So-called cultural Christianity is and has been a good, the demise of which is lamentable. Again, the question for the merely cultural Christian party is what means are necessary and sufficient to produce the spontaneous and voluntarist cultural revival they seek? Do the formative powers ordained by God have any role therein? At least at present, this is the most important question among Christians seeking cultural change.
One happy side effect of the Trump era, and all that it entailed, has been a renewed interest in history—our own history wars, if you like—specifically, the genesis, meaning, and demands of American history. That is, its character at the start and the extent to which it should continue to be formative and normative. Most societies have affirmed the formative and normative impact of national history if only for mythological purposes, an answer to the fundamental human need for an origin story that C.S. Lewis credited in The Four Loves.
Imbedded within the reassessment of our own American story—a cyclical exercise in considering first principles anew especially common in republics, as John P. Diggins noted—is the question of religion’s place in our nation’s socio-political order. Arguably, this is, perhaps, the perennial inquiry for us.
A part of this inquiry for Americans is the place of Christianity, specifically in public life. Since the mid-twentieth century, Supreme Court jurisprudence has indicated the pressing nature of said inquiry. Carveout after carveout has done little to settle the issue at a fundamental level.
Prompted by these legal indicia is a more academic question as to the course of Christianity in America, from earnest Puritan origins to Great Awakening enthusiasms to the WASP, mainline Protestant malaise chronicled so eloquently by Michael Knox Brenan. In retrospect, this story tells us what happens when cultural voluntarism, or pure liberalism, is embraced as a comprehensive strategy for upholding the morality of a society, a phenomenon insightfully chronicled by Robert Handy in A Christian America.
Contra prevailing, anachronistic, and triumphalist narratives, eschatological evangelical enthusiasm was not introduced to America in the 1640s but the 1740s. Thenceforth, the American religious landscape was forever changed as old hierarchies and institutions were either killed by or infused with “new light.” Further still, per Mark Noll, more is owed to the Second Great Awakening than its predecessor in terms of the attitude toward religion in modern America. That is, a mood of what I call religious market fundamentalism became predominant. We occupy this nineteenth century legacy, which is still being played out.