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The American Kulturkampf
Richard J. Neuhaus

It is a mistake, I believe, to start a discussion on Christianity and culture from the prevailing premise that ours is a secular or secularizing society. Nor is talk about post-Christian culture terribly helpful. The reality is considerably more interesting than that. For a long time it has been assumed among western intellectuals that there is a necessary linkage between modernity and secularization; the more modern a society becomes, the more secular it will be. It is now apparent that that assumption has everything going for it except the empirical evidence. (The empirical evidence and diverse analyses of it are brought together in Unsecular America, Eerdmans, 1986).

By all the measures available to the social sciences, Americans are more religious today than they were fifty years ago and—although the data get sketchier the further back we go—probably than they were a century ago. At least in America, the story of modernity is not turning out according to the script of the secular Enlightenment, in which it was proposed that religion would progressively wither away or retreat to the most narrowly privatized sphere of reality.

This has come as something of a shock to our cultural elites who, as has been amply demonstrated, are considerably more secular than the general population. Comparative studies of secularity and religiousness indicate that the United States ranks with India in terms of the pervasiveness and vibrancy of religion. My colleague Peter Berger has aptly remarked that, religiously speaking, America is a society of Indians ruled by a cultural elite of Swedes.

Conflicting attitudes toward religion and understandings of religion’s role in American society have everything to do with the development of “new class” theory in recent years. The new class, all too briefly, is that growing part of the old middle class that trades in symbolic knowledge. In academe, media, advertising, and elsewhere, their business is to mint and market the ideas by which they think people should live. They are more or less uncritical modernizers and, not surprisingly, many of them are to be found among the managers of mainline (now old-line) churches. The denizens of the new class are for the most part the “secular humanists” who so infuriate the religious right.

America is presently embroiled in a civil war, a Kulturkampf over conflicting definitions of the American experiment and, very centrally, the role of religion and religiously-based morality in that experiment. The forces associated with the religious right, on the one side, and those represented by People for the American Way, on the other, are joined in the most visible, but not necessarily the most important, battle in this Kulturkampf. What I have elsewhere termed “the naked public square” is now being challenged by those who would fill public space with moral discourse, including moral discourse that is unabashedly religious in origin, motive, and purpose. These forces are challenging, among other things, a relatively recent interpretation of the Constitution by which religion is no longer privileged but penalized, and is effectively excluded from public deliberation and decision making.

The popular, and sometimes populist, resurgence of religion in our public life is by no means unqualifiedly good news. Much of it is not accompanied by moral reflection that is sympathetic to the tradition of liberal democracy. In addition, the cultural movement away from a confining secularism has opened the gates to sundry irrationalisms, such as those found in the myriad streams of New Age Consciousness.

So the remedy of the naked public square is not simply more religion in public. The religion needed in the public square is religion that can help in advancing a morally-informed public philosophy for the free society. For reasons that range from Providence to demographic accident, such a religious contribution must be sought in the Judeo-Christian tradition. (Arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, I am convinced it is both meaningful and imperative to speak of a Judeo-Christian tradition.) Especially critical is religion that provides a theological legitimacy for the role of moral reason in the ordering of public life. Jewish understandings of covenanted moral order, Roman Catholic thinking about natural law, Calvinist ideas regarding spheres of sovereignty, and Lutheran views of the two-fold rule of God can all contribute powerfully to reconstituting culture and the civil realm as arenas of moral deliberation and decision.

I do not know whether such a cultural reconstruction is possible. I am convinced that it cannot happen without the public reengagement of religion as sketched above. At the same time, we must be clear that the first task of the Church is not culture-formation, not even when the goal of that task is something so worthy as liberal democracy. The first task of the Church is to be the Church. Only as Christians have internalized their own communal understanding of their distinctive way of being-in-the-world will they make a real contribution to the world. The crisis in all our churches today is created not by the problems of the Church in the world but by the problems of the world in the Church.

The Lutheran understanding of the radical Gospel that constitutes the Church as Church can make a big difference in helping the entire Church to make a difference in the world. The conception of the two-fold rule of God nurtures both critical distance from and morally serious engagement in the ordering of the polis. But of course this understanding is not and never has been exclusively Lutheran. A crucial part of that understanding is well articulated in the second (maybe third) century Epistle to Diognetus: “Though Christians are resident at home in their own countries, their behavior there is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a homeland, and any homeland a foreign country.”

In this postmodern period we need to recapture the sense of distance and engagement in being alien citizens. Only in this way is it believable that there will be a promising successor regime to the now dying regime of modernity and secularization. Of course we have no word from God that there will be such a successor regime, short of the promised Kingdom of God. For alien citizens that prospect is no reason for despair. Mr. Eliot had it right: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” 

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