Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Losing Hegemony

I know a guy who was a member of my church in Georgia before moving to Nashville a couple of years before we came to Maryland. He’s a very talented musician, and though he supports his family by driving a truck, music is his passion. He is also a very committed Christian, and loves to play and sing Christian rock. He is one of the best guitar players I’ve ever been around, and he hoped that he could break into the music industry in Nashville and get off the road. Alas, Nashville is full of very talented guitar players, so he contents himself with playing for his church and recording his own music.

He includes me among those he emails when he has something new going on in his music life, and such was the case last week. I noticed that he has set up his own website, so I went there to check things out. Then I noticed he had link to a journal, where he had an entry from March about the hard financial times our country is experiencing. What caught my interest was his statement that our financial problems are due to the lack of Judeo-Christian values in America. “This nation succeeded in becoming independant (sic) and strong by adhering to the principals (sic) found in the word of God, and now the word of God is being pushed aside.”

I’m familiar with these sentiments, but they always confound me. There is no doubt that the European countries that started settling here in the 17th century came from countries where Christianity was the dominant if not the officially government-sanctioned religion, nor is there any doubt that some settlers came here for explicitly religious reasons—to escape religious persecution and to be able to worship and practice according to their own convictions. It is also clear, however, that our country was founded on the principles of rational Enlightenment philosophy, and it is these principles that are embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Where there was overlap was because Christianity of the 17th century and following more often conformed to Enlightenment philosophy than the other way around. Regardless, it was always an uneasy alliance, for rationalism has little place for gods of any sort. As Enlightenment philosophy grew it would inevitably push out theistic faith. This was seen in the deistic faith of Washington, Jefferson, and others among our founding fathers.

In the first centuries of our country’s existence Christianity enjoyed a dominant position. There might have been a few Jews in America at the beginning, but few if any Muslims, Buddhists, or even atheists. Most Americans lived their lives without ever encountering a person from another religion.

Over time, however, immigration brought people from other lands, and they brought their religions with them. Enlightenment rationalism spread as science gained ascendancy, pushing theistic faith more and more to the fringes of society. Christianity still enjoys a plurality of adherents in our country, but on any given Sunday if you add up all the people in Christian churches and compare that to those who are not, either because people are observing some other religion or are doing something different altogether, it’s clear that we are no longer in the majority.

And I think its losing that hegemony that bothers my friend and many other Christians like him. We’re used to being the majority, and having the power and influence that comes from being in the majority, and as we lose that dominant position we feel that we are losing something very precious.

I’m not so sure. I think a reading of history shows that whenever a religion is able to become dominant in a nation, it’s not because the nation has become conformed to the principles of that religion but because the religion has become conformed to the principles of the nation. Prior to Constantine, Christianity was poor, powerless, persecuted, peaceful—and flourishing. Once Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity became rich, powerful, warlike, persecuting—and corrupt. Rome didn’t become more like Jesus; Christianity became more like Rome.

What’s the saying: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I’d say it is a good thing that Christianity is losing its dominant—and dominating—position. Maybe now we’ll be free to truly follow a crucified Christ.

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