This one comes to us from Oscar Price:
The Alabama State House of Representatives recently passed a bill which, if approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, would create a ballot measure to permit the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools. That the sponsor of the bill did not actually know the Ten Commandments did little to deter his colleagues, who passed the bill by an overwhelming majority.
This is precisely the cultural climate of which Ross Douthat writes in Sunday’s New York Times – a culture in which Christianity, or some form of it, is so mainstream, and “traditional” values so revered that, whether for personal convictions or to appeal to the views of the electorate, politicians try to put the law on display in public schools.
It would be easy for Christians to dismiss Douthat’s column in its entirety – he contrasts so-called “conservative” religious views with “a more expansive state” that might “offer many of the benefits associated with a religious community, but in a more enlightened, tolerant, individual-respecting form” – but behind his sometimes strained conclusions there are data which Christians ought to take seriously.
As Douthat observes, despite the ubiquity of Christianity in the south, the Bible Belt continues “to struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.” And the problems are even deeper than this. Consider, as Douthat does, the data on divorce rates:
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.
Douthat opines that this results from a culture in which “religious expectations endure…without support networks for people struggling to live up to them.” The examples of this are varied and multi-racial, but the most notable is “working-class whites whose Christianity is mostly a form of identity politics.” For Douthat, this is an indictment of the Church: “a truly healthy religious community should be capable of influencing even the loosely attached somewhat for the better.”
Up to this point, any honest believer living in the south would be hard-pressed to disagree. Christianity is a form of identity politics in this part of the country, and sadly, the form of Christianity to which many are exposed (say, for instance, the law plastered on a classroom wall) is nothing more than a set of expectations of behavior.
So what gives? Let’s start by acknowledging the fallacy of Stokes’s insinuation that apparent adherence to parts of the law is somehow an indication of faithfulness. In Luke 15, the older brother is no less lost than the younger. If the prevailing message of the Church is nothing more than standards of behavior, adherents are just as lost as those “nominal” conservative Protestants driving up divorce rates.
Indeed, Douthat’s column reveals a deeply broken southern religious culture; one in which too many churches spend more time bemoaning an alleged deterioration of society’s moral fabric than they do focusing on the One who redeems us from our personal deterioration.
In the Ten Commandments, while Christians are right to stand up for the truth of the scriptures, perhaps we should take a closer look at Jesus’ message about sin. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that all of our interpersonal relationships are touched by the fall. The relationships (and sexuality) of everyone are marred by sin and in need of redemption. (Matthew 5:27-30). Jesus’ message is just as startling today as it was then: single or coupled, married or divorced, man or woman, the sin of Adam infects every cell of every person and seeps into every corner of every life (Matthew 5:17-48).
Ultimately, the situation that Douthat describes is not surprising at all. Indeed, it is exactly what we would expect in a society where, sadly, many people never hear anything more than the law; the standard of which we all fall short. (Matthew 5:17-20). Douthat calls the whole situation a “penumbra” – an astronomical term referring to a region in which the source of light is obscured. Whether intentional or not, his word choice is perfect and precise. When, like the Pharisees, our message becomes the law, and the law alone, the lost are left enslaved.
The Light, unobscured, offers freedom.
In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
Galations 4: 3-7.