Monday, April 25, 2005

In God We Trust
Michael Barone takes on the "America is becoming a theocracy" meme in a great US News & World Report piece, reprinted by RCP. He explains:

But whether the United States is on its way to becoming a theocracy is actually a silly question. No religion is going to impose laws on an unwilling Congress or the people of this country. And we have long lived comfortably with a few trappings of religion in the public space, such as "In God We Trust" or "God save this honorable court."
and goes on to state: "The real question is whether strong religious belief is on the rise in America and the world."

In answering that question, he explains:
In the 2004 presidential exit poll, 74 percent of voters described themselves as churchgoers, 23 percent as said they were evangelical or born-again Protestants and 10 percent said they had no religion.

This is in line with longer trends [...] the religions and sects that have grown are those that make serious demands on members. Those that accommodate to secular critics and make few demands decline in numbers. The Roman Catholic Church continues to grow in America; the Assemblies of God and the Mormon Church grow even faster. But mainline Protestant denominations, which spend much effort ordaining gay bishops or urging disinvestment in Israel, lose members.
I don't know if this analysis is accurate or not—I don't have access to the polling data that he uses. More than that, I'm biased because my own faith pulls me in this direction. Still, you can sense this inclination to a more strict faith in the words Peggy Noonan wrote in her 1994 book Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness:
The central problem for Catholics who have returned to the Church in the past decade or so is the continuing surprise that the Church they left has disappeared. The Church of the fifties and sixties, the Church of certitude and confidence, is gone. In its place is a more open and less stern thing, a less mysterious thing, too. I miss the mystery; you could almost see it in the old days in the dark, shadowed corners and the candles flickering below saints with imploring hands. Now we have big airy suburban churches that look like Dulles Airport, bright, clean and arid, no shadows, few saints, little battery-operated candles in case some grandma needs to light one. (If only priests new that one of the ways parents get little kids to come to church is by promising them they can light a candle at the end.)

And still Catholics come. What a testimony to the power of faith.
I'll admit, I'm biased to this sort of thinking. I'm an Episcopalian, and have been my whole life. When my faith began to mean something to me—Palm Sunday of my senior year in high school, if you want specifics—I was actually sitting in a Catholic Church in Florida. I had been wrapped in a profound struggle with the tenets of Christianity for about a year. Effectively, I'd been looking at the Gospels and thinking "yeah, right." The whole thing seemed like science fiction to me. How could anyone actually believe that this guy was beaten and executed, and then rose up three days later after conquering death for all people of faith (or faith and works if you believe the Catholics)? It seemed quite clear to me that the whole thing had been made up by men who wanted to control the behavior of other people. Sure, there was probably an historic figure named Jesus who inspired a lot of people to follow his message, but his story had been coopted at some point by men seeking power. Makes sense, right?

So, I kept going to church, singing in the choir, and taking part in my church youth group, but I was mostly just going through the motions. It's hard for me to remember now when exactly this started, but I think it lasted about a year and a half. I believed in God the whole time, I just couldn't accept Christianity as I saw it.

Then, four years ago, as I said, I was in Florida. I was there with my swim team for the YMCA National Swimming Championships, and it just happened that the event caused us to be there over Palm Sunday (we actually flew home and got in at around 3 AM on Easter). There were a few religious people in our group, and it was Palm Sunday, so we made sure to go to a service. Most of the religious in the group were Catholic, and the rest of us were something relatively close to Catholic, so we went to one of those "big airy suburban churches." I was amazed at this place. They ran four or five services, back-to-back every Sunday morning, so you could show up at just about any time you wanted, stay for an hour, and get in a full service. It was ridiculous to me. People came in and out constantly, staying their hour, doing the service out of order, and then left. Meanwhile, the collection plates were passed approximately every 20 minutes. It all seemed so silly and superficial—people going through the motions, not really contemplating what was going on or why they were there.

And I began to pray. I still don't know why. I got on my knees and I began to pray. I asked God to open my heart, to help me consider the whole thing one more time. Basically, I made Him a deal: either show me why I should be a Christian, or I'm ditching the whole thing. After growing up an unquestioning Christian, when I finally questioned my faith, I had some serious doubts. I'd spent the past year trying to resolve those questions without any success. So, in that Catholic Church in Florida, I asked God to show me the truth.

I'd like to tell you that I had a vision, or heard a voice from heaven. I'd really like to tell you that God showed me the meaning of life. In all honesty, nothing spectacular happened. I sat back and listened to the Gospel and the following sermon, took communion, and left with my group. But in between that prayer and getting into the van to return to our motel, despite its invisible nature, a small miracle occured. I began to believe for the first time in my life. And it felt good.

It didn't really change my life much at first. I finished out my senior year without any real difference in behavior. I worked Sundays that summer, and though I remember getting up early to go to church first a few times, it was hardly every week. I went to Yale, and again, I went to church every few weeks. Despite this renewed belief, religion didn't really seem to be appealing to me. Then I went to Christ Church.

Christ is a very high Episcopal Church. The building itself is neo-Gothic. The nave and chancel are separated by a traditional Catholic lattice, adorned with ornate carvings and a huge cross at the top. The service is all smells and bells, Rite One, in the best traditions of Anglo-Catholicism. Finally, I found a church where I feel at home, where I feel God.

All of this is a long way around saying: maybe there's a reason why "the religions and sects that have grown are those that make serious demands on members."

Like I said, I'm biased in that direction. My own faith followed this path. I also surround myself with people who adhere to the strict traditions of faith. I read Cacciaguida and Peggy Noonan—both traditionalist Catholics—for precisely this reason. My close friends are, by in large, either Catholic or high Episcopalian like I am. My girlfriend is Anglo-Catholic as well. But I feel a strong pull in that direction. When my faith awakened, it was in a Catholic church—even if it was one of the more modern variety. I finally feel comfortable in a church that holds to strict tradition. Maybe the reason behind this is that God doesn't expect us to lead simple lives. We aren't supposed to be hedonistic and overly inclusive, taking the Unitarian approach and saying "if you think it's right, it must be ok." Grace is available to everyone, but that doesn't mean it comes easily. I believe very strongly that man is justified through faith alone, and that faith is granted by God, but also that faith manifests itself through behavior. We are supposed to show God the same respect and love that he shows us, and be grateful for the help and support granted to us by his saints and angels. We are supposed to restrict our own behavior in life accordingly, and ask His forgiveness when we screw up. And yes, that might even involve going to Church every once in a while. And yes, that might involve upholding the traditions of one's own church instead of choosing a leadership who's willing to compromise with modernity.

I recognize that I'm beginning to ramble, so I'm going to cut myself off now. My basic point, though is pretty simple. Barone looks at the politics and the polling data, and sees that religions with more strict adherence to traditional restrictions on its membership have broader appeal than those that do not. I think he's probably right, but I think it's important to consider the possibility that this isn't just about aesthetics and politics, but perhaps it has more to do with the nature of faith itself. Maybe we aren't just talking about political preferences here, but a less-tangible effect: the will of God as expressed by His communication with His followers the world over. Maybe we are drawn to stricter Churches because He wants us there. Maybe, just maybe, Ratzinger was the choice of the Holy Spirit.

After all, maybe Benedict XVI has it just right in this sentence from CNN.com: "Pope Benedict XVI has revealed he prayed to God during the conclave not to be elected pope but that 'evidently this time He didn't listen to me.'"

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