Catholic thinker Jody Bottum’s recent controversial Commonweal essay suggested, “American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.” A bow to legally institutionalizing sexual liberalism has become the ticket to American civic engagement, it is suggested.
Noting he is a “Christian first, and an American second,” columnist Rod Dreher responded to Bottum by noting that “traditionalist Christians should think about what patriotism means in an America that is turning hostile to them.” He recalls that “many conservative Christians have thought, wrongly or rightly, for many years that being a ‘good Christian’ and being a ‘good American’ were one and the same.” But the “emerging order is forcing them, or should force them, to rethink all this.”
Dreher cited the provocative 1996 symposium that Bottum’s predecessor as editor of the influential journal First Things, Catholic priest and thinker Richard Neuhaus, hosted, which suggested a time when orthodox believers no longer can affirm “God and country” but must choose between “God or country.” Neuhaus himself was unashamedly committed to America as a political and spiritual project. In his final book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, which explored the duel loyalties of Christians, he declared: “When I die, I expect to meet God as an American.”
Neuhaus’s 1996 symposium asked whether people of faith could comply with a future American political order if it deliberately excluded religion and morality from public life. It pointed to a possible future era of civil disobedience, with which Neuhaus was familiar as a veteran of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. He never counseled political despair or withdrawal, warning that both are typically flights from responsibility, often disguised with morally lofty language.
In a different spirit, Bottum justified Catholic surrender on marriage in civil law by arguing the debate, among other harms, imperils the church’s image and effectiveness in the wider culture. Many evangelicals now make similar claims, believing unpopular culture war stances now inhibit evangelistic appeal, especially among young liberal urban elites. The most liberal end of Protestantism, embodied in the Episcopal Church, pushes full throttle for sexual liberalism inside and outside the church. More orthodox but combat-weary segments affirm traditional mores within the church but silence outside.
Popular author and conservative Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Church in Manhattan successfully preaches orthodoxy to socially liberal audiences while usually avoiding controversial sexual issues, which, he admits, often leaves congregations shunning eye contact with him for days afterward. And yet, when asked, he continues to espouse traditional morality. He essentially practices a selective political prudence in the topics he preaches.
This example of selective public witness is hardly new to Christianity, American or otherwise. Methodism’s founding bishop in America, Francis Asbury was, like his protégé John Wesley, adamantly anti-slavery. Asbury in early frontier America was not averse to controversy or threatening mobs, any less than had been Wesley in 18th century England. But he eventually inclined towards public silence on slavery when realizing he might lose access especially to Southern audiences, white and black, slave and free. He thought the message of salvation more urgent than abolition. Asbury never changed his views on slavery, though his published journals were later edited to delete those views. Much of early American anti-slavery evangelicalism eventually went mostly silent for reasons of prudence and in pursuit of social respectability, as Methodists and Baptists joined Episcopalians and Presbyterians on Main Street.
Churches’ once aversion to culture clash over race echoes discomfort over marriage debates. As Wesley Hill in First Things recently observed, the endless polls ostensibly showing increased support for same-sex marriage even among the religious don’t capture the full reality. Many of the seriously religious who accept legal same-sex marriage retain orthodox beliefs about sexual morality and affirm those teachings within their churches. Hill quotes neo-Anabaptist Minnesota pastor and author Greg Boyd, a former culture warrior who quit the fight: “It’s one thing to say that a behavior falls short of God’s ideal, and quite a different thing to say that Christians should try to impose a law preventing that behavior.”
Boyd misses the point that current public debates aren’t over the legality of non-traditional sexuality but over the legal affirmation and promotion of it, often to the duress of dissenters from the Sexual Revolution. But many evangelicals and Catholics are tempted by his Mennonite style separatism. Religious calls to surrender in the culture wars believe a truce will win goodwill for traditional religion, not understanding the relentless, authoritarian character of sexual and social liberalism, which usually brooks no dissent. Same sex marriage and sexual orientation laws facilitate encroachments on private religious liberty and prepare tomorrow’s debates over polygamy, amid increasingly exotic claims over gender identity, with “open” bathrooms only a small first step.
Religious and cultural traditionalists so naturally prone to patriotism may have to reorder their expressions of it in the new America. But this challenge is not new. Christian believers who opposed slavery and affirmed racial justice had to labor across several lifetimes against fathomless legal and social hostility. Yet most still understood their calling towards love of country and cherished the lofty ideals behind America’s founding, even if never fully upheld, even by the founders. More importantly, they believed their eternal duties had earthly vocation.
Every religious believer in every time and place has struggled over fidelity to God’s eternal Kingdom in a fallen world where God still commands service and earthly allegiances. Daniel Webster reputedly declared: “Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.” Sophisticates would sneer at this conflation of faith with country. But it summarizes the millennia-old calling for people of faith to serve God by sacrificially serving their community.
As Neuhaus quoted St. Augustine: “It is beyond anything incredible that God should have willed the kingdoms of men, their dominations and their servitudes, to be outside the range of the laws of His providence.”
Traditional Christians and other religionists in America cannot abandon their patriotism. But their faithful expression of it may become more complex and demand more perseverance in the very near future.