As the Catholic writer Joseph Bottum has observed, we live in an anxious age.
In an increasingly diverse and rapidly changing culture, some people are anxious about shifting cultural norms, civil rights, and religious liberty. The past decade has seen a rapid transformation in public opinion and legal norms around sexuality, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and religion in the public square—changes that have caused anxiety for a great number of traditional religious believers, including Christians, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews.
Socioeconomic disparities create other anxieties. Some people have been left jobless or underemployed by the global economy. Others confront inadequacies in housing, education, and health care in impoverished and often segregated neighborhoods and communities. And people wonder why those with greater means are indifferent to the financial burdens of the lower and middle classes.
There is, of course, an even more dire anxiety that emerges when some people prove incapable of living with our differences. In the past few years, violent men have taken innocent lives in places including a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, the apartment of a Muslim family in North Carolina, a black church in Charleston, and just last week, a gay nightclub in Florida. In each of these instances, vulnerable communities became the intentional targets of mass violence, leaving others in those communities wondering about their own safety and sense of belonging in this country.
How should Christians in the United States bear witness in an anxious age? We start by understanding the context in which we live. That begins by understanding the context from which we have come and the ways in which that context has contributed to some of our current anxieties.
The Protestant Culture of the Past
“Christianity as a social phenomenon,” wrote theologian Lesslie Newbigin, “has always and necessarily been conditioned as to its outward form by other social facts.” When Newbigin wrote this in 1941, one of the main “social facts” in the United States was that public norms were dictated by a distinctly American Protestant culture in the white middle class. As such, Protestant churches provided many Americans with a great part of their social identity. The majority of Americans, whether or not they were devout, identified with some church and its basic teachings. These teachings—for better, and sometimes for worse—contributed to a largely monolithic way of thinking about religion and morality. By the middle of the 20th century, that way of thinking had made room for some Catholic and Jewish influences, but little else.
The Protestant culture contributed to many traditional norms, including the two-parent family, the value of work and frugality, the priority of the local community, and the importance of personal virtue. Its moral cohesion built and sustained major institutions that to this day provide billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of volunteers for charitable work.
On the other hand, the Protestant culture also failed to recognize, and sometimes enabled, significant injustices. Protestants were indifferent and sometimes hostile toward the civil liberties challenges that religious minorities confronted. Most white Protestants’ absence from the civil rights movement perpetuated personal and structural racism that exists to this day. And the cultural and legal power of the Protestant culture often stifled differing views about religion, gender, and sexuality.