later post.