Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Harvey Cox's The Secular City (1965): Weigel pt. 5

From George Weigel's provocative essay in First Things on "six moments" from the 1960s that continue to have tremendous impact on today's politics and society.

At the beginning of the Sixties, the National Council of Churches, ecumenical embodiment of mainline Protestantism, was as secure in the pantheon of influential American institutions as the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association. Thirty years later, to cite Richard John Neuhaus’ familiar formula, the mainline had become the oldline and was on its way to being the sideline....

As mainline Protestantism ceased to be a culture-forming force in American public life, the void was filled by a new Catholic presence in the public square and, perhaps most influentially in electoral terms, by the emergent activism of evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Protestantism in what would become known as the Religious Right—a movement that has formed a crucial part of the Republican governing coalition for more than a quarter-century.

The pivotal moment in this tectonic shift in American religion’s interface with American public life came in the Sixties, when the mainline imploded, theologically and politically.

The political side of the tale is a familiar one. What had begun as mainline Protestant support for the classic civil-rights movement quickly morphed into liberal Protestant support for black militancy, the most strident forms of anti-Vietnam protest, the most extreme elements of the women’s movement and the environmental movement, the nuclear-freeze and similar agitations, and, latterly, the gay-liberation movement. All of which must be considered a sadness, for it was the mainline that provided moral-cultural ballast to the American democratic experiment from the colonial period through World War II.

The theological side of the ledger was embodied by Harvey Cox’s 1965 bestseller, The Secular City, with its argument for a radically secularized Christianity in which the world sets the agenda for the Church. Cox’s book has not worn well over time; hardly anyone reads it today, save as a period piece. In its time, however, The Secular City put into play nearly all the major themes that, while they led mainline Protestantism into religious marginality, nonetheless had a decided influence on the politics of the Sixties—and of today.

The cult of the new; the fondness for revolutionary rhetoric; evil understood in therapeutic categories; worship conceived as self-realization; the celebration of action detached from either contemplation or ­serious intellectual reflection; insouciance toward ­tradition; moralism in place of moral reasoning; the identification of human striving with the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God—whatever Harvey Cox’s intentions, these are the things that people learned from The Secular City and its sundry offspring in the world of liberal American religious thought....The Secular City helped accelerate the secularization of American elite culture, which created not only new openings in the public square for more-traditional religious bodies but also new fault lines in our politics—fault lines that are as visible as this morning’s headlines and op-ed pages.


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