The Kingdom of God in a Post-Christian Culture
Over the last few months, it’s been harder than usual to watch the news. As a scholar of religious and political movements, I always pay attention when religious issues come up in public debate, but most of the stories I’ve noticed lately seem to be examples of religion and politics at their worst. In August, a Pew Research Center poll found that nearly 20 percent (and rising) of Americans think that President Obama is a Muslim. Around the same time, a battle over the construction of a community center and mosque near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan erupted. While sensitivities about the location are understandable, neither the political opportunists nor the media talking heads exploiting the story made much of an effort to point out that the proposed location already houses a Muslim prayer room or that those who worship there belong to the Sufi Muslim tradition. This relatively liberal and tolerant branch of Islam itself is frequently the target of terrorist attacks. More recently, an angry pastor in Gainesville, Florida who was, in part, responding to the plans for the new mosque, announced his intention to hold “Burn a Koran Day.” And with a chance to get pictures of angry Christian fundamentalists burning Muslim holy books, reporters, of course, rushed to the scene.
It is too easy to be pessimistic about all this, while pointing out, quite accurately, that these recent events are actually quite minor in the long, violent history of conflict between and within faiths. Those who hold religion in low regard have long hoped that, with time, its influence would fade or that it would, at least, retreat into the realm of private life and thus remove the root cause of many violent conflicts. Much to their disappointment, religious faith remains as powerful as ever in most of the world today, both as a system of personal belief and as a source of public conflict.
But the view that it contributes nothing more than discord to public life is far too narrow a view of Christianity or any other religious faith (including Islam). Christianity is also a source of prophetic vision, a prod to social reform, and a force for social justice. Christians believe that God has entered human history through the life of Jesus Christ, and that history now admits the promise of the Kingdom of God. We differ about what this Kingdom will be and how we will know it, but this hope that the work of God continues in the world around us is central to Christianity in any form.
The essays in this issue highlight the role that Christianity has played, and continues to play, in shaping our world. In “Bearing the Cross as a Way of Knowing,” Gerald J. Mast considers how even in the midst of horrible violence—the murder of children in an Amish school—we can discover acts of self-sacrifice and forgiveness that allow us to participate in God’s ongoing work of renewal. In “Andrew Schulze and the ‘Post-Racial’ Church,” Kathryn M. Galchutt compares the careers of two pastors—Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Schulze—who made it their ministries to advance the civil rights of African Americans and to improve the condition of human relations in their communities. And in their review essays, Thomas Albert Howard and Jarrett Carty explore the role that Christianity has played in shaping modern political and legal structures, including the concepts of religious toleration, the separation of church and state, and the secular legal system.
It is true that the institutional Christian church is no longer the dominant cultural force it once was and that Christianity is no longer the foundation of our culture’s prevailing beliefs and mores. In that sense, we do live in a post-Christian culture. Yet this secularized culture retains an immense inheritance from the Christian tradition, and the Christian faith remains a vibrant force for good within it. The work of God in redeeming this world continues, and we each continue to have our own roles to play in this work of redemption.