As I mentioned last week on BreakPoint, a recent report by Pew’s Forum on Religion and Public Life documents a disturbing trend: The number of Americans who can be called “religiously unaffiliated,” or as some refer to them “the nones,” is on the rise.
One-fifth of all Americans and one-third of those under the age of 30 describe themselves as having “no particular religious affiliation.” That doesn’t mean they reject spirituality. Only 6 percent of Americans describe themselves as “atheists” or “agnostics,” and many of the rest claim to believe in a “higher power,” even a personal God. And a quarter of them actually want a religious funeral!
What the “nones” often reject is not belief but spiritual authority. What they want “none” of is churches and other religious institutions. It’s the embodiment of religion as a purely private matter.
And that brings me back to Friday’s broadcast. As I told you, policies like the HHS mandate are the product of ideas that date back to the origins of the modern state nearly four centuries ago.
The modern state offers freedom from the constraints imposed by families, communities and churches in exchange for your allegiance.
This definition of freedom served the state’s interests by undermining potential rivals. Calling yourself a “Baptist” or a “Catholic” meant no more than calling yourself a NASCAR or Alabama football fan.
And actually, if we’re honest, for many Christians it might mean less, judging by the passion on display at Talladega or Tuscaloosa. Admit it: folks are much more likely to switch church loyalties than football loyalties, say from Michigan to Ohio State.
In the absence of rivals or challenges to its authority, the reach of the modern state will not and cannot be checked. It will expand to fill the void left by the absence of intermediate institutions like the family, local communities, and the church. It will take it upon itself to make decisions for us that it has no business making. The many intermediate institutions that kept the state at bay were noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his masterful Democracy in America, and he warned what would happen if those institutions ever gave way to the state. Well now they are.
That’s why our first response to this government encroachment must be a recovery of what it means to be the church. The last few years of Chuck Colson’s ministry were marked by an increased concern about the rampant individualism that characterizes so much of American Christianity. One of the last pieces he wrote for Christianity Today touched on this problem.
Not only is it a theological impossibility — for as Luther put it, “he who would find Christ must first find the church” — this individualism leaves the state as the sole decider of the really big questions, such as, in this instance, the definition of “religious freedom” and even the definition of “religious institution.”
Another part of the response is becoming acquainted with the Christian teaching about the relationship of the state to the rest of society. These include subsidiarity, a product of Catholic social teaching, which holds that “functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible.” Sphere sovereignty, articulated by Abraham Kuyper, teaches “that each sphere ... of life has its own direct responsibilities and authority or competence.”
While there are differences between the two, each emphasizes the social over the individual and insists on giving families, communities, and churches the freedom to perform their God-given functions.
But all of this assumes, of course, that Christians see themselves not as individual believers but as part of something together, where the whole will be larger than the sum of its individual parts — even large enough to keep Leviathan in his place.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.
Publication date: October 15, 2012