In his classic 1978 study of civil religion, No Offense, the late John Cuddihy affirms Talcott Parsons’s view that civil society or civic culture isn’t post-Christian but intensely Christianized. It is “a genuine, progressive stage in the further institutionalization of Christian values into the social structures and institutions (political, academic, economic, and other) of our society. The gloomy interpretation of ‘secularization,’ Parsons would contend, has blinded us to the fact that, by the roundabout route of differentiation, there now exists a more Christian society than ever before in history. Cherished images have been broken, but the values are being installed. Each Protestant advance is marked by a deeper iconoclasm and a more civil countenance, which mask the deepening religiousness of the culture” (21).
What Parsons labels “differentiation” has to do with the distinction between “religious and secular spheres of interest” (Parsons), which might take the specific form of separating church and state or separating religion and ethnic identity. It is a Protestant contribution to religion-and-society: “What is differentiation for Protestantism – an unfolding from within,” Cuddihy says, “is secularization for Judaism and, to some degree, for immigrant Catholicism.” American Protestantism forces such differentiations on immigrant churches. Lutheranism is progressively stripped of its Germannness or Swedishness and becomes more purely a theological and liturgical community.
This process, Cuddihy (and Parsons) argue, is the way that the American Protestant form of Christianity has gotten more fully embedded in American society. But this process of Protestantization has a paradoxical effect: “the more responsibly Christian – individualistic, universalistic, idealistic, self-critical, concerned – society becomes, the more Christians feel they have failed and become post-Christian and secularized. Their sense of guilty failure is a direct consequence of the hypertrophy of upgraded demands they now make upon themselves and society” (21). Society is so Christians that believers don’t feel distinct from society, and in this sense of failure, believers impose more intense demands on themselves and hold society to an ever higher standard.
Read that again, slowly.