By Nathan Hatch

There are things only the church can do. It should do those things.

I entered graduate school to study history in the spring of 1970—a wild and contentious time. President Nixon had just expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia and college campuses erupted. On more than twenty-five campuses, violent clashes pitted students against police; four students were killed at Kent State. Over thirty Reserve Officer Training Corps buildings were burned down, including the one at Washington University, where I was studying. I recalled walking into Holmes Lounge seething with angry students planning what they might do next. One morning, heading to Professor John Pocock’s graduate seminar on the political rhetoric of the English Civil War, I found him standing in the doorway debating a student radical who was demanding the cancellation of all classes. Pocock, almost like a good seventeenth-century commonwealthman, argued for freedom of student choice.

It was because of professors like Pocock that I received the lenses through which I learned to observe reality and gained perspective on how religion and politics interact. And it was there that I learned to ask the abiding question that Pocock would always ask: “What is it possible for a generation to think?” What languages and meanings were available to them—in their own time and place—that were not present in vocabularies before or would not be after?

My study grew more focused, and I found myself fascinated by the clergy in eighteenth-century New England. Both Massachusetts and Connecticut supported a state church—whose heirs we now call Congregationalists or the United Church of Christ. These ministers in local New England towns were well-educated, typically at Harvard or Yale, and wielded great intellectual and political authority. Almost uniformly they came to support the cause of the American Revolution and the founding of the American Republic as divinely ordained. They regularly taught their congregations that the cause of American liberty had become sacred.

The book that came out of this research, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (Yale, 1977), wrestled with questions about how the clergy came to hold such views. What influences, religious and political, were shaping their convictions over time? My argument was that, as a group, the New England clergy became swayed by a powerful political ideology that dramatically shaped their theology and overall worldview.

Tracing this eighteenth-century story presents certain clear parallels and warnings about our own day. Believers today are powerfully influenced by certain dominant political perspectives. This is so much the case that I fear an actual crisis of faith—the political captivity of the faithful. That danger is evident, I will suggest, both among those who adhere to more orthodox belief, evangelicals and Catholics; and those mainline believers of more progressive inclination.

I learned at least three things about how the convictions of New England ministers changed over time.

First, their views did not show secularization by contraction of the influence of religious concepts but rather by their expansion, transferring to the political realm some of the supernatural and transcendent values normally owned by the church. Thus New England’s cause became not so much the purity and vitality of its churches, but the sacred cause of “liberty”—both civil and religious—posited first as British citizens against the French, and later as the united colonies against the tyranny of Great Britain.

The second thing I noticed is that political convictions did not follow the traditional fault line that religious and literary scholars had assumed, that is, the divide, created by the Great Awakening, between evangelicals in the tradition of Edwards and Whitefield, and rationalists or so-called Arminians like Charles Chauncy.

My own conclusion was that the scholars had missed the most towering feature before them, the overwhelming political unity of the New England clergy throughout the eighteenth century. Nobody agreed with each other on matters of doctrine, but everyone assumed the presence of a clear political unity around the centrality of liberty. This reminds me of the point made by C.S. Lewis that it is always dangerous to underestimate the similarities of disputants: “Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.”

A third conclusion was that these clergy were being swept along by prevailing currents of thought with little self-consciousness as to what was happening to them. They claimed to uphold the traditional moorings of New England religion—pure and lively churches—but gradually shifted to define their primary purpose as sustaining political and religious liberty. Their convictions came to be defined by others, those like John Adams, whose categories were fundamentally political. They were fully in line with what Edmund S. Morgan captured poignantly: “In 1740 America’s leading intellectuals were clergymen and thought about theology; in 1790 they were statesmen and thought about politics.” But the clergy now championed politics with a fierce religious intensity.

So, what does all this have to do with today? Some thirty years ago, sociologist Robert Wuthnow said that the basic intellectual and cultural divide among Christians in America is not the fault line of their theology but the cultural divide between a conservative and progressive worldview, a chasm deeper and more formative than any theological debate. I agreed with him in the 1980s. And I think today his point could be made with much greater emphasis. A divide has become a chasm. Dominant political and cultural values, left and right, have washed over churches and come to dominate their respective worldviews.

There are certain things, like oxygen, that become most noticeable by their absence. In the 1980s one still had leaders like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, whose moral views were always difficult to pigeonhole. In 1983, he developed the “Consistent Ethic of Life” ideology, or “seamless garment” approach, which held that a wide spectrum of issues—abortion, capital punishment, militarism, euthanasia, social and economic injustice, and racism all demanded a consistent application of moral principles. He argued that a systematic ethic of life sought to present a coherent linkage among a diverse set of issues. And believers, he suggested, should use such nuanced judgments to test party platforms, public policies, and political candidates. He also drafted a pastoral letter on the morality of nuclear deterrence in the 1990s, and he launched the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, which sought to mediate between diverging parties in the Catholic Church.

Father Theodore Hesburgh was similarly difficult to categorize—and could befriend Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Conservatives called him liberal, and liberals called him conservative. At Notre Dame he was a great champion of the importance of ROTC, and he launched a very significant Peace Studies Institute. He stood for traditional Catholic values, and he was a major civil rights leader.

In the 1980s, the United States Senate also saw the prominence of two Republican mainstays, Mark Hatfield and John Danforth. Both were very explicit in their religious convictions but very eclectic in their political outlooks. Hatfield had opposed the Vietnam War on moral grounds and was an early advocate for civil rights. He regularly took positions that made him hard to classify. He was a prominent evangelical, yet he opposed government-sponsored school prayer and favored nuclear disarmament. He was pro-life both on the issues of abortion and on the death penalty.

And then there was the splendid senatorial career of John Danforth. He was a Republican who could support Clarence Thomas—a longtime friend—and oppose capital punishment. He was also one to say that people of faith are not of one mind on a whole set of moral and political issues, from stem-cell research to complicated end-of-life issues. Most compellingly, he was a person whose own moral reasoning seemed to be the lens through which he framed political issues—not vice versa.

Possibly the most striking contrast between the 1980s and today is to compare Billy Graham with his son Franklin, the current leader of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Organization. The senior Graham, after a self-confessed ill-advised alignment with Richard Nixon, became far more nuanced in any political judgments and was influenced considerably by his vast international travel. By contrast, Franklin Graham seems to revel in being a culture warrior and makes virtually no distinction between his evangelical faith and a predictable right-wing agenda.

Today, I look in vain for religious leaders whose theological convictions creatively bridge the chasm between conservative and progressive views of the world not for political reasons, but for religious ones. One regularly sees this point made about the conflation of evangelical and conservative values, but I think there is much the same pattern among mainline and progressive Christians. When mainline churches develop an agenda on social policy, it has typically gravitated to those issues, however worthy, that have been defined by others: social justice, racial reconciliation, environmental justice, criticism of Israel, and immigration reform. I think the same could largely be said of the agenda and perspectives of someone like Jim Wallis and the Sojourner movement.

What one witnesses today, like the eighteenth century, is the politicizing of reality—for all of us, conservatives and progressives alike. Some of this is understandable: The stakes seem really high for how judges are to be appointed, what immigration policies obtain, what happens with abortion laws, what happens with affirmative-action policies, whether governments support religious schools and non-profits, what one thinks of the movement for LGBTQ rights, and how religious freedom intersects with such rights.

The media climate in which we live drowns us with outrage stories. We jump into advocacy without fully understanding the best arguments of the other side, and we leap to ridicule their positions and disparage their motives. We compare the best side of our own position with the worst side of the other—often a mere caricature. The result is a powerful undertow that pulls all of us, believers included, into believing that the civic arena is the most important one in which to play. But, given what we know from history, we have cause to ask: Is it?

This is another way we are like the New England clergy of the eighteenth century. As believers today choose to play in the public arena, they have few languages and few practices different from those dictated by the larger culture. The church itself is not forming and teaching alternate patterns from what we see all around. (And likewise, most denominations, Protestant and Catholic, are often consumed with their own internal struggles and failures.) It is intelligible in all the wrong ways. Instead of making theological language intelligible, the church has been made intelligible by the conformist demands of partisan politics.

There is also a third comparison that can be made with the eighteenth century. Among today’s conservatives and progressives alike, there seems to be little self-consciousness of their own situation. From where are their positions being derived? Why do certain moral positions rise to prominence and not others? As we have increasingly self-sorted ourselves into ideological islands, there is little chance to see the validity of the other side, little chance to understand our own blinkers and blinders. In short, not only is there little humility and self-criticism about the positions we take, but we have cut ourselves off from the font that may supply fresh language and practice to a parched world.

In an interesting article in New York Magazine, “America’s New Religions,” Andrew Sullivan has suggested that, as the voice of churches has become muted, more people look to politics for ultimate meaning and political cults develop that demand total and immediate commitment.

“Now look at politics,” he says. “We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.” This sharp moral polarization, even among those who are secular, makes it far more difficult for people of faith to think of politics in any nuanced and theologically coherent way; and more difficult to keep politics in its rightful place, heeding Samuel Johnson’s advice: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”

What can be done? I have no easy answers to address the kind of political captivity of the church that I have described. Over the last six months what I have been reading is material by and about H. Richard Niebuhr and a set of his colleagues, who in the early 1930s became convinced that the American church was equally captive to the temper of the times. As a young pastor and scholar—at Eden Seminary in St. Louis, at Elmhurst College, and as a graduate student at Yale—he was very much rooted in the liberal tradition of the social gospel.

But in 1930 he spent a sabbatical leave in Germany, where he studied with Karl Barth. Several years earlier, Barth had begun advocating a “radical monotheism,” particularly in his Epistle to the Romans (1922), which Karl Adams famously said was “like a bomb on the theologians’ playground.” Barth’s genius was to notice that modern theology had effectively ceased speaking about God. Barth attacked using God to explain or justify positions held on secular grounds. “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.” Much of the inherited liberalism Barth equated with idolatry.

Richard Niebuhr took this message to heart and came home to apply it to the American context. He and colleagues like Wilhelm Pauck, a recent German immigrant, began a studied attack on the liberal establishment in articles, such as “Towards Emancipation of the Church” (1935), a book of essays The Church Against the World” (1935), and the book The Kingdom of God in America (1937), in which he famously said, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgments through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Niebuhr argued that the primary work of the church needed to be vertical, confronting the divine, rather trying to reform society. Before one could assume any broader role, the church had to undergo silence, humility, repentance, and the naming of idols. He argued that zealous advocacy needed to be replaced with humility and self-criticism. The church needed to admit mystery and often remain silent. Along these lines, he gave a speech late in the 1930s called “The Grace of Doing Nothing.” Instead, the church needed to focus on its own distinct, internal work. “The question of the church . . . is not how it can measure up to the expectations of society nor what it must do to become a savior of civilization, but rather how it can be true to itself: that is, to its Head.”

The church today would do well to take Niebuhr’s criticisms to heart. It should return to the work that only it can do, attempting to allow the divine to encounter individuals and groups gathered as the church. This is particularly true in a culture in which so many mediating institutions have been hollowed out and people are left, as Tish Harrison Warren says, as “self-constructed and self-actuating individuals, unmoored from any larger community and tradition.” This is not to say that the church should stress a solipsistic faith: on the contrary. Unless it speaks in a language only it possesses, however, any action taken by the faithful in the public square is more likely to resemble the culture than vice versa.

In his book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, Yuval Levin argues that in an age of hyper-individualism we need to renew the middle layers of society, where people see each other face to face. “Increasingly,” he says, “society consists of individuals and a national state, while the mediating institutions—family community, church, unions, and others—fade and falter.”

Levin suggests that the ethic of expressive individualism, which is magnified by the digitized online world in which most of us now live, is uniquely dangerous to institutions of moral formation—such as the church.

The solipsism of our age of individualism is uniquely dangerous to the institutions of moral formation. Because much of the good they do is a function of their ability to shape and structure our desires rather than serve them, to form our habits rather than reflect them, and to direct our longings rather than simply satisfy them, these institutions stand in particular tension with the ethic of our time. This tension is not a function of the Internet or other technological developments, and it is not primarily a function of economic changes sweeping over our society. It is a function, and ultimately perhaps the most significant social consequence, of modern individualism itself.

The function of our popular culture is to reflect our desires, to cater to our every desire. A church, by contrast, is in the business of forming habits, shaping desires, instilling loves that are appropriate rather than disordered.

This is the opportunity—for the church to be the church, to return to the task of religious and moral formation, to build communities that bind people together, to instill a deep conviction that life can actually have transcendent purpose and is not all about individual wants and desires, and to fuel a life in which that transcendent purpose radiates into the world at large. I do not always agree with Stanley Hauerwas’s Anabaptist strain of ethics, but I do agree that in some sense the church today needs to become an “alternative polis,” whose purpose is to embody, to look like, God’s kingdom among ordinary people—teachers, doctors, lawyers, stay-at-home moms, and the homeless.

Churches clearly need to form the faithful in how to think—and sometimes act—in the arena of politics and society. But that task needs to be done with great humility and with a depth of historical and theological reflection rarely seen. Such nuance will definitely not conform to current political orthodoxies and may make it very difficult for believers to become full-throated advocates for either major American political party.

Most of all, our nation needs communities of faith that give meaning, dignity, and love to twenty-first-century people who are lonelier, more stressed, and with less sense of hope than at any time in recent memory. People need acceptance for who they are, not for what they do, and forgiveness for the stray paths that all of us have stumbled onto. Let the church be the church, in concrete places, in specific places and neighborhoods. Let it renew and manifest its primary reason for being: “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”

Nathan Hatch is the President of Wake Forest University. An earlier version of this essay was given as a lecture at the John Danforth Center at Washington University in St. Louis. This article was published in the Winter issue of Comment Magazine, a magazine I highly recommend. – E.O.