Spiritual depression is a melancholy disquiet of the soul, alternating between angst and stupor, that affects the souls of people and nations. A cause that Lloyd-Jones catalogs here is the utilitarian approach to the Christian faith, of valuing Christ’s kingdom as a means to an end. Now, of course no American church or Christian would ever say such a thing. Instead they will talk about the relevance and application of the gospel to their lives: what good is God to me and my interests? This is the way of spiritual depression.
The American church at this moment is in something of a spiritual malaise. This is nothing new; Lloyd-Jones preaching in 1960s London was no stranger to those whose interest in Christianity was focused on its worldview and its applications. There have always been those who view the faith pragmatically and have pressured their leaders and flocks to emphasize the usefulness of the religion. Yet, there is a particularly sharp uptick in the American church of those who see the church’s role as speaking prophetically (that is, mimicking the talking points of political parties with the same level of decorum) to faddish issues and the pressing concerns of that particular congregation’s constituency.
Our debates, discussions, splits and schisms, our tribal identities are being driven by differences over the utility of the gospel.
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Whatever you think of National Conservatism, Timon Cline’s writeup on the Christian nature of the United States is well worth the read. It begins with a critique of Mark Tooley’s approach to public Christianity:
Tooley warns that coercion, which presumably encompasses culturally cultivated social stigma, never works. As a good son of the Great Awakenings, he insists that only spontaneous revival will root the nation in transcendence. Any hint of state involvement therein, any governmental thumb on the scale, would be counterproductive, making religion forced, stale, or counterfeit. Best to not meddle as to not muddle.
Hypothetically, if national conservatives are “establishmentarians,” then we could call Tooley’s position “public atheism.” This is not to imply that Tooley or Christians like him—and there are many—are disingenuous or embarrassed by Christianity and the Bible. Rather, public atheism is a typical right-liberal posture akin to what used to be called practical atheism.
Public atheism, for our purposes, is marked by suspicion of, and hostility to, whatever smells of formal, state-level recognition and privileging (i.e., honor) of Christianity over and against other faiths on offer. It decries “public Christianity” as an artificial limitation of the realm of possibility. It is, in a word, pluralism, insofar as it features a kind of religious market fundamentalism.
Alan Jacobs has argued that parts of American culture and history have always been hostile to certain orthodox Christian beliefs. In this case, he points to the hostility shown to those who spoke out against racism, Jim Crow, and segregation. He is rejecting the premise of Aaron Renn’s Three Worlds Evangelicalism model: there never was truly a positive world and the negative world of today is not uniquely negative. Point taken. However, there are two key differences between the abolitionist and integrationist movements and our current situation. The first is that the church, particularly the Black church, was challenging an historically embedded establishment. Currently, the cultural establishment has shifted while the church has not…
Last year I drafted an outline for what an intentionally, far-reaching strategy to support disenfranchised Christians could be. The inspiration comes in large part from Rod Dreher’s book Live Not By Lies, but with a practical focus on supporting Christians who lose their livelihoods and social resources as a result of staying faithful to Christian ethics.
If the church is going to urge Christians to choose suffering over conformity to the world, we should also be prepared to care for those who have lost out for the sake of Christ. That requires the standards of ethical behavior to determined in advance rather than being left up to individual consciences or corporate charity. The church needs to take the lead. Using the 10 Commandments as the jumping off point, I provide a sketch for ethical requirements alongside areas of current social pressure. While the tools for practical implementation have a slight EPC-bent, they should be amendable to most evangelical traditions.
Three thoughts on David Brooks’ recent and otherwise excellent “What Happened to American Conservatism?” over at The Atlantic.
First, conservatism naturally requires love of place and people. Conservatism values sentiments cultivated rightly, which happens through people and societies that are not interchangeable. The sentiments in-cultured by the English village are not the same as the sentiments cultivated by the open expanse of west Texas. Certain values may be held in common, but the means of that cultivation is specific to concrete, enfleshed peoples and traditions. The habituation of communities also instills love of those communities. Conservatives love their communities (neighborhoods, cultural histories, states, nations, families, churches) because they have been formed by them. It is loving your father and mother, civilizationally…