On this Fourth of July, a bracing passage from Archbishop Charles Chaput’s book Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life.
About 90 percent of Americans believe in God. About 80 percent describe themselves as Christians. Nearly three-quarters pray at least once a week. Nearly half attend religious services at least once a month. It’s a matter of record that Americans are a religious people (Baylor Religion Survey data). It’s also true that the Christian faith is the dominant religious influence on the American soul. Many millions of Americans not only claim to be Christian but also actively practice their faith. But what this means for their public witness is less clear and also less reassuring.
Nearly 61 percent of Americans believe a presidential candidate should be a religious person. Clear majorities of both Republican and Democratic voters feel that religion is vital in their own lives. More than half of Americans polled describe themselves as very religious (source). Compared to the figures for Europe, these numbers are astounding. But Americans also have a deeply anti-institutional streak deriving from their Protestant roots, including a distrust of religious institutions. It’s also true, according to the researcher George Barna, that American theological views have veered away in recent years from classical scriptural beliefs. Some 66 percent of Americans believe in an omnipotent, all-knowing God who rules creation. But this is the lowest recorded number in more than two decades of studies.
As Barna notes, “Americans are willing to expend some energy in religious activities such as attending church and reading the Bible, and they are willing to throw some money in the offering basket. Because of such activities, they convince themselves that they are a people of genuine faith. But when it comes to truly establishing their priorities and making a tangible commitment to knowing and loving God, and to allowing Him to change their character and lifestyle, most people stop short. We want to be ‘spiritual’ and we want to have God’s favor, but we’re not sure we want Him taking control of our lives and messing with the image and outcomes we’ve worked so hard to produce.”
It’s hard to see this as anything but a case of split personality. In practice, we’ve buried ourselves in material pursuits, distractions, and what Neil Postman once described as technological narcotics. Early Christians would have called it something even worse: acedia; a stagnancy or sloth of the soul that shows itself in an unwillingness to “judge” in the name of false compassion; a disregard for moral conviction that hides behind flexibility and openness.
If our nation has changed from the land of opportunity to the land of private appetites over the last few decades, one of the reasons is this: We haven’t lived what we say we believe. Homelessness, poverty, abortion, the exploitation of undocumented immigrants, the neglect of the elderly — these are brazenly real problems in contemporary America. They won’t go away by blaming the Religious Right, smearing Christian believers as extremists, or kicking religion out of the public discussion. That’s the language of a power grab by people alienated from our country’s religious roots.
Our problems can only be solved by people of character who actively and without apology take their beliefs into public debates. That includes Catholics. We need to be stronger in our public witness, not weaker. Whether America is really 80 percent or 50 percent or 10 percent Christian doesn’t matter. If we really believe that Jesus Christ is who he says he is, and that the Catholic Church is who she says she is, then we need to live like it. IF we really believe that the Gospel is true, we need to embody it in our private lives and our public choices.
In the end, we can choose to be the small, hollow “men without chests” that C.S. Lewis described in The Abolition of Man: people who have plenty of comforts but no greatness of soul; a contented and conditioned herd without courage, purpose, nobility, or conviction. We can ignore the historian Christopher Dawson when he warned, “This is the greatest misery of modern civilization — that it has conquered the world by losing its own soul, and when the soul is lost, it must lose the world as well.”
Or we can choose to be the people God created us to be.