Two Ways The Church Can Die

In the current edition of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Philip Turner, an Episcopal priest and former seminary professor, talks about re-centering Christian ethics. He’s on the show to talk about his latest book. In the interview, he talks about spending the decade from 1961 to 1971 in Africa, then returning to the US and having to take stock at what had happened in his country over that past decade.

He found an America that had radically changed. He tells host Ken Myers that it was plain to him that “Christian America” was passing away, and had passed away. That is, the idea that American culture (if not the American state) was centered around the message of the Church was now history.

(The secular Jewish sociologist and social critic Philip Rieff, incidentally, saw this in the mid-1960s, and said that religious leaders would desperately try to deny it, and work hard to stay “relevant” to the culture, but it would be too late. He was right.)

Turner says that back then, the Protestant Mainline still believed it had something important to say to America, and that America believed as well that the Protestant Mainline had something important to say to it. It wasn’t true. He said that when he returned to America from Africa, he saw that both conservative and liberal churches were desperately trying to assert that they weren’t in fact now on the margins of American life, and were trying to reclaim their prior social position. It was pointless, says Turner. Note well, he saw this in the 1970s.

Host Ken Myers says to Turner that today, we associate the “Christian America” concept with the Religious Right. Turner replies by saying that it was a common assumption in the past, and it’s still true of the Religious Left, though they wouldn’t admit it. He explains that liberal Christians may not use the same terminology, but they still believe have a vision for how they would like America to be, and are working to change it to conform to that vision. It doesn’t come in the #MAGA trappings that some of the more baroque disciples of the Religious Right adopt, but it’s still a fundamental belief that the Church can and should transform American culture.

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