The church in America has a problem. Since the mid-twentieth century, confidence in the institutional church has drastically declined, leaving many scrambling to find ways to restore trust. In “The Case for Hard Religion,” conservative commentator Yuval Levin explains why he thinks this decline has occurred and offers a solution. At first glance, his case appears to be on target, but careful reflection and analysis reveal it’s not — at least in part. Flawed premises shake the logic, thus inhibiting formulation of a sound solution — and a proper solution is what America desperately needs. This article aims to offer one.
The Case for Hard Religion
Levin’s article opens with the statement that “we are living in an era of unprecedented doubt,” which results in a crisis of meaning for our society. Institutions that help people find this meaning have failed to be the beacon of light they once were. This crisis, as it pertains to the church in particular, “is not exactly a crisis of belief in the teachings of traditional religion, but rather a crisis of confidence in the institutions that claim to embody them,” Levin writes. “In other words, Americans aren’t losing their faith in God. Eighty-seven percent of the public expressed belief in God last year in Gallup’s figures, which is roughly the level pollsters have found for many decades. What Americans do have trouble believing, however, is that our institutions — our churches, seminaries, religious schools and charities — remain capable of forming trustworthy people who actually exhibit the integrity they preach.”
People, Levin argues, are turning away from the church because those within the institution of the church are untrustworthy. They are using the church and other religious organizations, not as a means to preach truth and model love, but as a platform for their own advancement, political agendas, personal legitimacy, and pragmatism. The solution, therefore, is for people within the church to become more trustworthy and more appealing by behaving better and faithfully fulfilling their proper roles. They need to exchange their soft pews for hard pews that will make them sit upright.
Levin is certainly right that too many people in the church are using it to expand their personal egos and ideologies or to bend it to attract the spirit of the age. However, this is not the only cause of distrust, nor is it primary. The primary causes are much more complex, and the effects much more destructive, than Levin seems to appreciate.
Who Is God?
Despite Levin’s opening claim, we are not living in an era of unprecedented doubt. We are living in an era of unprecedented idolatry. We, as a culture, are looking for meaning in ourselves and in truth defined by our own moral standards and feelings. We are seeking understanding of who we are and our place in the world — not in our Creator, but in group dynamics and social movements that feed on self-worship. Our belief, our confidence, is in ourselves, especially as we organize within groups that prop up our own doctrines of self. Of human power and self-will, there is no doubt.
The clay has told the Artist that it is perfectly capable of molding itself. We have rejected God’s objective truth, God’s providential hand in human history, God’s authority in culture, God’s standards of morality, God’s design of human identity, and God’s purpose for institutions. This rejection perverts everything in society, from the individual to the family to institutions, which are “durable” only when they are built on a solid foundation. That foundation has now been bulldozed and replaced with the shifting sands of postmodernity. Subjectivism has replaced objective truth. This is the worldview of our age. It is the abolition of man.
Until the early to mid-twentieth century, if Americans were asked, “Do you believe in God?” most would see that question within a purely Judeo-Christian frame. Throughout most of American history, “God” was generally believed to be the God of the Bible who determines an objective reality with moral absolutes — the God who is the Creator of culture and the institutions within it, the God who saves sinners, the God above all other gods.
This doesn’t mean that each and every American was a Christian or even that America was a “Christian nation.” We have always had a mixed society of faiths and sects. But it does mean that for most of American history, the pervading worldview in America (even among unbelievers who borrowed its tenets for practical benefits) was Christian. This faith, this belief system, this moral authority, was the bedrock of human thriving and institutional integrity.
Today, Americans’ belief in God means something very different. Pew did a recent study to check its own poll that found large portions of Americans saying they believe in God. In the follow-up poll, Pew found that when asked, “Who is this God you say you believe in?,” “only a slim majority” said they believe in the God of the Bible. Another study by a different organization found that a majority of Americans — including 30 percent of evangelicals — don’t believe that Jesus was God. This is a deviation from the past that became entrenched in the mid-twentieth century. God is now a growing subjective construct rather than an objective reality whose nature has been revealed to mankind.
In the early nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that while clergy should not become elected leaders in the political realm, religion with its objective truth is the backbone of politics and society as a whole. “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society,” Tocqueville writes, “but it must nevertheless be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of free institutions. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all the Americans have a sincere faith in their religion, for who can search the human heart? but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation, and to every rank of society.”
Everything falls apart when religion, moral absolutes, and the moral authority of God are rejected. When the righteousness of God is spurned, and only the subjective truths of sinful man are elevated and deemed legitimate, all crumbles. “What can be done with a people which is its own master, if it be not submissive to the Divinity?” Tocqueville asked — a haunting question, indeed.
The “New Normal”
People have always been sinful as individuals, even worshipers of self. What has changed is that American culture has been rebuilt into something it wasn’t and should not be. Our traditional houses were torn down (slowly so that few even noticed it was happening), and now they’ve been all but rebuilt in a different image — an image fashioned by man through power struggles, not by God through love.
Because of this relentless reconstruction of America, society’s attitudes toward its institutions have changed. More than that, its understanding of human identity — the very foundation of how we see others in society — has changed. We are no longer living at the zenith of culture rooted in rationality and religion — a condition defined by objective truths and motivated by love. We are now sinking into the worst of human cultural conditions — a zoistic ethos that roots human identity in animal impulses, where we are moved by forces of nature and driven by desires, not reason.
Levin mentions the culture war and its effects on institutions, but he doesn’t do justice to it as a causal factor of distrust. He doesn’t recognize the extent to which the house he wants to restore has already been torn down and rebuilt by others with different blueprints. We are not only in culture war; we are in the last throes of it, and traditionalists are on the losing side.
In the days of Tocqueville and for much of American history, we lived in a culture built of certain assumptions about human identity, relationships, morality, and reality. Any calls for maintaining the stability of that society were within that frame. Marriage was between a man and a woman. The father was the head of the home. Children were blessings to be raised in obedience to God. The church was the body of Christ, tasked with spreading the gospel, and growing in a deeper relationship with Christ through faith and repentance. Schools were extensions of the family to develop rational and moral citizens. Government was instituted by God to protect the rights and liberties of its citizens. Men were men. Women were women.
Today, that frame has been broken within the consciousness of most Americans. The house has been rebuilt (or at least is in the process of being rebuilt — and we’re very far along in the process). Marriage is whatever anyone feels like. Fathers are unnecessary. Children are expendable. Church is not a place to worship the One True God in repentance and faith in Christ; it is a tool to right society’s historical wrongs of racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry, and economic inequality. Schools are extensions of the state with curricula rooted in secular theories that focus on community organizing, reconstructing history, social experimentation, and indoctrination. Government today is a tool of power to make people good according to social doctrines and to secure equality of outcomes for the marginalized; equality has primacy over liberty. Men are women. Women are men.
The old assumptions, the plausibility structures, that once made our institutions strong and trustworthy have been knocked down with a demolition hammer. The very legitimacy of the institutions as historically established is questioned and outright rejected. If an institution is still functioning under the old blueprints, it needs to be destroyed and reconstructed because the old blueprints are flawed, filled with racism, bigotry, and “social injustice.”
Subjectivism Breeds Distrust
We are living in a post-Enlightenment, post-modern, and post-Christian culture. We are no longer living in a time that assumes the foundations on which Tocqueville made his observations — a time rooted in objective truth and the Christian religion. Instead, we are awash in post-modernized Hegelian synthesis, liberation philosophy, critical theory with its war between the oppressors and the oppressed, Nietzschean ethics, liberation theology, and intersectionality.
Our institutions are unstable because we have made ourselves unstable, changeable, and unfixed. This is true even when it comes to the most fundamental and obvious elements of our nature. Human identity, human institutions, human sexuality, human bodies — all are being reconstructed according to man’s will. This is the agenda of our age. This is the abolition of man.
In this conflict and chaos of ongoing reconstruction, trust is fleeting. The institution that isn’t conforming to the new reality and is holding to the past — no matter if it’s filled with angels — is not trusted by the subjectivists because they see bigots, misogynists, homophobes, and racists using institutions of oppression to exercise power over the marginalized. Those institutions that have been rebuilt in the image of the new ethos are trusted by the subjectivist because they’re being run by the experts — the ones they had been waiting for.
The institution that is trying to hold onto the old but appeasing the subjectivists at the same time — as many in the church have done in order to get funding, to fill pews, and retain some measure of legitimacy — is not trusted by traditionalists because they see inmates running the asylum and egoists putting on a show. And, of course, traditionalists don’t trust those in power who have reconstructed the institution according to the new normal of blueprints.
The only solution to the crisis of our age is a return to true religion. The new blueprints need to be ripped to shreds. The new houses need to be “torn down” through repenting of personal sin, resisting groupthink, organizing communities around righteous initiatives, and peacefully participating in political action for the glory of God, not for politics of personal or group destruction.
Systems of education that promote state control and social experimentation must be torn down. Doctrines within churches that twist the nature of the church must be torn down. Educational programs that redefine human sexuality need to be torn down. Laws that demand equality of outcomes and not equality before the law must be torn down. Constructs that undermine the family — from abortion to redefining marriage to unjust divorce laws — must be torn down. Political parties that promote equality of outcomes instead of liberty must be torn down. Scientific systems that are based on ideology and power models, not science, must be torn down.
This sounds radical, and indeed it is. The house that is filled with rot can’t always be restored. It must be torn down and then rebuilt. The revolution America needs is a revolution rooted in repentance, given to us by God’s love and for his loving purposes.
Repentance is change, and people change not by the power of institutions or the people within them merely trying to be upright, but by the power of God changing hearts through the preaching of the gospel. He lays the preparatory ground for those hearts to be changed by striking the consciences of rebellious people through the proclamation of unvarnished truth and by his judgment of the wicked as he brings a wayward people to their knees, not to condemn, but to save them. This should be the prayer of all of God’s people.
It is only when we as a nation return to the God of the Bible and his truth about reality that we will regain trust in our institutions. Only by trusting God can we trust one another. Only when we bow before the God of Scripture and submit to his created order will we find meaning. This is the only path, and it will likely take a long time to traverse. It will mean walking through mud, climbing rocky mountains, traveling through valleys, and bearing the bloody scrapes and wounds that come along the way. This is not a call for violence — it is a call to faith and bold activism in every individual’s particular sphere.
Those in the church who see this revolutionary repentance as the only solution to our problems of institutional illegitimacy will likely face persecution. We are living in a culture that has purposely rejected God’s truth, not merely doubted it, so when the church speaks truth, those who hate the truth will hate the church. Conflict, not peace, will be the result.
What we need today is a True Religion of faith and revolutionary repentance. We as a people, as the American people within institutions and without, need to get out of the pews of our own making and onto our knees, confessing our self-worship before God and giving him alone the glory, honor, and praise due his Name.
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