Dear Parish Faithful,
I enjoy reading the Op-Ed articles of Roth Douthat of the New York Times. He is a believing Christian who has good insights into the cultural and political world that we live in as Christians. Here is a good summary of the somewhat precarious state of contemporary Christianity. The challenges are enormous; we hope that we can see the opportunities that occasionally arise.
A Tough Season for Believers
By ROSS DOUTHAT
Published: December 19, 2010
Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.
In a sense, of course, there’s no better time to be a Christian than the first 25 days of December. But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes. (Think of the annual “war on Christmas” drumbeat, or last week’s complaints from Republican senators about the supposed “sacrilege” of keeping Congress in session through the holiday.) But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.
Happily, for those who need a last-minute gift for the anxious Christian in their life, the year just past featured two thick, impressive books that wrestle with exactly these complexities.
The first is “American Grace,” co-written by Harvard’s Robert Putnam (of “Bowling Alone” fame) and Notre Dame’s David Campbell, which examines the role that religion plays in binding up the nation’s social fabric. Over all, they argue, our society reaps enormous benefits from religious engagement, while suffering from few of the potential downsides. Widespread churchgoing seems to make Americans more altruistic and more engaged with their communities, more likely to volunteer and more inclined to give to secular and religious charities. Yet at the same time, thanks to Americans’ ever-increasing tolerance, we’ve been spared the kind of sectarian conflict that often accompanies religious zeal.
But for Christians, this sunny story has a dark side. Religious faith looks more socially beneficial to America than ever, but the institutional Christianity that’s historically generated most of those benefits seems to be gradually losing its appeal.
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