Monday, September 23, 2013
Public Utility or Church
How can this correlate with a religious society built upon free association? While one might think that this is incompatible with the American experience, the surprise is that this is indeed the direction we are headed even absent a state church or religion. The church in our culture has become more and more on the sidelines, an important but rather passive institution. While this is certainly true of the old mainline coalition of churches in America, it is also the pressure placed upon those outside that definition. The increasing willingness to speak of freedom of worship as opposed to freedom of religion and the slow creep of the government infringing upon the free exercise of that religion has left the churches in America on the defensive.
The churches are center stage in time of national tragedy or crisis but largely sidelined outside of those occasions. When our nation needs someone to pray, the churches are called to pray (though in a non-sectarian manner in which religious claims defer to a presumed commonality of faith and values that is fitting for a diverse nation. Outside this civil religious function, the churches are largely sidelined from a public role. Like a public utility, the churches are increasingly seen by people and government as institutions that exist for public good and when the churches violate this understanding of the public welfare of the people and the state, they are banished from the public square.
While this is hardly new, what remains surprising is how easily and comfortably religion in America has followed the lead of England and Europe -- even given the fact that there has never been a formal state church and the lines of demarcation between church and state more clearly drawn and held in check in America. In social service agencies, the churches have become franchisees of the state, administering public funds for public purpose and have been willing to silence their witness or limit it to the acts of charity themselves. The churches are seen as able and willing partners in feeding the poor, administering social service programs, even in education -- but only insofar as the churches do not invoke the name of God or make public witness to the God of their confession.
For a good while Lutherans were willing to do this -- even Roman Catholics. Now with the press of abortion, same sex marriage, gay rights, and a host of other issues, Lutherans are being forced to choose between this partnership between the state and non-profits and being faithful to what they believe and confess. In the case of the ELCA, there has been a natural fit since this church body has defined advocacy as a primary work of the Gospel. In the case of Missouri, we are finding it ever more difficult -- even in the area of chaplaincy in the military, an area in which we excelled in the past.
It seems to me that apart from the few independent groups in England and Europe, the churches have contented themselves to choose the role of public religious utility over extinction. It remains to be seen how that will go in America. What would the face of religion in America look like if tax exemptions were removed and the churches were required to conform to the laws of the land (with respect to gay marriage, etc...)?