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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Reviewing Archbishop Charles Chaput's "Strangers in a Strange Land"

March 23rd, 2017 | 5 min read

By Miles Smith

We're pleased to publish this review by Dr. Miles Smith.

Recent cultural and social changes in the United States have prompted concerned Christians to pick up their pens and address their respective flocks on the question of how to maintain Christian witness in an increasingly hostile society. Amidst the concern, Charles Chaput, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, offers a work worth reading not for its radicalism or sensationalism, but because of the simple advice it offers. Christians should simply do what Christians have done for centuries, even if we appear strange and American society appears increasingly strange to Christians.

From the outset of his work, Charles Chaput posits an argument that there is a problem with American Christianity and with American society. Chaput does not paint a particularly optimistic picture about the short-term regeneration for the American soul. His answer to this societal malaise, however, is not to abandon all hope. “Christians have many good reasons to hope," says the archbishop.

Chaput is not convinced that there is much to be optimistic about in American society. He denies that this is defeatist, instead arguing that true hope has no illusions. Chaput’s work, however, is far from a tale of defeat. It is a call to greater hope, found in church, family, and the work of the Gospel.

Family emerges as a major area of Christian possibility in Strangers. Marriage and family, and the effective catechesis of children all appear as areas where Christians have failed themselves and broader society. Chaput’s answer is not Benedictine retreat or regrouping, nor is it self-conscious cultural engagement. It is simply Christian families living out the duties and joys that come with Christian parenthood.

Evangelicals will find Chaput’s privileging of family catechesis encouraging. “The family,” argues Chaput, “is the main transmitter of religious conviction. Interrupting the family disrupts an entire cultural ecology.” He admonishes families not to retreat to Christian communes, but simply to test the cultural and social norms of twenty-first century American life against the precepts of the Gospel. Prioritizing family and churchmanship, Chaput says, might mean Americans should rethink the mobility and consumerism that have so typified modern American life. “Mobility can be a mark of success. People often move to provide more for their families. But it can also imply job loss and hardship. In both cases this mobility—voluntary or forced—strains family life,” and constrains the formation of a stable vision of churchmanship.

Chaput’s articulation of churchmanship might be most familiar for Roman Catholics, but orthodox Christians of all confessions and creeds will find his tone beneficial. The book’s treatment of Protestantism may gall some—Chaput repeats well-established and not always accurate tropes about what the Protestant intellectual tradition is or isn’t—but he ultimately affirms a unique culturally Christian irenicism that functioned up until the last decades of the twentieth century. Protestants and Roman Catholics, says Chaput, share the same basic beliefs, worship the same God, and should work for a similar societal order. Some sectarian scholars might quibble about what those same basic beleifs are, but Chaput is clearly establishing a cultural precedent for social cooperation, and not a theological proposition for shared corporate worship.

For Protestant readers, Chaput’s distinct unwillingness to engage in Roman Catholic triumphalism is refreshing. While the collapse of Mainline orthodoxy might have given Roman Catholics a chance to seize a “Catholic moment,” Chaput sanguinely notes that collusion by Roman Catholicism with the secular order removed any chance that Roman Catholics “might fill the moral hole in our culture.” Chaput’s realistic assessment does not serve as a prelude to doomsday predictions about Christian persecutions.

The order proposed in Chaput’s book is not a theocratic state, or even an establishmentarian one. Chaput hopes for nothing more than Christians enjoying a right to the public space that they have enjoyed for most of American history. A large part of the American population is Christian, and an understandably outsized portion of public religiosity would likewise be Christian.  This, Chaput sees, is not privileging Christianity, but the democratic and liberal order that has characterized the modern United States.

But Chaput understands that Christianity is not destined to always enjoy its place in American society. Chaput sees Christianity as vital for the maintenance of a healthy democracy. This beneficial religious influence, he argues, “only works its influence on democracy if people really believe that it teaches.” Belief is important, but Chaput seems to offer a vision of Christianity that is less interested in cultural relevance or engagement as a motivating or organizing principle, and more interested in supporting historic Christian orthodoxy. His prescription is simple: “Believe in Jesus Christ, follow the Gospel, love the Church, and act like real disciples.” If Christians fail in these basics of devotion, then religion becomes nothing more, in the Archbishop’s words, then another form of self-medication.

Chaput never adopts the sometimes-gnostic sounding language used by Anabaptists and sometimes coopted by sectors of American Evangelicalism. Patriotism, Chaput declares, is a genuine part of Christian life. But he defines patriotism in such as a way as to make it rooted in time and in space. Chaput’s patria is a real place with real people, not a ideologically driven American idealism or narrative. “Home matters. Communities matter. The sound and smell and taste of the world we know, and the beauty of it all,” matters in Chaput’s conception of patriotism. Love of country, properly understood, is “a form of love. And real love sees the world. There is much to love, and much worth fighting for, in this country we call home.” Although Chaput tempers his patriotism by noting that the church has, and continues to, increasingly find itself at odds with society and the state, his words are far from escapist.

Chaput’s book is imperfect, but he should be applauded for proposing a realistic and simple return to historic Christian practice, regardless of whether the culture is affirming or attacking American Christianity. Some prominent criticisms of Chaput’s work—that he is only lamenting the loss of white Christianity, for example—are wholly misplaced. Chaput serves as the head of Philadelphia’s remarkably diverse Roman Catholic population. He is also a Potawatomi Indian whose grandmother was raised on a reservation.

Other reviewers have noted that Chaput is particularly concerned about the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage. A majority of Americans, the federal state, and American commercial capitalism all back a decision which Chaput believes effectively removed family and religion as effective limitations on state power. His statement on Obergefell is a warning, not a call for retreat.

If Evangelicals readers are searching for a balance between defeatism and accommodation in their search for Christian wisdom in our increasingly confused age, they would do well to read Chaput’s timely book.

Dr. Miles Smith IV is assistant professor in the Department of Government, History, and Criminal Justice at Regent University.

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Miles Smith

Dr. Miles Smith IV is a historian of the American South and native Carolinian. Follow him on Twitter @ivmiles.