Ed. note: This is the third and final response in our symposium on Brandon McGinley’s book The Prodigal Church.
The American landscape has been a fertile seedbed historically for a very specific sort of Christianity. Methodism and Baptist expressions of the faith have thrived here for much of the past 200 years. Other more novel innovations in church history, such as the restorationists and dispensationalists, have also flourished here. Indeed, even more troubling theological innovators that simply depart from historic Christianity, such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have managed to thrive in the American soil. The branches of Christianity capable of playing within the broadly open landscape afforded to us by the American project have thrived, in a certain way at least.
Other forms have struggled. Historic Protestantism mostly does not exist in America today, hasn’t for decades, and was diminishing in stature from at least the time of the Second Great Awakening onward, if not earlier. Orthodoxy has never managed to develop even a basic foothold in American life. Roman Catholicism may be the most interesting subject of all. Once recognized by the vast majority of Americans to be radically at odds with the American idea (there is a reason Maryland exists, after all), it has in more recent decades attempted to accommodate itself to that vision.
By doing so, Catholicism has been normalized in America in much the same way that the Baptists and Methodists have long been regarded as normal tribes within American life. Indeed, by this time next week the Oval Office will be occupied by a Roman Catholic as will a super majority of seats on the Supreme Court. If fashioning a Catholicism that was accessible and intelligible to the American regime was the great goal of post-war Catholicism in America, then it has been a remarkable success. But at what cost has this normalization been achieved?
That is the question at the heart of Brandon McGinley’s The Prodigal Church and it is, from this outsider’s view, one of the defining questions facing the Roman church in America today.
McGinley’s arguments will be relatively familiar if you know any young, thoughtful Roman Catholics. He desires to see American Catholics build coherent Catholic neighborhoods built around strong parishes and similarly strong (and large!) families. Doing this will, according to McGinley, require certain sacrifices and certain changes in how American Catholics think and live in America. To put it plainly, it will require American Catholics to give up the bourgeois vision of comfort and wealth that many Americans assume is a prerequisite to the good life. Contraception, usury, and an indifference to the church year are out; a return to the confessional and feast days, simple, generous living, and thick ritual practices are in. All of this, in my view, is to the good and, certainly, it is descriptive of the only sort of Catholicism I could ever be tempted to convert to.
Yet, on this point I am left with the same question raised by Ross McCullough in his response: Is there not some sense in which McGinley is trying to have it both ways?
On the one hand, he desires a return to the pre-Vatican II era when there was a built-in gravitational pull toward a form of piety that was, one can now see, preferable to the impiety of the present. One of his primary reasons for such a desire is that it is a way of making it easier for people to be good. A person’s spiritual desires might be lukewarm, but, McGinley hopes, within the sort of Catholic culture of the post-war years, even the lukewarm can receive the aid required to see them safely through to beatitude in the life to come.
Yet on the other hand, he wants to achieve that return through a hardening of practices that will, inevitably, chase off many of the people he admirably wishes to help through the creation of a reinvigorated Catholic society. He desires a return to a church that can provide aid and support to the spiritually lukewarm, while also calling that church to take up callings and doctrines that will appeal only to the red hot. Can these goals be reconciled?
In his book Silence, Shusako Endo has one of the Japanese magistrates (and persecutors of Christianity) say that Japan is a swamp and this is why Christianity cannot take root there. What I increasingly wonder today is if America is not a similar sort of swamp, if the only way for Christianity to thrive in America is if it allows itself to be transformed or obstructed by the sort of assumptions and values that have reigned in America at different moments in our history.
If that is the case, then the problems McGinley is addressing are as much a concern for Protestants as they are for Catholics. And if one assesses the landscape from the vantage point of historic Protestantism, it may well be the case that it looks even more bleak than it does to a traditionalist Catholic such as McGinley.
Since the breaking of the old mainline, there has not been a voice for historic Protestantism in America. Certainly the fundamentalists who stood opposite the modernizing mainline could not be such a voice—a fact that J. Gresham Machen himself well knew. Some bodies (like the PCA, which was originally the “National Presbyterian Church” and was intended as a continuation of the old Protestantism of the historic mainline) have attempted to keep the flame burning as they could. But the work has been mostly fruitless, at least in terms of preserving the spirit and significance of the old mainline, as even the PCA sometimes resembles a kind of classed-up broader evangelicalism more obviously than it does historic Protestantism.
Thus when one reads Abraham Kuyper’s words—given at that bastion of old Protestantism, Princeton Seminary in the days of Warfield and Vos—that Calvinism and Catholicism are the only coherent Christian life systems on offer in the west, one can’t help wondering where precisely that leaves us today. If Catholicism is facing the problems McGinley describes and if McGinley’s proposals face, at least, a short-term challenge on the scale of what McCullough describes, and if historic Calvinism is mostly unrepresented in America today, what’s left?
A thought: Perhaps the reason the temperature on the culture war keeps getting ratcheted up is that the inherently democratic nature of American Christianity is itself unable to make the kind of pervasive critique of American social order that Kuyper is looking for in assessing “Christian life-systems” (or worldviews, if you must) and that is so badly needed in our own day.
Because the fight between Robert Jeffress and Kamala Harris, to ascribe figureheads to the respective sides of the culture war, is ultimately a fight over chronology more than anything else (which America do we want? 1950 or 2015?), the only way for the Jeffress side of the divide to appear distinctive is to shout louder at Team Harris. In the absence of loud shouting, folks would start to look around, note some uncanny and uncomfortable resemblances in the respective sides’ ideas about “freedom” and might start asking some hard questions—hard questions that the Christianity of Jeffress, at least, is unequipped to answer.
If this is all correct, then Protestants who see many of the same problems that concern McGinley are confronted with a substantial problem that will almost certainly resist easy solutions. On the one hand, evangelicalism can be no solution to these problems because evangelicalism itself is often marked by very similar versions of the besetting sins of the American order. Indeed, it seems likely to me that evangelicalism is over as a recognizably Christian social movement in America. So we can’t turn there for aid. Yet the historic Protestantism that might offer us with an anthropology, political theory, and theological ethics sufficiently robust for our day has, in the past, been unable to lay down the deep roots necessary to sustain life in this American swamp.
McGinley’s book, if adapted to accommodate the differences between historic Protestantism and Catholicism, offers a viable short-term roadmap, I think. The work will have to start locally. It will have to start with a renunciation of American assumptions about wealth, freedom, work, and a host of other things as well. And yet is there not some sense in which both the Catholic and Calvinist traditionalists are attempting to simply play back a strategy that has already died on the vine once?
It is possible, of course, that playing back such a strategy is precisely what we must do—both traditional Calvinism and Catholicism withered in America during a time of American ascendency. And now if we are headed into decline, as seems highly probable, perhaps these traditions can be revitalized, perhaps these dry bones can yet live. Perhaps.
I am reminded of two men much known and widely loved who perhaps can serve as stand-ins for what Kuyper meant in speaking of Calvinism and Catholicism as life-systems sufficient to combat the heresies of modernity. I am thinking of C. S. Lewis, whose commitment to an older historic Protestantism is seldom appreciated or understood, and Lewis’s good friend J. R. R. Tolkien, a staunch advocate of the sort of Catholicism McGinley is promoting in his fine book.
In the greatest work either of these men ever produced, there is a scene in which one character looks at another and asks, “is there any hope?” He is met with a quiet, grim laugh and this response: “There was never much hope. Only a fool’s hope.” It is with this fool’s hope that McGinley’s Catholics and their Calvinist neighbors must work. Yet even with only a fool’s hope they—we—can attempt this work with gratitude and good cheer, for we both are united in worshiping a God who delights in using foolish things.