Faith in History
Not Clinging to Religion?: Charles Murray's "Coming Apart"
Because of the pervasiveness of church-shopping, one might imagine that any church that tried seriously to practice church discipline today might soon find itself without a congregation; people would leave rather than deal with the rigorous expectations of membership, right? There's actually little evidence to suggest so: as sociologist Rodney Stark has famously argued, more demanding churches have often performed better in American history, as high accountability spoke to a transcendence of purpose that true believers crave.
Murray, for his part, sees religion mostly as something that makes people more happy, functional, and virtuous. Indeed, he downplays the spiritual/doctrinal dynamic of faith, arguing that the core members of congregations who really produce the religious "social capital . . . are not necessarily people who believe fervently in every theological doctrine of their faith."
I think Murray, a libertarian and a Quaker, here misses—even endorses—one of the root causes of the cultural problem he describes. Yes, the Founders promoted a common moral sense detached from the necessity of religious conversion or believing specific doctrines. But evangelical critics—especially Jonathan Edwards and his successors—argued that there is really no lasting, true virtue outside of the love of God. In this sense, Murray's virtues are properly a secondary business of churches (at least churches who call themselves evangelical).
The church's primary business is proclaiming the life-transforming gospel: we are all sinners deserving the righteous judgment of God, but in his mercy, God sent his Son to die for our sins, and Christ then rose from the dead to defeat death and Satan. In light of this message, we are called to repent, and to commit ourselves to Christ's kingship over our lives, and to life in his church. If churches are nurturing true followers of Jesus, Murray's worldly virtues will become the natural outflow of changed hearts living in redeemed community.
Many people in my parents' generation—perhaps living off the borrowed capital of a heavily Christianized culture—maintained the virtues without a heart-level commitment to that gospel. But over the past fifty years, borrowed Christian capital has run dry. In the long run, this may not be an entirely bad thing, as the American church now has opportunity to really shine in a morally dark culture.
To the extent that churches have made congregational life about religious consumerism, and substituted therapy for proclaiming the stark reality and wonderful hope of the gospel, we can partly blame ourselves for the ongoing disintegration of American culture. But opportunity for repentance and renewal is always at hand. If American churches commit themselves to faithful preaching and biblical standards of morality, it does not necessarily mean that people will return en masse and that Murray's tale of cultural calamity will reverse. But perhaps the church will start becoming the kind of city on a hill Christ envisions—a beacon easily distinguished from the surrounding darkness.
Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is a Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots and God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. Follow his writings via Facebook and Twitter.