Ross Douthat in Bad Religion talks about the two responses some Christians made to the falling apart of American religious consensus of the 1950s. One was accommodation and the other was resistance. These terms substitute for liberal and conservative for Douthat. I like that, since liberal and conservative are political terms that don’t exactly apply to what happened in the churches.
Accommodation was the main response of the Mainline Protestants and a strong movement within Roman Catholicism. Resistance was the response of Evangelicals and Roman Catholic traditionalists.
I will interact with this more than just report on what Douthat says, because I lived through what he talks about here. I was a child and a student during the 50’s and 60’s. But beginning in 1970, when I entered seminary, I saw the interplay of accommodation and resistance happening all around me.
During my first month of seminary, Harvey Cox arrived on our campus to lead a celebration with dancing and hand clapping to music from Jesus Christ Superstar, which hadn‘t opened on Broadway yet. I couldn’t quite figure out what we were celebrating.
Douthat treats Cox as one of the pioneers of the accommodating movement. In 1965 Cox had come out with The Secular City. Cox explained that Christians needed to embrace secularism. People were turned off by or indifferent about the otherworldliness of traditional Christianity, so the church needed to change its message and approach.
For instance, politics was bringing change in the world, so that must be what God’s action was all about. The church needed to embrace politics as what God was doing in the world. Also, traditional teachings about sex put people off, so religion needed to get rid of its black-and-white rules and give people guidelines that recognized how complex sexual issues were in real life. Cox argued that the biblical attack on idolatry means that Christians should celebrate the waning of interest in the spiritual.
But even by 1970 it was clear that American’s interest in the spiritual wasn’t really waning. That is what Cox was doing in 1970. He had just published another book, Feast of Fools, timed to correspond with Woodstock and arguing for a more playful and mystical approach. The reason:
“But it turned out that while a single twentysomething might have no time for Christianity’s sexual taboos, and a prosperous suburbanite might not want to ponder its critique of wealth and acquisition, they were both still interested—more interested than ever, perhaps—in a religion that promised encounters with the mysterious and numinous, one that promised to make the universe responsive to their prayers and rituals and spiritual gestures.” (Douthat, Ross (2012-04-17). Bad Religion (pp. 106-107). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
Still, the Secular City was the far more influential book. It’s program of welcoming the decline of historic Christianity became the program of Mainline Protestantism in the closing decades of the century. Douthat understands the strategy behind this. The church would maintain itself and expand by including more people. Women felt excluded. Unmarried couples, divorced people, gays, people who identified with the 60’s counterculture, doubters, and people asking tough questions all felt excluded by traditional Christianity. So the way for the church to grow was to become more and more inclusive.
A casualty of all this was belief. The accomodationists didn’t really care what you believed. In fact, beliefs were a divisive hindrance to the focus on this world and an experiential spirituality. Nevertheless, you could believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection as long as you didn’t judge anybody else.
Traditionalists seemed to have no effective response to this trend either among Protestants or Catholics. Resistance seemed reactionary. As a Mainline Protestant trying to find a way to still believe something, I felt marginalized. History looked to be passing classic Christianity by. Catholic traditionalists and Protestants seemed cut off from each other in their own religious ghettos.
Douthat, who is Catholic, talks about the accomodationist movement within Catholicism. I got glimpses of several of the things he talks about during these years. One priest encouraged people to confess sins against the poor but not to worry about sexual sins. Sadly, he later got sent away to a retreat center for sexual acting out himself. In 1984 in a summer school class I sat next to a nun. She was given to complaining about the Reagan administration. One day she said that the only places in the world she saw any signs of the kingdom of God were in Cuba and China!
The Right to Life movement galvanized resistance to cultural trends and brought Evangelical Protestants and traditional Roman Catholics together. Pope John Paul II, with Joseph Ratzinger in charge of revitalizing doctrine, confronted accommodationists within the church. Evangelicalism in America, rejecting Fundamentalism, emerged as much more vital than the Mainline churches. It looked like we might be on the verge of something like a new religious consensus.
Two things happened in the early 21st century to undermine this. In Roman Catholicism the sexual abuse scandals revealed a rottenness within. And the uncritical endorsement of the Bush II administration by the Evangelical right exposed a kind of tunnel vision there.
So both those who responded to the late 20th century crisis of faith by accommodating culture and those who responded by resisting cultural trends, failed to carry the day.
Many assumed that would lead to a widespread adoption of atheism and utter secularism. Those voices have certainly become louder. But America remains an overwhelmingly religious society. It is just that our religion no longer has much in common with historic Christianity. America has become a nation of heretics–an idea Douthat explores in the rest of the book.
Douthat’s analysis is way deeper and more detailed than I have been able to convey here. His sympathies are with the resistors. Yet he really doesn’t spare his criticism of them. And he understands the attractiveness of the accommodationist emphasis on inclusion.
He leaves out anything about Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism. He treats the religious right as wholly Christian. But wasn’t it really more like what Dennis Prager called a “Ten Commandments coalition” made up of all kinds of Christians (including many sitting in Mainline pews), plus Jews, Mormons and others?
My own response to this conflict between accommodation and resistance has been to oppose the Manichean tendency to see the other side as evil. Accomodationists are not usually trying to undermine Christianity. In love, they are trying to extend the table to those excluded. Resistors are usually not just sticks in the mud. They sincerely believe that beliefs and practices matter.