Social Conservatism and White Protestant Hegemony

I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
Romans 7:21-24 (KJV)

In the seventh chapter of his epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul speaks of a battle that is raging within him. It is a battle between good and evil, a battle that, by its very nature, threatens to consume him. Such, I suspect, is at the heart of the nation's culture war.

To be sure, in recent years the concepts of good and evil have been treated as relative in the public sphere. Hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage are being debated against a shifting ethical landscape in which timeless truths are no longer deemed timeless, and morality is in the eye of the beholder. Seen within this context, measures such as California's Marriage Protection Act (Proposition 8) and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) can be seen as legislative attempts to save America's soul, or at the very least limit cultural erosion.

But the reality is that the religious and cultural milieu that shaped the nation—what columnist E.J. Dionne has called "white Protestant hegemony"—is crumbling. In Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right, Dionne says, "I use this phrase not in a pejorative sense, but simply as a description of reality. Protestantism did much to shape our national character, our nation's identity, and much of our public rhetoric, to the point where American Jews and Catholics and Muslims and Sikhs and atheists are more than a little bit Protestant."

Yet the social, cultural and political cataclysm of the 1960s included the election and subsequent assassination of the nation's first Roman Catholic president; the civil rights movement, which challenged the nation, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "to live out the true meaning of its creed"; the emergence of the feminist movement on the heels of the civil rights movement; and the war in Vietnam. All served to undermine the religious assumptions on which the culture was based. 

The net effect was that the white Protestant baby was thrown out with the cultural bathwater, as millions of congregants fled mainline denominations in pursuit of a different expression of faith or no faith at all. Indeed, separate surveys conducted in recent years by the Gallup Organization and the Barna Research Group suggest that while most Americans still self-identify as Christians, 16 percent claim no religious identity or affiliation.

Notions of what constitutes civil society in America no longer coalesce around "traditional" (spelled "Protestant") values. The situation is further—and tragically—complicated when the loudest defenders of such values fail to live up to the standards they themselves promote. When Christian leaders and others who wave the flag of biblical morality violate its norms, the values themselves are called into question.  

Thus we come to the Apostle Paul and the war within his "members." For Paul, speaking as Everyman, is wrestling with an inherent contradiction within human nature—knowing what is right and not doing it. He is struggling with his inability to practice what he preaches. In so doing, he is less concerned with policy than he is with the personal.  

There is, of course, a link between the two. If, as Tip O'Neill liked to say, "All politics is local," then perhaps we can also say, "All policy is personal." Certainly the passion with which we defend our positions reflects this. Believer or atheist, gay or straight, we will defend our cause—our policy—with a zeal that emanates from the soul.

Yet among Christians (who are, after all, Paul's primary audience), I fear our zeal is sometimes misplaced.  Notwithstanding the need to embrace and endorse policies we believe in, there is an even greater need to embody what we believe by practicing what we preach. For Paul, this could only happen by placing his trust in the One he professed to believe in. 

Perhaps we should start there as well. In an environment where Christian values can no longer be assumed, a fervent commitment to life and justice must be evident in the lives Christians live before it can be effectively expressed in the policies they promote.

5/22/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Samuel Atchison
    About Samuel Atchison
    Rev. Samuel K. Atchison has served as a welfare policy analyst, social services administrator, social policy consultant, and prison chaplain. He is the president of the Trenton Ecumenical Area Ministry (TEAM), which serves as a coordinating agency for the community outreach efforts of churches in Mercer County, New Jersey. He is also a community partnership manager with the Amachi Mentoring Coalition Project (AMCP), a program of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation that provides mentoring to children impacted by incarceration.