How Culture Beat Religion

SECULAR FAITH by Mark A. Smith (Chicago, 287 pages, $25)
SECULAR FAITH by Mark A. Smith (Chicago, 287 pages, $25)

Evangelicals reject the feminist label, yet they support feminist principles like equal pay for equal work and political equality.

From the emergence of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the late 1970s through the Christian Coalition’s heyday in the 1990s and on to Republican presidential aspirant Ben Carson’s declaration that he could not vote for a Muslim for president, the role of evangelical Christians in the nation’s political life has been a magnet for controversy. For Democrats and for the left more broadly, evangelicals represent a regressive force that, if left unchecked, would transport America back to a world in which a woman’s place is in the home and a homosexual’s in the closet. For Republicans and conservatives who do not think of themselves as “born again,” the challenge is how to keep conservative Christians voting right while presenting a modern political party with broader appeal.

Mark A. Smith is a professor of political science at the University of Washington, where he also teaches comparative religion. His “Secular Faith” is a spirited and contrarian entry in the debate over what to make of the religious element of the “culture wars.” Against the view that religion is a major influence on our politics, Mr. Smith sets out to argue, as his subtitle puts it, “how culture has trumped religion.”

Mr. Smith’s focus is on American Christianity, which is, of course, hardly monolithic. That mainline Protestant denominations have made peace with modernity and actively promoted progressive views will come as a surprise to no one. Mr. Smith’s assessment of Catholicism—which focuses on the gap between church doctrine on such matters as birth control and sexual morality and the attitudes and practices of Catholics themselves—is likewise familiar. The startling element here is his depiction of the changes in outlook among traditionally conservative, often evangelical Protestants.

His central observation is that “Christians are part of society, not separate from it.” They “have openly or tacitly accepted many modern ideas by either changing their long-standing positions or refraining from political action.” More, “Christians of earlier centuries would be shocked and appalled if they knew about some of the beliefs and practices of Christians today.” To make his case, Mr. Smith draws on sources ranging from the statements of religious leaders to the scholarly literature on Christianity in America and public-opinion survey research. Throughout, he strives to be attentive not only to what Christians are saying but also to what they are choosing not to talk about, a source of much of the book’s polemical zest.

Mr. Smith offers chapters on slavery, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and women’s rights. In the case of slavery, he rejects as too convenient the view that Christian teaching motivated opposition to the institution. It is true that by the mid-19th century those at the forefront of the abolitionist movement were Christians and understood themselves to be acting in accordance with biblical teaching. But for more than 200 years from the settling of the New World, one could also find Christians arguing that the Bible endorses slavery. Mr. Smith chronicles the competing claims but plays a trump card by concluding that when “slavery finally did encounter serious resistance, secular rather than religious ideas were the driving force”—namely, the ideas about liberty and the rights of individuals that animated the American Revolution.

Divorce was once a politically contentious issue, he notes, and the biblical strictures against it weighed heavily in the arguments. Yet as divorce became more commonplace and the law more accommodating, religious leaders and local clergymen devoted less attention to the issue. Mr. Smith calls divorce part of the “missing” culture war—a subject on which conservative religious spokesmen, not least prominent evangelicals, could focus their attention but, bowing to social and cultural trends, generally choose not to.

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Tod Lindberg

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