The politics of trashing organized religion

A recent Newsweek magazine essay announced that Christianity was in "crisis."

My first thought was, "What's new about that?" For more than 20 centuries it has been in trouble, from within and without, the former no less than the latter. Somehow it has managed.

Newsweek promoted the essay with a provocative front cover that advised, "Forget the church. follow Jesus." The essay, by Andrew Sullivan, an author and columnist at The Sunday Times in London, is thoughtful and thought provoking, the kind of challenge the faithful periodically need and should welcome.

Sullivan theorizes that Christians have drifted away from their roots because the church has become politicized. He said, "The saints, after all, became known as saints not because of their success in fighting political battles, or winning a few news cycles, or funding an anti-abortion super PAC. They were saints purely and simply because of the way they lived."

How convenient and easy it is to echo the preferred secular narrative: Religious institutions are not to be trusted. Sinful bishops trying to tell everyone else, even nonbelievers, how to live. You're better off separating yourself from organized religion for a purer, simpler faith, unfiltered by hierarchies of self-serving clergy, secretive curia and stagnant traditions. In short, go it alone.

Going it alone hardly seems to have been Jesus' example. He gathered multitudes. He proclaimed the creation of a church, a community of people united by common belief. Maybe a student of the Gospels could point out where Jesus preached that the path to salvation was to go it alone, just he and you.

Not going it alone seems to me to be the entire point of organized religion. Jesus made it pretty clear that our relation with him is defined by the quality of our relations with others. It strikes me that it's a lot harder to get to where you're going when you're alone. And the church provides the structure that facilitates that trip.

I'm more familiar with the Catholic Church than other Christian denominations. Its not-going-it-alone statistics are: more than 600 Catholic hospitals accounting for 12.5 percent of American hospitals and more than 15.5 percent of all U.S. hospital admissions. Four hundred health care centers and 1,500 specialized homes. Some 235 are residential homes for orphaned and other children. Emergency food, clothing, financial, shelter, medical and other assistance for more than 6.5 million people annually. Millions of students of all denominations in Catholic schools. Such is the essential nature of Catholic belief.

But there were few warnings of a "crisis of Christianity" when church's beliefs stoked the civil rights movement. Or when a 19th-century pope, Leo XIII, was far ahead of his time in his groundbreaking encyclical Rerum Novarum, in which he courageously defended the rights of working men and women.

Back then, such "politicization" strengthened the church. Inspired believers rose to admirable heights in the name of social justice. The church was involved in politics up to its neck, but there were no calls for abandonment of the structural church, or for believers to remove their noses from America's business.

We all are quite aware of current polls that show that Americans, especially younger ones, are turning from traditional and mainline religions to a more "individualized and private" faith. In contrast, a USA Today story reported an increase in "reverts," which are people who are returning to the practice of the religion of their childhood and youth. I don't know which is right.

But the current trashing of organized religion because of its involvement in civic discourse is seriously misplaced and politically opportunistic. No doubt, it will worsen when Republican Mitt Romney duelsPresident Barack Obama for the presidency. Already, Romney's Mormon religion is decried as too conservative because it believes good works are more a matter of personal volunteering and charitable giving as opposed to constant and growing government intervention from a distance.

The church itself acknowledges that it is a human institution as well as a creation of God. Therefore, like all humans, it struggles and sins. So, it is constantly in crisis. But not because it reaches outside of itself. It is precisely because it reaches outside of itself that it has survived 2,000 years.

This column first appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Go here to view comments posted from readers.


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  • I don't imagine Leo XIII is one of your favorite popes.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Actually, he is.

  • I strongly believe that the Liberal, Progressive philosophy is fundamentally more consonant with the message of Jesus in the Gospels than the Republican philosophy currently proclaimed.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    What is the "Republican philosphy currently proclaimed"? The Catholic church just recently denounced the Ryan Budget for cutting services for the poor. The Catholic Church still pushes illegal immigrant legalization.

    What it unfortunately comes down to is that the only real issue that the Left and the Catholic Church disagree on is abortion. And abortion and the moneyed advocates of abortion (Planned Parenthood), own the Democratic party (or at least the left wing of the party) and therefore the party must attack the church on every occassion, even though the Church agrees with them on 99% of all issues. For shame, Aquinas wired and all of your leftist friends.

  • In reply to montclareresident:

    The Republican philosophy is to cut taxes for the wealthy and raise taxes on the poor. The Republican philosophy is Ayn Rand's: rugged, selfish individualism that considers altruism a moral weakness and a threat to freedom.

    The Republican philosophy is that profit is the be-all and the end-all. The Republican philosophy is the spurious unregulated free market . The Republican philosophy is to privatize everything no matter the social consequences. The Republican philosophy is robber barons and Social Darwinism.

    The Republican philosophy is worhsip at the shrine of Mammon.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Sheesh, Aquinas, you forgot to mention that Republicans want dirty water, dirty air and everybody living in poverty, because this would make their living conditions and neighborhoods so much better.

    It seems to me that the liberals/progressives/socialists worship what is of the earth. They are constantly working to build the utopia that can never succeed.

    L/P/S want to control and regulate everything. Jesus could not possibly have even gone out with the apostles and calmed the seas because the boats would not pass regulation. The Last Supper in the Upper Room would have been impossible, as the health inspectors would never have signed off -- without a bribe, perhaps.

    The L/P/S's are always full of good intentions, never thought through, with are never successful, indenture more people to a meagre pittance, and destroy their personhood. Trillions of dollars spent on the War on Poverty, and look at the results.
    Good grief! Have some accountability.

  • fb_avatar

    Wow, just wow. I love when the privileged start complaining when their privilege is no longer automatic, and the majority who complain when they can't push people around anymore. Christians are treated like everyone else, and you whine they are "trashed" No, they are equal, and don't enjoy automatic privilege anymore. That is all there is to it.

    I grew up in the Catholic church, spent about 10 years as an evangelical from 20-30, before I finally left it all as well as stopped believing (I kept reading science and history and philosophy, after reading nothing but apologetics for 20 years) I left only because of science and philosophy, not anger. BUT since I left, my eyes have been opened.

    I used to believe all the same things in this post. That we christians were discriminated against, marginalized, there was a "war on christmas", a "war on christians" What I didn't realize is no one was against us unless we were first against them. That all the cases of "discrimination" were in truth just being treated "equal" finally, for the first time.

    Losing privilege hurts. That's why white people in America think everything is OK, and any attempt to make society better through laws that treat people differently is reverse racism. sure the laws (like affirmative action) treat people differently,and in a perfect world those laws would be unfair and not needed. but this is not that world.

    In the same way, the christians who say they should be able to force prayer in schools on people (contrary to jesus' teachings about the Pharisees who loved to pray in public as well) are off their rockers. And if anyone thinks "well other kids can just sit quietly" is lying. For they believe there is power and actual spiritual events happening in corporate prayer. After all, those same christians would not be content with letting their kid sit quietly during a Catholic prayer to Mary, or a Muslim prayer. They'd say no that is "satanic" and not want their kids even in the room.

    What is trash talk?

    Trash is when the majority of americans in polls say atheists are to be trusted less than rapists.

    Trash is when a public bus company refuses to allow an ad with just the word "Atheists" , nothing else, because our very existence is threatening and "controversial", in their words. Not anything we say, but our existence!

    When an atheist brass band participates in a Christmas parade playing "jingle bells" and other secular tunes, and people practically riot and call for violence against them, saying "it's like the Nazis marching through Skokie"

    Trash is when a math teacher is fired for constant proselytizing, or a chemistry is fired for BRANDING students with crosses, and instead of admitting those were bad teachers, the christian churches and blogosphere and pundits all cry "discrimination" instead of, you know, looking at the truth.

    Trash is when a nun in AZ is excommunicated for saving the life of a pregnant women who had to have an abortion or die.

    Trash is when christians don't have a problem with bullying of gay kids that is so bad they commit suicide, because they are actually committing suicide because of "shame" of their "sin", not because of the evil hate that is sometimes spread by christian churches.

    All my anger came AFTER I left the church, when I finally avoided the weekly brainwashing and excuses for the evil perpetuated on society.I don't feel sorry for you one bit. I was one of you, so I know very well that churches are whining and crying about "trash talk" all the way to the bank.

  • If religion is going to enter the world of politics then it should get bashed like everything else.

    Are you suggesting that organized religion gets a free pass? That they should be treated specially and left to do and say whatever they want without opposition?

    If you don't want religion attacked, then keep it in your home and in your private life and out of politics. Otherwise, stop whining. Religion is fair game once it steps into the political arena.

  • Dennis ~ A nice job helping put Christianity into both historical and human perspective. Of course, it won't resonant with the non-believers ...but it should at least nudge their curiosity about what they automatically dismiss.

  • I think when regular church-going folk see the political shenanigans that their leaders engage in, or see their churches used as political props (as is happening now), it makes them not want to be part of it. That's all.
    There will always be a need for worshipers of all faiths to join with people of similar beliefs. However, they tend to get a little frustrated or disappointed when they see the group they joined turn into some kind of monster.

  • Less "in crisis" more "under attack," if you ask me.

    Though I have to admit that the Church is reaping what it has sowed by supporting so many whacked out, extremist left-wing ideas (liberation theology, universal healthcare, etc) over the years.

  • In reply to publiusforum:

    Just is universal healthcare anti-Christian?

  • In reply to Kay S:

    Because it takes our fate out of our own hands and puts it in the hands of the state (Caesar, if you will). It also forces others to give their labor to us under coercion (we usually call that slavery). Seems hardly Christian to me!

  • CHRISB you're my hero.....

    I'm sick of "christians" using the bible to attack, judge, and be the horrible people i no longet want to associate with.......

    It's not a crisis or attack...... people are judt fighting bavk now

  • Great article Dennis! While I think some things that you mentioned are single dimensional, I can truly appreciate the over-arching theme of this article which can be summed up in the following sentence:

    "Jesus made it pretty clear that our relation with him is defined by the quality of our relations with others."

    Excellent point. But I agree with Expat's point that people typically become turned off of religion when it becomes focused on maintaining institutions and agendas rather than its core tenants.

    Great read overall!

  • Well said, Dennis. I appreciate the points you have made. I don't agree with the idea of abandoning organized religious services in favor of doing things on one's own. Many organized religions, not just Catholic, focus on building communities and performing good works to benefit others. It's not all about the individual and what they think and feel. I think that people who are turning this into a heated political debate are missing the heart of what you are saying.

  • Jesus was the original political member of the Church. His political problems were with the established Jewish rule and, to some degree, with the Romans. Religion and politics have never, in any era, pagan or otherwise, existed in a vacuum with politics.

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