Sunday, September 2, 2007

Coming Home, pt. 2 - I had occasion this forenoon to enjoy a sumptuous brunch while discussing the future of mainline Protestantism. My wife and I were dining with two of our most dear friends, another husband and wife who are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), as are my wife and I. (I won't bury the first bit of irony; both couples forsook attendance at our respective churches in order to sleep in and then meet at the restaurant.) Over the course of our conversation, the husband became more and more emphatic that the only thing that could save the mainline denominations from their present death spiral is a well-coordinated, all-inclusive marketing strategy that would emphasize the churches' traditions of emphasizing God's gifts of grace and forgiveness.

Being one to hold my own council more often than not, I gingerly suggested to my friend that such an idea assumes that people make deliberations about their religious life as they would about a laundry detergent or a luxury car. Doubtless, an abiding faith is not to be considered a disposable item that someone would use based on any marketing message in particular. The "product" - to stick with an uncomfortable metaphor - must sell itself in the long haul.

I am in no position to diagnose the entirety of mainline Protestantism, but I am comfortable in saying that one of the problems that many churches face is that of an irrelevant theology. That is to say that while the core beliefs of a denomination may be fundamentally sound, the teaching and preaching are often suffused with a sense of navel-gazing inwardness, with pastors and lay professionals speaking to a narrow set of needs and interests. Celebration of God's goodness is replaced by hand-wringing over global climate change. Contemplation of God's forgiveness is subsumed in bemoaning the plight of "undocumented immigrants."

Most of all, any discussion of that necessitates grace and forgiveness in the first place - a recognition of one's own sins against a just God - is washed away, the conversation focusing instead on a collective culpability based on one's attitudes versus one's actions. As long as a person makes the right confession of their transgressions against, let's say, diversity for example, the state of one's personal morality is deemed of no consequence.

the Christian Left's "new man" has been has blundered into obsolescence, shall we place our trust and fidelity in the Christian Right's vision of the culture warrior? By my lights, the culture warrior paradigm has always been inappropriate and unfortunate. Indeed, who are we rightly to make war against but our own avarice, our gluttony, our weakness and our entirely flawed selves? How do we strike against a now-ascendant secularism (or an increasingly secularized Christianity) without also tilting against Larry Craig's lewdness, Mark Foley's solicitousness, Ted Haggert's duplicity, Rush Limbaugh's addictions and Bill O'Reilley's loofah?

For better or worse, the culture warrior is dead from an elaborate hara-kiri of self-inflicted wounds. Moreover,
it serves as a misrepresentation of what is required of conservatives in the new century. Rather than yield to the (simple-minded) intellectual shortcut of describing ourselves as kulturkriegers, we would do well to see ourselves as stewards of the culture. As conservatives - and as Americans more generally - our primary role is to superintend the culture such that it may be bequeathed to succeeding generations. We do not own the culture such that we can go to war for it; in as much as we have "borrowed" our culture from our predecessors, we must redeem it to to our progeny. And as much as we are able to gain the assistance of others beyond our ranks, so much the better. But in all that we do, and wherever we are called to labor, we are best served to advocate for that which is good and resist that which corrupts us.

Lest we doubt the need for cultural stewardship, we need only look at all that has changed since a generation of privileged elites launched their struggle for the only right that they were absent: namely, the right to be indifferent to anything beyond an overarching concern for their own comfort and convenience. It is beyond debate that the Left nurtured this ethic of self-indulgence, with its celebration of individual gratification above collective responsibility. But in retrospect, it is also beyond contradiction that the Right's "culture war" response was counterproductive in that it reinforced a zero-sum mentality of winners and losers.

As the culture war spilled over into our politics, the changes it has rendered to the political landscape have been nothing short of concussive. Over the last 40 years, presidential elections in particular represent nothing if not a study in vicissitude. As evidenced by the multi-year Presidential Election graphic, the fortunes of the two major political parties have waxed and waned repeatedly over time; it is this sense of political pendularity that informs those who divine a certain inevitability of a Democratic win in 2008. (By the way, I only have two words for such fatalists: John Kerry.) My sense is that policy positions do matter - even as do the essential messages of religious denominations, and that the candidate whose policy proposals best align with the majority of the electorate will carry the day on any given Tuesday in November.

As with faith communities, the viability of political parties is guided largely by the relevance of their core messages to their constituents; no amount of marketing obviates this fact. I am loath to comment on the trajectory of the Church, as responsibility for this may yet rest with a higher authority. But over time, I will continue to comment on what those who would call themselves conservatives might focus on in order to prevail in 2008 and beyond.