From Carl Trueman:
We live in a time of exile. At least those of us do who hold to traditional Christian beliefs. The strident rhetoric of scientism has made belief in the supernatural look ridiculous. The Pill, no-fault divorce, and now gay marriage have made traditional sexual ethics look outmoded at best and hateful at worst. The Western public square is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong with any degree of comfort.
For Christians in the United States, this is particularly disorienting. In Europe, Christianity was pushed to the margins over a couple of centuries—the tide of faith retreated “with tremulous cadence slow.” In America, the process seems to be happening much more rapidly.
It is also being driven by issues that few predicted would have such cultural force. It is surely an irony as unexpected as it is unwelcome that sex—that most private and intimate act—has become the most pressing public policy issue today. (Who could have imagined that policies concerning contraception and laws allowing same-sex marriage would present the most serious challenges to religious freedom?) We are indeed set for exile, though not an exile which pushes us to the geographical margins. It’s an exile to cultural irrelevance.
American Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism start this exile with heavy baggage. Evangelicalism has largely wedded itself to the vision of America as at heart a Christian nation, a conception that goes back to the earliest New England settlers. An advertisement for The American Patriot’s Bible (2009) proudly boasts that it “connects the teachings of the Bible, the history of the United States and the life of every American” while “beautiful full-color insert pages spotlight the people and events that demonstrate the godly qualities that have made America great.” Yet a nation where the language of “choice” and “freedom” has been hijacked for infanticide, the deconstruction of marriage, and a seemingly limitless license to publish pornography is rather obviously not godly. That’s a hard truth for those who believe America belongs to them by right.
For Roman Catholics, the challenges of our cultural exile are different. Rome has somehow managed to maintain a level of social credibility in America, despite holding to positions regarded as intolerable by the wider secular world when held by Protestants. Her refusals to ordain women or sanction the use of contraception do not seem to have destroyed her public reputation. But if, for example, tax-exempt status is revoked for educational and social-service nonprofits opposed to the increasingly mandatory sexual revolution, the Church will face a stark choice: capitulate to the spirit of the age or step out into the cold wasteland of cultural and social marginality. When opposition to gay marriage comes to be seen as the moral equivalent to white supremacism, it is doubtful that the Roman Catholic Church will be able to maintain both her current position on the issue and her status in society. She too will likely be shunted to the margins.
Elsewhere—in France and in Poland, for example—Rome has, of course, proved resilient in much worse circumstances. Yet in America, in recent history, she has no real experience of the ignominy of marginalization from which to draw strength. The Know-Nothing era was long ago. It seems to me most Catholics today are very comfortable in, even jealous of, their place in mainstream America. They may not buy patriot Bibles, but Catholicism’s institutional footprint is so large—and Catholic theological (and emotional) investment in it so significant—that the temptation to preserve the Church’s place in society will be very great. This preservation will require compromise, even complicity, and it will very likely blur the clarity and undermine the integrity of Christian witness.
Perhaps I am mistaken and have portrayed my Christian brothers in a way that over-emphasizes weaknesses and downplays strengths. But of this I am convinced: Reformed Christianity is best equipped to help us in our exile. That faith was forged on the European continent in the lives and writings of such men as Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin. It found its finest expression in the Anglophone world in the great Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans of the seventeenth century. It possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment. It has a strong tradition of reflecting in depth upon the difference between that which is essential and that which, though good, is inessential and thus dispensable. It has a historical identity rooted in the wider theological teachings of the Church. It has deep resources for thinking clearly about the relationship of Church and state.
It’s not surprising that Reformed Christianity equips us well for exile, because it was itself forged in a time of exile, often by men who were literal exiles. Indeed, the most famous Reformed theologian of them all, John Calvin, was a Frenchman who found fame and influence as a pastor outside his homeland, in the city of Geneva. The Pilgrim fathers of New England knew the realities of exile, and the conditions that it imposed upon the people, only too well. Winthrop’s famous comment about being a city on a hill was not a statement of messianic destiny but a reminder to the colonists of the fact that their lives as exiles were to be lived out in the glare of hostile scrutiny. Exile demanded they have a clear and godly identity.
The Reformed Church has its own baggage, but given the nature of its origins and our own moment, it is the right baggage: light when it needs to be light and heavy with the Gospel when it needs to be heavy. A marginal, minority interest in America for well over a century, she does not face the loss of social influence and political aspirations that now confront Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism. We do not expect to be at the center of worldly affairs. We do not imagine ourselves to be running indispensable institutions. Lack of a major role in the public square will cause no crisis in self-understanding.
This does not arise from indifference or a lack of substance, but instead from clarity and focus. Doctrinally, the Reformed Church affirms the great truths that were defined in the early Church, to which she adds the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone. She cultivates a practical simplicity: Church life centers on the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, prayer, and corporate praise. We do not draw our strength primarily from an institution, but instead from a simple, practical pedagogy of worship: the Bible, expounded week by week in the proclamation of the Word and taught from generation to generation by way of catechisms and devotions around the family dinner table.