I was born in the late 1960s, right during the most turbulent social upheaval in our nation’s history since the Civil War 100 years before that. While much, not all, of what I have to say in this post is rather subjective observation, it is, nonetheless, the reflection of an old man who has given quite a lot of sober thought to lifetime of Spiritual formation and church involvement.
The United States emerged from WWII as a world “super power” with all the pride of a world dominating empire. Those boys who fought that war filtered off the farm to answer their country’s call in unprecedented numbers. Other neighborhoods too, but those farm boys, in a LOT of cases, had never ventured past the county line of their home farm before answering the call of Uncle Sam and shipping out to the far reaches of the world.
I would ask you to consider the humility inherent in THAT generation, especially going in, that is hard to fathom for those of us born after the Nuclear Age began. These were church-going people with a strong sense of modesty and humility. Young people who respected their elders, lived lives of strict discipline, and had survived the utterly humbling experience of the Great Depression personally.
Suddenly those boys returned home men. And not just men, but world conquering warriors who walked softly and carried a big stick. Still holding to all the values of their childhood, they now commanded a world forever changed; these people had now seen the world and conquered it earning them the right to say, with Julius Caesar, “We came; we saw; we conquered!”
A strange mix of pride and humility which would give way ever more to pride in the decades to come.
Then they set out to rebuild the world with democratic, Christian, and technological values unprecedented in history. (Oh, and they made lots of babies too!).
The society that emerged was not nearly so much a farmer’s society anymore, though that earlier generation carried a strong sense of innocence with their sense of freedom and power. Instead, it became a society of super highways, fast cars, and parades featuring American pride and power. A society addicted to speed (both metaphorical and narcotic), to mobility and anonymity – a society of Marlboro Men and Stranger(s) With No Name(s). Rootless yet proud.
I really don’t want to chase those overarching bunnies too far. Others have pointed these things out before and have done a better job of it that I will. But I want to say something about the state of “church” which emerged in this new world order too – some things mostly from my own observation.
The church was already splintered long before Gramm and Gramps left the farm in the 1940s, and I presume there was a fair bit of allegiance to each and any given sect offered by the individuals who grew up in them. Couple that with a much more staunch sense of discipline and respect for authority in those farm kids now grown, and this might seem a bit ironic, but a new brotherhood had emerged too, one that quietly encroached on the allegiances of those protestant splinter groups: A brotherhood in arms.
Flag and apple pie became the new priesthood of the church.
My generation looked back at the tragedy of Viet Nam and the horrors of that war, but there was ever bit as much bloodshed and sacrifice in the World War which preceded it. Those boys, of the former, came home with a new bond of brotherhood forged in blood, battle, and victory, as opposed to the splintering of the soldier’s psyche and the splintering of our society at the loss of the latter. It’s my thought that holding this stark difference in contrast at this point helps us to see that the WWII generation’s new found brotherhood which blossomed in so much pride rather than shame very subtly subverted the allegiances to one’s individual religious sect – of one’s individual sense of allegiance to Lord Jesus. The allegiance one held to their church embodied a sense of history, heritage, and religious authority, all of which still carried weight with that generation, but the allegiance to flag, apple pie and the new found brotherhood in arms was not “other worldly” in nature, rather it was profoundly world ordering for the Nuclear Age. One had palpable power, the other symbolic. Thus subversion.
I grew up in the shadow of both generations. My understanding of the feeling, the vibe, the mentality of church life in the 1950s is characterized with “legalism” that sought to give strength and power to this symbolic shell of authority and power. Looking back now, I wonder if it didn’t have as much to do with a desperate attempt legitimate a failing system of allegiance and world order as it did with a sense of heritage or morality. The world was changing, and Jesus was not so much Lord over the Nuclear Age as the Bomb, not in any societal and functional sense. Power was found in bombs, v-8 engines, and this other, new found brotherhood celebrated in patriotism. Additionally, fear was found in communism, not in eternal damnation. And it’s my opinion that running right along such fault lines, Jesus came to hold less and less real lordship over the lives of people in our society.
You could quote Super Man saying “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” and presume that the Bible concurred with it.
The “legalism,” a term I personally find distracting to the faith, and a term used by pop-theologians to denounce the phenom I think I am describing, yet finding biblical underpinnings for it personified in the Pharisees, was more an effort for churches to lay claim to the waning authority of God without calling the bluff on the new found brotherhood which was undermining it.
Pride is like that.
And it goes before the fall.
I will call that period of time where “legalism” reigned a time when lawyers were the new priesthood. The church was weak, but with this new priesthood at the helm, we could live in denial of that fact.
So, by the time I became a conscious person, a child in grade school, the struggle between “legalism” and grace for the soul of the church was becoming quite prevalent. It was the church’s sad attempt to be relevant, I think, in an age which found it less and less respectable all the time. I see this happening in the 1970s. Eventually the battle was won, in my view (but not with any decisive victory and not without sacrificing too much), by those preaching grace against “legalism.” And with pockets of resistance remaining, not too ironically (I might add), especially among rural churches (where farm life still prevailed), this state of things gave way to the 1980s when the phrase “Greed is good” came to be a one-liner of note from a hit movie.
The contrast between Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan could hardly be more stark. Carter, a devout Christian man and husband of one wife who was noted as a farmer in fact, was, and is to this day, a very humble man. Likewise, his presidency was humble. However, Ronald Reagan brought to the White House with him a sense that humility itself is actually un-American. Reagan brought to the surface a sensibility about pride which had been seething beneath the surface for two generations, but which now emerged whole-heartedly and unashamedly.
Under Reagan’s presidency, the stock market took off setting new and unheard of records every year. Wealth was openly sought after, celebrated, and indulged unapologetically. Our nation was now pretty much off the farm! In fact, in the 1980’s the family farm almost became extinct and certainly did suffer massive foreclosures by the banks and became bought up and replaced with corporate farming. Meanwhile, all the loose morals of the popular culture which exploded on the stage in the 1960’s became more and more normalized, institutionalized, and generally accepted – even increasingly laying claims of entitlement.
Think about that paradox a moment. Just when the church is being more grace oriented toward moral failings in the larger culture, the family farm is dying, pride and greed are becoming virtues, suddenly leading figures from the Evangelical Movement became politically radicalized. People who previously had been humble church and farm types suddenly began scrambling toward political partisanship as a means of relevance and power, which otherwise the church seemed to be losing at ever increasing rates. Ironically, this largely put the church in the pride camp rather than humble. And the claims of a “Silent Majority” and a “Moral Majority” became the church’s power plays on the national stage.
I find it curious that as so often is the case, the church (at least in America) seems to be one or two steps behind the larger culture – following rather than leading, despite it’s overt efforts to the contrary. Let me suggest that just when the politics seemed so promising, meanwhile the stock market was broiling as the real power beneath the surface which would emerge soon enough. Today, the federal government answers to Wall Street, rather than the other way round. And so does the church.
Nevertheless, I think of this political power grab period of church history is characterized by politicians as the new priesthood.
I think that also, at the same time, especially with all the carnage of Viet Nam, of drugs and war protests, and even addictions to fast cars and raw power which characterized the life of pride the baby boomers and their children engage in, that simultaneously, psychologists and mental therapists also became a new priesthood of the church. So much of what previously was called sin became disease needing medical and mental health treatment, and so much other things which were previously problematic for a life of faith became virtue instead. It seemed the way of grace.
The last 30 years have demonstrated the church’s complicity in political power plays. Even to this day, there is a very palpable sense, certainly in my part of the nation, that the real brotherhood of Christians has little to do with the old demarcations of Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, or even Catholic as much as it does with Republican/conservative politics. You don’t have to be a Christian to be Republican or conservative, but you are truly an anomaly if you claim to be Christian and are not also Republican and conservative. And Republican conservatives are in a long running political battle against Democrat/liberals, meaning the church’s allegiance has less to do with Jesus along this line and more to do with political party.
Even more, since the morality of the Republican party has waned with it’s embrace of divorced and remarried leaders, gay and lesbian leaders, even in some enclaves its embrace of abortion rights, so also the church by-n-large has leaned ever more heavily on it’s grace vs. “legalism” past to roll with the larger culture on all fronts as long as they support a conservatism which more and more champions fiscal conservatism and less and less social conservatism. Again, the church follows the culture rather than subverts or leads it.
And it is this sense of fiscal conservatism which seems to be the true north for the Republicans, the conservatives, and thus the church in our current day and time – or so it appears to me. Thus, the financial planners are the new priesthood of the church.
For me, this has come home to roost now that the soul of the church deals with those in poverty, looks at the Bible and church history and world history for guidance into the church’s response, but finds that though such authoritative resources all plainly point to our own humility and utterly complicate the embrace of partisan politics we have given our allegiance to elsewhere, that now we are turning to “economic developers” such as Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert for their expertise in doing the Lord’s bidding rather than to Jesus’s own words.
Yes, the financial planners are the new priesthood of the church, I think, and if my analysis is anywhere near correct, we have much to consider.