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What Is Behind the Disintegration of Civility in America? – Part II
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What Is Behind the Disintegration of Civility in America? – Part II

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In Part I of this story we examined the present climate of political incivility, where violence is increasingly advocated, mostly from the political activist left, against those who are on the right of the American political spectrum.

We proposed also that the reasons for this if directly stated would come as a shock, even an absurdity, to those reading this piece because the contemporary culture is something we are all immersed in, which makes it difficult to examine it with objectivity.

But to help us do so, we looked at how Americans considered their nation and their own personal liberty and freedom in the late 1800’s. At the center of this national worldview was the notion that God is America’s king, and that this idea of God as the founder and giver of liberty also calls one to respect and follow their own conscience and, as Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote:

“The laws of Nature and Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.” – Little Town on the Prairie, p. 76

But this has been forgotten, nay, largely rejected, in the United States of our times.

But try and get people to see this and one can expect quite a lot of resistance. Many people disagree with this statement, especially as it regards the rejection of Christianity.

For example, it is still a commonly held idea among Americans that they are Christian. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that Christianity is claimed by over 70% of the nation’s families, and is by far the leading religious identity in the nation. Even the state whose citizens least identify as Christian, Vermont, still holds a 54% majority of confessed Christians. California, the haven of liberalism, sits with a strongly stated Christian majority at 63%, and though San Francisco rates 48%, this was the only American city in Pew’s research to indicate a less than 50% response.

So with 70 percent of the nation’s citizens identifying themselves as Christian, it seems preposterous to say that the reason why things have become so out of control in America is because of they have rejected God.

Yet, there is a very compelling set of reasons that show that this in fact the case, and the reason why lies in what many people in American presently consider Christianity to be.

A Paradigm Shift in the relationship between God and Man

If we go back to Laura Ingalls Wilder's writing, she mentioned as a primary fact that our freedom calls us to obey our own consciences, because God is our king. But try that thought on even some Americans who consider themselves religiously observant, and pose the question in this way: “Are you dedicated to living your life in obedience to God?”

Now we have a very different kind of response. We see hints of it even in Laura’s writing, with her remark that eventually no one will have the right “to give me orders.” This is true, but it may have also contained the seed of modern American individualism that began to tear Christianity's teachings apart.

Even in Laura’s time this issue had taken some root in her, personally. When she was about to get married, she challenged her fiancée with the question of whether or not he expected her to obey him in marriage. As it turned out, Almanzo Wilder, her groom, did not hold with this command for much the same reasons as Laura had objected to it; that obedience to a fool would be silly and even hazardous. As it further turned out, the pastor who married these two also did not believe in using the word obey in the wedding vows.

This little personal tailoring of the wedding service was in the very late 19th century, but it is indicative of the evolving nature of Protestant Christianity in America – not as one faith with a dedication of personal obedience to that faith – but a hodgepodge of personal interpretations, subtle changes and disputes, all the while amazingly holding to the notion that Christ’s teaching is perfectly represented by each differing group.

This, of course, is not the fault of Americans per se, but rather the natural development of Protestant Christian denominations following the hyper-intellectualization of Roman Catholicism and the subsequent Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.  However, Protestants were largely seen as a problem for Roman Catholic Europe and Anglican Britain, so many of these groups migrated or were sent to the New World where they could both be loyal subjects and be out of the way of the traditional religious (Roman Catholic) establishment in Europe.

The freedom enjoyed by these various Protestant groups in the United States continued and accelerated the splintering process, especially with very dynamic groups like the Adventists and Anabaptists, Baptists, and Pentecostalists, who splintered into a plethora of various subgroups, even synthesizing new groups. Even the more stable Anglican, Methodist and Lutheran groups went through their own changes or fragmentation, though at a much more gradual pace until just recently.

Now, the number of Protestant denominations is staggering, with recent estimates claiming between 35,000 and 47,000 distinct groups in existence.

If one understands the reason for this fragmentation, then we have a key to understanding the incivility problem in the US.

What Is Behind the Disintegration of Civility in America? – Part II

The hyper-elevation of human reason over faith

The fragmentation of many churches comes about through disagreement. Going back to the height of the Roman Catholic period of “Christian philosophy” as expressed by Thomas Aquinas, the Christian faith in Europe became less about obedience and more about discursive analysis and reasoning, hence the triumph of rationalism in the “Enlightenment,” where human reason was elevated to a point where directing one’s own intellect at trying to plumb the mysteries of Christianity yielded a wide variety of results, including the Protestant Reformation itself.

This problem is distinctly Western in its nature. The act of elevating human thought to such levels only happened in the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant spin-off groups it spawned. Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox Church (the oldest and second-largest group of Christian believers) was never affected by this, nor was it ever affected by anything similar to this, except where the Eastern Orthodox Church exists in the USA.

In all of these religious groups there has been a shift in understanding of what Christianity is and what Christian life is.

For Laura Ingalls it was still primarily a call to “being good” because God is the giver of liberty and of the right to be free. Although no human being could ever remain Laura’s boss, she still understood that the Law of God, and God himself, were sovereign in her life, even if a given church community was not so well received.

But now the situation is the opposite. In fact, in recent years a topic thrown about on various talk radio programs was the question of whether or not God was on America’s side.  This question is the utter opposite in meaning contrasted to the realization Laura Ingalls Wilder had.

For Laura it was about her being on God’s side, if anything, but now the question is a completely arrogant presumption as to whether God is on America’s side, yet in these recent programs this idea was argued, without anyone ever getting the question itself corrected!

The attitude of many Americans, including churchgoers, has been subtly shifted to this radically self-centered “I am always right and God agrees with me” point of view.  Many churches feature what is often dubbed the "prosperity gospel", which is the notion that "God wants to bless you with money and success. Follow him (according to our teaching about him), and you will live an 'abundant life' as we do."

What Is Behind the Disintegration of Civility in America? – Part II

The results of this teaching are ambiguous. Such messaging is more akin to a personal success pep talk a la Anthony Robbins than it is the call of John the Baptist or Christ himself, to "repent (to change, to turn around) and believe in the gospel (take in the message of who Christ is and his relationship to oneself personally and for the world.)"

If scriptural basis is asked for, the Prosperity preachers might be quick to point out Christ's given point that those who follow Him have received great earthly blessings, such as in John 10:10: "'I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly,'" and various other texts.

There is probably some aspect of success for many of these adherents that comes of using some of the simple and decidedly non-religious techniques for success. But this is certainly not the Christianity that spread across the world despite the constant threat of martyrdom and suffering.

What Is Behind the Disintegration of Civility in America? – Part II

Further, while indeed some Christians even in those earlier times did experience great financial and material success, their focus was never on the Gospel as a vehicle to such riches - in fact, quite the opposite. Many wealthy people gave everything they had away - not to be virtuous - but in order not to fall into self-sufficiency and laxity with regards to the state of their soul.

The modern "prosperity gospel" turns this idea on its head and claims that one's success is a sign that they are following God correctly. The myriad of martyrs and saints who suffered in prison, persecuted and killed for their belief in Jesus as God, and their focus not being on this world but rather, preparation for eternity, would all heartily disagree with this notion.

Part III of this series will further investigate the effect of this change on the American nation.

Author: Seraphim Hanisch