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The American Church in the Fourth Republic

August 21st, 2023 | 13 min read

By Jake Meador

The social commentator and political theorist Michael Lind has argued that the single story of the American republic is actually a story of three republics (so far). The first republic runs from the founding through the Civil War. The second begins following reconstruction’s collapse and runs through to about 1933. The third begins with the Great Depression, New Deal, and World War II. That republic is now ending and we are in the early days of the fourth American republic.

Each republic has its own characteristics. The first republic is a time when it is more common to say “the United States are” than “the United States is.” It’s also a time of religious revivals, the emergence of many new Christian movements. It is a time when the Bible commands great public respect. Yet most of the Christian growth happening is occurring through revivals and outside of the older denominations, such as the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists, and the Bible will prove to be insufficient on its own to overcome the defining sin of that era, chattel slavery.

The second republic is dominated by industrialization and the plundering of the American west; it’s a time of uprooting. It’s the era of theological modernization, social Darwinism, and the often horrific growing pains of a nation becoming a super power. It is also a time of limited revival and institutional creation, particularly in the north thanks to the ministry of Chicago evangelist D. L. Moody.

The third republic is the post-World War II super power that fused together liberal democracy, free market capitalism, and a kind of cultural Christianity into a social package that the nation sought to export to the world, contra the totalitarian, atheistic, socialism of the Soviet system. As this is the era we are now growing distant from, it is worth taking more time to understand it.

The formative decade for the third republic was the 1950s. The 50s were a time of soaring birth rates, rapidly growing wages, and a widespread movement to build. The interstate system along with the emergence of the suburbs is perhaps the quintessential picture of the era, as well as the growing dependence on automobiles that both of those developments presuppose. For church life, the automobile would be an enormously consequential development because it would gradually kill the neighborhood church and the parish model within American denominations.

Thanks to the car, interstates, and suburbs, neighborhood connections broke down and it was easy, normal even, to simply get in your car and drive to whatever church most suited your family. This, in turn, had the effect of creating a kind of ecclesial marketplace that, with time, would dramatically weaken America’s denominations and would create strong incentives for churches that would manifest most explicitly in the seeker-sensitive movement. That said, the logic of all this would take awhile to work itself out. Jonathan Franzen’s novel Crossroads is a striking, if also quite dark and disturbing, account of these changes.

Speaking in general terms, American’s common life in the third republic sat atop a three-legged stool as described by Joseph Bottum in his book An Anxious Age. The first leg was American industry or the American market. The market created the wealth and resources that fueled the American nation. The second leg was the American government. Government secured the material conditions that allowed the American market to thrive, both by creating secure, safe communities domestically and securing advantageous trade deals abroad. The third leg was the American church, by which we mean the American Mainline denominations. The church was intended to provide moral direction and guidance for both the market and the state. The church was their conscience.

If the realities of the industrial economy and of modern post-atomic military force were necessary evils, it was the church which provided buffers to insure that these historically unprecedented powers would not be abused. Though the example might seem crass, the church was something like the dons in The Godfather during their meeting to discuss the new drug trade emerging in 1950s New York. One don says “I want to control it as a business. Keep it respectable. I don’t want it near schools. I don’t want it sold to children.” The evil powers made during the third republic were here, whether we liked it or not. So it was imperative that there be some moral sense to help aim those powers and restrain them as possible. Or that was the idea, at least. In the third republic, this was the basic role the church played in America’s public life: It disciplined and aimed the often overwhelming and even destructive wealth and power of the American system.

Now this brings us to the fourth republic, the order currently emerging. The mainline has collapsed. Rome was not able to replace her, nor was evangelicalism up to the task. And so the American economic system has continued to churn out massive amounts of wealth and the nation continues to, for the most part, protect and secure the conditions that allow for that wealth-creation to march on. But the conscience has been lost—seared perhaps, or perhaps obliterated altogether. Who can say? What needs to be understood about this moment, I think, is three-fold:

A Lack of Shared Direction

The explosive power of the post-war system was largely consumptive in nature. It relied upon a certain sort of citizenry and certain vision of the good life, all while it directly undermined the creation of those citizens and that vision of the good life. It largely operated on fuel that it could not itself produce. So it consumed the very things that made its growth possible. It resembles in many ways what Eliot once said of liberal democracy: It is defined less by its destination than its origin, less by what it does with the energy it accumulates, and more by the sheer volume of energy it can accumulate before releasing it into the world.

So what we have now as the fourth republic emerges is levels of wealth and technological power and capability unlike anything the world before 1950 or even 1990 could ever imagine. And we have no idea what to do with it or what it is for because most of the callings and communities that help people feel a sense of meaning and purpose have been dissolved or are dissolving. So we have great capacity, but little self-belief or vision. It is little surprise then that today many of our brightest minds are frequently found designing new online advertising tools for tech giants or innovating new exploitative financial products to enrich the wealthy, all of which is done with relatively minimal concern for the affects these products will have on our common life. The wealth and power still largely exists, and yet its purpose has become opaque to us and this purposelessness has led to an increasingly stratified, decadent social order.

The Rise of Loneliness

The dissolving of those communities also leads to heightened loneliness as families have gotten smaller and more spread out and opportunities to develop adult friendships have become fewer. This also creates a spiritual crisis on the individual level. This crisis in our day has manifested as heightened degrees of mental distress and mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and more serious conditions, and increased “deaths of despair”, which are deaths caused by drug overdoses, alcoholism, or suicide. But it also manifests in a more basic lack of belief amongst many young people in particular who have never been properly parented and thus do not know or possess the strength that can be drawn from something as simple as an older adult figure in your life saying “You can do that. I will help you. I believe in you.” Is it any wonder that young women are experiencing a crisis of identity related to gender while young men are turning to online edge lords for basic guidance in life?

Many of the sharpest problems facing us, then, terminate on two basic needs. In the political arena, we need aid with judgment and discerning the telos of our particular political societies. On the individual level, we need a specific vision of the good life and tangible, actionable aid and advice as we pursue that vision.

Reformational Catholic Churches in the Fourth Republic

So to bring the discussion to reformed catholicity and what reformed catholic churches can do in our current context, here it is: The old Mainline is dead. American Catholicism is likely terminal as well, even prior to the plausible turmoil to come under Pope Francis’s successor. American Evangelicalism is now encountering its own dechurching crisis and loss of influence. The Christian movement in America is thus at a crossroads. Something new will need to be built. But I do not think we should build a new evangelicalism; I think we should build a new mainline.

That mainline should be centered around the EPC, PCA, and ACNA with room for the possible addition of Lutheran, Methodist, or Baptist denominations, should denominations interested in this project emerge from those streams. The old mainline encompassed Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Baptists. We currently have Presbyterian and Anglican communions that might plausibly grow into the “continuing church” vision once articulated at the PCA’s founding. It remains to be seen if the Global Methodists can join this movement, let alone if the LCMS can stave off its own demographic collapse or if a strengthened Baptist commujnion can emerge from the chaos and corruption currently vexing the SBC. These are the institutional pieces to watch, then: the PCA, EPC, ACNA, Global Methodists, LCMS, maybe WELS, and SBC.

Sociologically and theologically speaking, the new Mainline needs to be a missional center-right movement. By “center-right” I mean robustly committed to the biblical witness on sex and gender (here the PCA sexuality report and ACNA’s pastoral statement should be treated as a kind of consensus position of the new mainline), deep in the catholic tradition (and therefore slow to embrace new ideas and intellectual trends and always testing everything by its fidelity first to Scripture and second to catholic tradition), and defined by a kind of dispositional conservatism that favors slowness, custom, and traditional Christian habits and practices.

By “missional”, I mean “committed to pursuing missionary encounters with our non-Christian neighbors,” which will require actually living amongst our neighbors and being conversant enough in their ways of thinking and living that we can be genuinely present in their lives and speak sensibly to their particular questions and struggles.

Ultimately, we are seeking on a political level to build back to being the third leg of the stool, in Bottum’s illustration.

On a church level, I think reformational catholic congregations need to be thinking about very practical ways of cultivating a thick common life that will address the individual spiritual crisis of our moment centered around loneliness, anxiety, depression, and despair. Three ideas on what that can look like:

Reparenting the Lost

First, because one element of familial breakdown is that millions of Americans effectively grow up parentless, we need to be willing to form relationships within churches that “parent” people in certain ways, not through overbearing authority, but through providing a steady, constructive voice in the lives of people that is available when needed and is even willing to offer practical counsel and aid when appropriate.

What I have in mind is less the professionalization of such care through counseling, though that will at times be valuable and helpful, and more an attempt to recover what Ivan Illich referred to as an “abundant competence.” Abundant competence encompasses both a broad manual competence in technical skills as well as a kind of worldly wisdom about the elements of ordinary daily maturity and good judgment about how to live. Communities of abundant competence possess the resources within themselves to counsel, aid, and mentor young people, shepherding them toward the good life during their early adult years when so much feels so uncertain, particularly in our own moment.

Richard Beck of Abilene Christian University has a great piece on this in which he offers a qualified defense of Jordan Peterson and Joel Osteen:

Last October I was teaching my class at Fuller Theological Seminary for their DMin program. As a part of that class we visit  Homeboy Industries . You might know the inspiring story of Homeboy, how Fr. Gregory Boyle helped start the largest gang outreach organization in the world. The story is recounted in Fr. Boyle’s best-selling book  Tattoos on the Heart .

The tours at Homeboy are given by the homeboys. In years past, our tour guides have been younger men, in their twenties. But our tour in October was led by a man in his 50s who had multiple felony convictions and had been in and out of prison for most of his adult life. He started the tour asking where we were from and about our interest in Homeboy. We told him we were in a seminary class at Fuller and that most everyone in the group was a pastor for a church. Hearing that, our guide said, “I’m not very religious. But you know who my guy is? Joel Osteen. He’s my guy.” And then he went on to tell us how impactful Joel Osteen has been in rehabilitating his life after prison. You can imagine our surprise—teacher and students in a seminary DMin class, a group who had been sneering at Osteen for years, a sneer literally trained into us by our seminaries—standing there, for quite some time, getting a heartfelt testimonial about the impact Joel Osteen has had on this ex-felon’s life.

When we returned to our classroom back on campus, I asked the class: “So what did you learn about Joel Osteen?” To a person, we all wished we had churches that could speak to our tour guide. But we also had to confess that our guide would never come to our churches, never listen to our sermons. And yet, he was listening to Joel Osteen.  Joel Osteen could speak to this gang-member and criminal, could change his life. Could you or I? And if we can’t, maybe we should wipe the sneers off our faces and work at becoming better missionaries.

Because anyone who has paid two seconds of attention to the modern world knows exactly why Osteen has such wide appeal. I think Rob Bell, when he once shared some thoughts about Osteen, got it exactly right. Bell observed that Osteen was “parenting” people who never had any parenting, or at least not any good parenting. Many people have never experienced a stable family where they heard constant and unconditional messages of positivity, praise, and encouragement. Most people never grew up hearing “You can do this! You got this! I believe in you!” But you know who says that, over and over? Do you know who believes in you? Joel Osteen.

If we took the time to become a better missionaries, we would immediately understand the appeal of Joel Osteen for our Homeboy tour guide, and for many who are struggling in the modern world. Our tour guide was carrying a burden of shame and facing very long odds on his road to rehabilitation. Facing this, he needed positivity and encouragement. He needed a cheerleader. And Osteen was cheering him on. And I’d argue this is exactly the same appeal Jordan Peterson has for many young men. Peterson is the father-figure they never had, telling them to make their bed and stand up straight.

Overcoming Distance

Second, we should try, as much as we reasonably can, to have geographically dense church communities. Put another way, we should have a goal of having most of the people in our church living within a reasonable distance of our church’s meeting space. This is a purely practical consideration: Our society doesn’t have many scripts or on-ramps for thick experience of life together. Forming strong friendships and relationships is hard. There are many, many obstacles to forming new friendships. One of the most obvious is geography. But that is also something that we can sometimes address rather straightforwardly. If we can remove the obstacle of distance (which is also an obstacle of time) then we can make it a little easier for us to see one another, to work on common projects together, and so on. For example, while he pastored in Grove City PA, Francis Schaeffer would visit congregants from his church and bring along his own home projects with him so they could work on stuff together as they talk. So he might bring a rocker he had built that needed sanding and he would sand the rocker as he met with the parishioner. (This also implies that presbyteries and dioceses alike should also think in geographic terms as they plan new church plants. Whether it is formalized or not is not terribly important, but having some sort of parish-type model in mind when starting new church plants or missions seems prudent.)

Overcoming Distraction

Third, we should try, as much as we reasonably can, to limit the role that technology plays in our church communities. If geography is one hindrance to community, distraction is another. After all, any university student eats at least some of their meals “with” hundreds of other students in university dining halls every day. Except they don’t because they’re glued to their phones. Likewise, any big-city commuter on a subway commutes “with” dozens of others every day. But they don’t… for the same reason.

The best man in my wedding and I met because we took a city bus every day together from city campus at UNL to east campus for different classes we had to take out there. Our friendship began over conversation on a bus. And it became one of the richest friendships of my life and, for his part, became a key part of his conversion. These kind of encounters are rarer today, I think, because we have discovered ways of being alone together due to the rise of smartphones. So a final idea that reformational Catholic churches might adopt to aid them in their mission is to try and limit the presence of phones in their church community and reduce the ways in which their ministry depends upon phones and screen devices more generally to function.


Admittedly, this can sound a little haphazard when laid out in this way. But I think the core idea running through it is something like this: We live in a society that has mostly forgotten what people are. And this has enormous ramifications on our politics and common life, but also on the individual experiences of the people coming into our churches every week. If we are to have a missionary encounter with such a world, then often I think it will begin by simply reminding humans what it means to be human by modeling normal, healthy, sane human life together in our communities. This needn’t mean anything fancy or grandiose; I am mostly thinking of sharing meals together, forgiving and being forgiven, speaking candidly about our desires and weaknesses, and making ourselves available to one another as needed.

We are not meant to maintain close relationships across vast distances, even if that can sometimes be done thanks to strong relational ties and technical tools that make staying in touch simpler. Nor are we are meant to be constantly inundated with information about far-off places about which we can do nothing, nor are we meant to broadcast our every thought to the world via social media, nor are we meant to be constantly distracted from what is in front of us by what is in our pocket or bag. All of these norms in our society are different means of dehumanizing us. But our creator made us and called us and knows us by name. He has ordained for us to live in this time and place amongst these people. And he gives us not only what we need for Christian ministry, but what we need for plain human flourishing. When we model humanity in a dehumanized world, we take an important step toward helping others see and love their creator and king. And so the recovery of reformational catholicism can also be, I think, a recovery of an authentic Christian humanism.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).