Sorry GOP: We Do Not Need Churches in order to Prosper Economically

Nov 18 2012 Published by under Featured News, Issues, Republican Party

Conservatives can’t move past the idea that their religion, the modern world’s “traditional piety,” might be passé.  Ross Douthat, for example, tells us about the failings of the “liberal gloat” – that we cannot have true middle class success through prosperity alone. That we need the other 1950s ingredients as well, including “leaping church attendance.” The truth is somewhat different: freedom of belief – any belief, not the Religious Right’s insistence that only their belief counts - is an essential ingredient of economic prosperity.

But conservatives simply cannot conceive of a world where religion – their religion, to be precise – does not occupy center stage, holding society together against the vicissitudes of the modern world (there is more than a little Luddism involved in the religious conservative’s distrust of science and technology).

It’s that old lie, but a much-loved lie among believers, that there are no atheists in foxholes.

There are. It is just that are just no conservatives who believe there are. They cannot allow themselves to believe such a thing, just as they cannot allow themselves to believe that anyone – anyone, no matter how fanatical an atheist – could lay on their deathbed without repenting.

Christian history is full of such tales.

But they are just that. Tales. If I can borrow the words of Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, this “Is just math they do as Christians do to make themselves feel better.” The mythical 1950s are also a tale. As I wrote the other day, Mrs. Cleaver’s America is dead and gone. And good riddance. We don’t want it back. Douthat fails to see that church attendance was a symptom of economic prosperity; not the cause of it.

We want the economic prosperity, which was built not on church attendance but on a narrowing gap between rich and poor, on a liberal vision of America that made America a place where everyone could succeed, not only the top 1 percent.

Yet we find Douthat telling us, as though from some deep font of wisdom,

The progressive bias toward the capital-F Future, the old left-wing suspicion of faith and domesticity, the fact that Democrats have benefited politically from these trends — all of this makes it easy for liberals to just celebrate the emerging America, to minimize the costs of disrupted families and hollowed-out communities, and to treat the places where Americans have traditionally found solidarity outside the state (like the churches threatened by the Obama White House’s contraceptive mandate) as irritants or threats.

This is a great flaw in the liberal vision, because whatever role government plays in prosperity, transfer payments are not a sufficient foundation for middle-class success. It’s not a coincidence that the economic era that many liberals pine for — the great, egalitarian post-World War II boom — was an era that social conservatives remember fondly as well: a time of leaping church attendance, rising marriage rates and birthrates, and widespread civic renewal and engagement.

It is as though he pits liberalism’s capital-F Future against conservatism’s capital-T Truth. And sure, liberals are suspicious of the capital-T Truth, as well they should be, in an age when the Pope and Protestant leaders all agree on one thing, that their capital-T Truth trumps tolerance.

Who wouldn’t be suspicious? If that’s the cost of economic recovery, I think we could all do without it, because socially and culturally speaking, it requires a move back into caves. We don’t want Plato’s approximation of reality, which is life in a cave. We want the real thing.

Douthat asks us to consider the secular vote, “which has been growing swiftly and tilts heavily toward Democrats” (where else is  it going to go?):

The liberal image of a non-churchgoing American is probably the “spiritual but not religious” seeker, or the bright young atheist reading Richard Dawkins. But the typical unchurched American is just as often an underemployed working-class man, whose secularism is less an intellectual choice than a symptom of his disconnection from community in general.

Again the feel-good myth: In other words, Douthat cannot conceive of people who would not be going to church had they only the opportunity to do so.

This is one of the great myths of Christianity. That in the ancient Pagan world, when given a choice, those benighted Pagans all rushed to the church. The truth is somewhat different: the gospel was rejected.

People didn’t rush to embrace the good word. They already had a good word: their traditional beliefs and modes of worship, which had served them well for centuries and which continued to serve them well.

After three centuries, by the time of Constantine – a three-century span that included only about a decade of actual persecution by Roman authorities – just ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire was Christian. Ramsay MacMullen puts the Christian total at 5 million in 312 and Rodney Stark some 6 million. After Constantine outlawed sacrfice, followed by other repressive measures, this total  jumped by a factor of from four to six times.[1] But after a century of increasingly harsh measures of coercion, Pagans were still, by a slim margin, the majority population of the Roman Empire.

Christian myth demands that Roman religion be moribund by the time of Christ. [2] But the first century was an age of faith – of Pagan faith. Polytheistic piety was flourishing at the time Jesus was born, as scholars, if not believers, recognize.

We cannot lose sight of what the process of conversion means – either too, or from a religion.

We must keep in mind that conversion means different things to different people.

For Charles Glock and Rodney Stark, “Conversion…may well be defined as the process by which a person comes to adopt and all-pervading world view or change from one such perspective to another.”[3] Arthur Darby Nock saw it as “the reorientation of the soul of an individual, his deliberate turning from indifference or from one form of piety to another, a turning which implies a consciousness that a great change is involved, that the old is wrong and the new is right.”[4]

Ramsay MacMullen finds fault with this for the reason that it leaves out any definition of conversion which is not “intense and consuming” and defines it instead as “that change of belief by which a person accepted the reality and supreme power of God and determined to obey him,” an intellectual decision rather than an all consuming religious passion.

The result, notes James C. Russell, is that “MacMullen would include as converts to Christianity some whom Nock would classify as mere adherents.” In defence of his definition MacMullen points to the fact that “the church itself interpreted the initial process very loosely.”[5]

There are probably plenty of non-Church-going people in America who have voted Democrat because the Republican church has made them feel unwelcome. These people wish to participate in the secular world that conservatism  fears. The Church has always spoken disdainfully of the “world” as a vulgar place standing in opposition to heaven, to that shining city on a hill that is of necessity in the world but oriented toward heaven.

But that is ideology, and we don’t live in a world of ideology but a world of facts, facts conservatism has let slip by in its rush to condemnation. Conservatives cling to belief, that prosperity comes only from their god. Growing numbers of Americans cling to the facts on the ground, to tangible things revealed not by faith in the absurd, but in things of the senses. And we are not all one thing or another; for the most part, we occupy a shadowy area in between belief and disbelief, that believers - because conversion is a process and not an event - refuse to acknowledge exists.

In the early days of the conversion process, Christianity did not take well or lastingly. Alison Frantz, for instance, notes that “Although a few Christian congregations are recorded for Greece from the time of St. Paul, they left no visible traces for the first three centuries.”[6]

And even after almost a century of Christian empire, after several decades during which the practice of Pagan religion had been illegal, people were still engaged in and loving their gods and adhering to traditional piety:

In 407 a law was issued which stated that banquets could not be held in “funeral places” (temples). [7] Constantine had already outlawed sacrifices, which were to Paganism was the eucharist is to Christianity.

When none of these measures worked, the temples themselves were destroyed, where they were not turned into churches. The destruction of the temples was particularly harsh, as MacMullen notes:

To destroy a temple meant also to disturb habits of awe, loving gratitude, devotion, or humility to which the ancient cults could give expression. In the nature of the thing, religion must have feeling. So much was recognized as essential – one might even say, as operational. For insincere prayer, prayer touched with any spirit of doubt, wouldn’t work. Everyone knew that. “Those who call upon you [Isis] in faith behold you”- just as a holy man after his death could be seen only by that follower whose faith was whole. Invocation would be better heard, a vision better received, where the elect gathered or the god’s image resided. Destruction touching stone therefore touched much else besides.[8]

Writing of the same period, MacMullen notes that the celebratory crowds for festivals

were strong in numbers. No denunciation to the authorities by some personal enemy or zealot could have much disturbed them. Nothing less than a cavalry charge could have cleared them away. As long as a critical mass of co-religionists could still be gathered at the traditional time of the year, mindful of their ancestral ways, there was not much anyone could do about it.[9]

Does this sound like a population leaping over each other to embrace Christianity? Not at all. They sound like people who love their gods.

Christians cannot today conceive of emotion in Pagan religion, no more than they can conceive of the idea of happiness being a part of atheism.

MacMullen observes that “I find an odd reluctance to acknowledge the role, even the existence, of emotions in ancient paganism.”[10] This is undoubtedly because most scholars, conditioned by a lifetime of monotheism, have a difficult time imagining anyone actually believing in, much less feeling anything for, polytheism or its Gods.

Regarding this inability to empathize, one researcher notes that, “(I)t is difficult for an overwhelmingly monotheistic society to take seriously the suggestion that the pagan community invests its pantheon of gods with the same aura of sanctity – or a comparable degree of faith – as do adherents of the Abrahamic religions in relation to their God.”[11]

In the end, nothing speaks more eloquently to the resistance against the Church and its teachings like the 420s law that made the penalty for not attending church having your property seized, and being sent into exile.

And still people loved and embraced their gods. MacMullen has noted the penalties and incentives used by the Christian authorities to speed conversion:

Government…at the urging of the bishops weighed in with threats, and more than threats, of fines, confiscation, exile, imprisonment, flogging, torture, beheading, and crucifixion. What more could be imagined? Nothing. The extremes of conceivable pressure were brought to bear. Thus, over the course of many centuries, compliance was eventually secured and the empire made Christian in truth.[12]

This, folks, is how the conversion of Europe progressed, using ever more brutal and coercive measures. The myth of conversion suits Christianity’s self-love very well, but it does not serve the truth, no more than does the continuing embrace of the idea that America needs its “old-time” religion to prosper, that atheism will somehow destroy America and stifle growth.

The Roman Empire prospered with its gods, just as the ancient world had prospered for many centuries with its varied pantheons. America can prosper with its gods, or its lack of gods, as Thomas Jefferson foresaw.

There is no evidence that lack of religion kills a society, whatever people once believed. It is economic disparities which kill a society, where the gulf between rich and poor is vast, where the 99 percent become dependent not on government hand-outs but on the crumbs tossed their way by the 1 percent as they feast like vampires on the 1 percent’s hard-earned success.


[1] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing theRoman Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 85, puts the total at the end of the fourth century at some 30 million, a factor of six, while  Bryant, 304 asserts that Christian numbers “roughly quintupled within a century.”

[2] W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus (NY: New York University Press, 1967), 334. Frend provides no convincing episodes of this decline in religious belief by the Pagan masses. Naturally there will be a concomitant decline in numbers of one religion when there is a rise in popularity of another, but there is no evidence that the Pagans who remained were any less fervent even if their numbers were less.

[3] Charles Y. Glock & Rodney Stark, Religion and Society in Tension (Chicago: Rand-McNally, 1965), 6.

[4] Arthur Darby Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933), 7.

[5] MacMullen (1984), 4-5; James C. Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity (NY: Oxford University Press, 1994), 30.

[6] Alison Frantz, “From Paganism to Christianity in the Temples of Athens,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 19 (1965), 188.

[7] C. Th. 16.10.19.3, for the law of  407 and for 391 C. Th. 16.10.10, cited in Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (Yale University Press, 1997), 45.

[8] MacMullen (1997), 54.

[9] MacMullen (1997), 41.

[10] MacMullen (1997), 190, n. 71.

[11] Jeffrey Kaplan, Radical Religion in America (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 71.

[12] MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, 72.

Comments are off for this post