Saturday, May 29, 2004

The New York Times > Week in Review > The 'Hypermodern' Foe: How the Evangelicals and Catholics Joined Forces

Coalitions of Catholics and evangelicals form the backbone in the fights against gay marriage, stem-cell research and euthanasia, and for religious school vouchers. Catholic and evangelical leaders who forged relationships in the anti-abortion movement, which the Baptist theologian Timothy George has called "the ecumenism of the trenches," are now working side by side in campaigns on other culture war issues, and for Republican candidates...

Now conservatives in both groups share the sense that they are fighting a losing battle against secularism, relativism and a trend that the Christianity Today editorial brands "hypermodern individualism." Though miles apart on salvation, they find common ground in the language of moral absolutes.

When will the Muslims get a piece of the action? I'll give it 10 years at the outside. Islam, after all, is "Calvinism on steroids" and when Muslims achieve critical mass in the US they will be perfectly positioned not only to join the conservative coalition but to lead it. Once the war in Iraq is over and Al Qaida is contained, Muslims will become as clean, wholesome and cuddly as Mormons: we will view women in hajibs in the way we regard Mormon missionaries on bicycles and commend Muslims on their family values.

Secularism has arrived. Even if they are "miles apart on salvation"--not to mention Papal infallability, the interrancy of Scripture, the Real Presence, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception--conservative Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals agree on what matters to both of them: the rules of conduct, the importance of following them and the mechanisms for enforcing them. Theology does not matter because both have taken the liberal cliche "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you live right" and run with it. Religion is over.

I'm sitting here revising my paper on the Filioque Clause. I'm against it--but no one else seems to care about it or any other fine points of theology these days. Even as recently as 35 years ago, Episcopalians fought about liturgical revision--and I was there duking it out. Now the foes of secular humanism are primarily concerned with who screws whom, with cleanliness, politness and discipline, with controlling their kids, preventing access to recreational drugs and maintaining their fantasy of the "traditional family." I can't imagine why they want the kind of world they're promoting--the puritanism, lack of options, absence of emotion, the arbitrary, restrictive rules--or they're afraid will happen if this world collapses, as it will. But find it even harder to understand why they are so concerned about these secular matters and so utterly indifferent to central theological concerns.

If you believe in God, if you seriously believe that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being and that enjoying him in this world and the next is the summum bonum then knowing what he is like, even down to the Filioque Clause or its denial, is infinitely more important than any of these "lifestyle issues." If you believe, seriously believe, that there is a God and not merely a mechanism for dispensing reward and punishment, then holy things, holy places and holy actions matter: church buildings matter, liturgy matters, everything that's conducive to piety and the experience of God's presence matters--and the essentially secular concerns of the religious right, as well as the religious left, are all straw.

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