Living in Southern California, we have our share of good and bad. The good is the fantasic weather we experience year round. The bad is that occasional shaking called earthquakes. This past weekend, we had a moderate tremor which shook the foundation of our house. The damage was minor but left its mark with broken glass on the floor, books scattered along the ground, and cracks in our wall.
Earthquakes are part of the reality of our geography. Living on a fault line means that one day, we will be dealing with earthquakes. But there are different types of earthquakes that can shake the foundation and core of our beliefs. Organizationally, this week World Vision changed their policy same-sex hire before reversing back to their original statement because of the outcry of many conservative Evangelicals.
Underneath the the rumblings of social issues, there is a deeper fault line that is on the verge of shaking things up in our Evangelical subculture. This is the danger of “Christian penumbra” – the residue of religion.
The question we need to address is what is our identity as Christians? Or better yet, what should our identity be? If we are to make a difference in our culture do we live “with” the world – assimilate, accommodate. Or, do we live “from” the world – confront, challenge. Both are questions that we need deep theological reflection.
To begin this process, I read this op-ed piece from the New York times this past weekend. I was struck by the the concept of “Christian Penumbra.” I would love to get your thoughts on this article. Without a doubt, the landscape of Evangelicalism is shaking and splintering. The question for us now and in the future is “how do we brace ourselves and what should we do with the aftershocks?”
Here is the article. I would love to get your thoughts on this.
HERE is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation.
Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.
Part of this paradox can be resolved by looking at nonreligious variables like race. But part of it reflects an important fact about religion in America: The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief. And where practice ceases or diminishes, in what you might call America’s “Christian penumbra,” the remaining residue of religion can be socially damaging instead.
Consider, as a case study, the data on divorce. Earlier this year, a pair of demographers released a study showing that regions with heavy populations of conservative Protestants had higher-than-average divorce rates, even when controlling for poverty and race.
Their finding was correct, but incomplete. As the sociologist Charles Stokes pointed out, practicing conservative Protestants have much lower divorce rates, and practicing believers generally divorce less frequently than the secular and unaffiliated.
But the lukewarmly religious are a different matter. What Stokes calls “nominal” conservative Protestants, who attend church less than twice a month, have higher divorce rates even than the nonreligious. And you can find similar patterns with other indicators — out-of-wedlock births, for instance, are rarer among religious-engaged evangelical Christians, but nominal evangelicals are a very different story.
It isn’t hard to see why this might be. In the Christian penumbra, certain religious expectations could endure (a bias toward early marriage, for instance) without support networks for people struggling to live up to them. Or specific moral ideas could still have purchase without being embedded in a plausible life script. (For instance, residual pro-life sentiment could increase out-of-wedlock births.) Or religious impulses could survive in dark forms rather than positive ones — leaving structures of hypocrisy intact and ratifying social hierarchies, without inculcating virtue, charity or responsibility.
And it isn’t hard to see places in American life where these patterns could be at work. Among those working-class whites whose identification with Christianity is mostly a form of identity politics, for instance. Or among second-generation Hispanic immigrants who have drifted from their ancestral Catholicism. Or in African-American communities where the church is respected as an institution without attracting many young men on Sunday morning.
Seeing some of the problems in our culture through this lens might be useful for the religious and secular alike. For nonbelievers inclined to look down on the alleged backwardness of the Bible Belt, it would be helpful to recognize that at least some the problems they see at work reflect traditional religion’s growing weakness rather than its potency.
For believers, meanwhile, the Christian penumbra’s pathologies could just be seen as a kind of theological vindication — proof, perhaps, of the New Testament admonition that it’s much worse to be lukewarm than hot or cold.
But it’s better to regard these problems as a partial indictment of America’s churches: Not only because their failure to reach the working class and the younger generation is making the penumbra steadily bigger, but because a truly healthy religious community should be capable of influencing even the loosely attached somewhat for the better.
The problems in the penumbra also have an unacknowledged place in our current controversies over religious liberty, from the debates (which reached the Supreme Court last week) over the scope of religious exemptions from the health care law’s contraceptive mandate, to the legal questions raised by the advance of same-sex marriage.
These arguments turn on constitutional issues, competing visions of freedom, the scope of pluralism versus the rights of gays and women. But they’re also partially about what kind of institutions are best equipped to address social problems in an individualistic age, and whether we should want the Christian penumbra to be reclaimed for religion or become more thoroughly secularized instead.
Among religious conservatives, not surprisingly, the hope is that traditional forms of faith — if left to build, or re-build, without being constantly disfavored, pressured and policed — can make a kind of comeback, and fill part of the void their own decline has left.
On the secular side, though, there’s a sense that there’s a better way — that a more expansive state can offer many of the benefits associated with a religious community, but in a more enlightened, tolerant, individual-respecting form. And if delivering these benefits requires co-opting or constraining religious actors — be they charities and schools or business owners — well, that’s either a straightforward win-win, or a relatively modest price to pay.
In this sense, the Christian penumbra isn’t just a zone of social disorder. It’s a field of ideological battle.