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Friday, January 14, 2005

...and taking with the other

Recently I've said a few things about Baptists, like if you were to scratch an American, you'll find a Baptist underneath. To clarify, I am particularly talking about the habits of mind and soul that almost any American takes for granted as being true -- so much so that to suggest otherwise borders on socio-cultural heresy. And many of those habits parallel quite closely distinctive teachings and convictions of the Baptist tradition.

Actually, what they really approximate is the liberal tradition that came out of the Enlightenment, but when I call my Southern Baptist pastor friend a liberal compared to me (I'm an Episcopal priest) he just laughs. But it's true. The Congregational, Baptist, Unitarian, and most other free church traditions -- especially those that came early to America -- share these characteristics in common, and are properly called "liberal" traditions. I don't call them "liberal" because that would lead to more misunderstanding than calling them Baptist. (In fact, I try to avoid the term "liberal" altogether, because -- like "literalism" -- I think it can become a very grey catch-all term, with any number of a vast array of meanings. Some of the meanings even contradict the other meanings. So I try to leave it alone. If you do ever hear me use it, though, I am almost certainly talking about the sense of "liberal" I am outlining here.)

So here in a rough-and-ready outline are some characteristics of Americans, Baptists and other liberals:
1) privileging of the literal level of interpretation over any other.
2) distaste for the symbolic and abstract/preference for the literal and concrete.
3) utilitarian and pragmatic, seeing beauty and ornament as extras (which, when push comes to shove, are unnecessary).
4) stress on the individual (and her conscience) as the seat of authority, in interpretation especially; community is secondary or nonexistent.
5) stress on The Bible, and the Bible's perspicacity -- and hence a de-emphasis on interpretation, or a denial that it takes place.
6) stress on liberty of the individual, versus communal or tradition-based norms, with a corresponding de-emphasis on any historical memory.
7) emphasis on voluntary membership in church, a group whose authority is entirely congregational, and run by popular vote (or possible a board of elders). Suspicion of either a concrete, embodied church structure (whether full-blown episcopacy, or even a regional synod or classis), or of "high" doctrines of the church as anything other than a human, voluntary creation. The notion that one might be a Christian in isolation, without being a member of any church seems to be common sense.
8) strong emphasis on separation of church and state.
9) strong tendency to divide the world up into "spiritual" and "political", so that the two should not meet: that is to say, faith is "private" while politics is "public".
10) strong sense that salvation is other-worldly, i.e. it's about going to heaven, and that we should do as much as possible to help others make a decision that will help them "spiritually". This often entails a corresponding de-emphasis on this-worldly efforts by Christians, except, perhaps, as they lead to the spiritual.
11) often displays a sense of patriotism that goes beyond affection for one's country to an assurance that it is favored or chosen by God, perhaps an instrument of God in the world.

We are all Baptists to some extent: we all have to wrestle with these habits of mind and life, as they have simply been given to us and they are in the bedrock of our national culture -- moreso, I would argue, than the Puritans and their convictions. Of course, even if we define ourselves against this characterization we are still demonstrating the Baptist/ American influence. Naturally we don't need to accept these habits, even if they've so deeply shaped us. But if we have been formed by them, it will be difficult (and will seem anything but natural) to notice them, to doubt them, and to think and act differently.

I will, in time, try to make more observations about how these habits show themselves in our society. I think this conversation (if you make comments) is important, because this is not just our Baptist-liberal-American culture, but increasingly, as we assume the mantle of World Empire, and spread our way of life through global commerce (a parody of Christian mission), it is becoming the way of the world.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Emily said...

I think this is a very insightful analysis (I don't have the brainpower this early in the morning to suggest refinements or other directions). I've personally thought that religion in the U.S., and American culture in general, is the end product of the Protestant Reformation, incubating in a new environment without the constant dialectic of struggle against the RC tradition. Even American Roman Catholicism, I think, has hallmarks of your description.

Friday, January 14, 2005 2:50:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Emily:
I agree on the issue of Roman Catholics (Thunder suggested this in a comment below.) It is especially revealing, I think, that in 1960 JFK was looked on with suspicion, as he might take orders from the Pope, and yet in 2004, another Roman Catholic J.F.K. ran for president and that specter was never raised. If anything, he was criticised by some on the right for not hewing closely enough to the pope! What a difference 44 years makes. -JF

Friday, January 14, 2005 3:20:00 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

And maybe the difference in those 44 years is not that the culture of America has changed but that American Roman Catholicism, now further removed in time from the influx of Irish/Italian/German RC population into the U.S., looks a lot more American, and therefore less threatening.

Friday, January 14, 2005 5:35:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Emily:
Just so! The Roman Catholics became more American-liberal-Baptist (A-l-B). I suspect that Vatican II -- for all its wonders and value -- unintentionally contributed to this. Losing the "foreignness", the communal cohesion provided by something like the Latin Mass had a powerful effect. I still, 40 years later, hear Roman Catholics who say that Vatican II "ruined their faith" and alienated them from the church. I don't understand it myself, and generally I think Vat.II was positive, but it may have resulted in the RC church becoming part and parcel of American culture, rather than being incarnated in it. (Does that distinction make sense? I want to use a term like "encultured" or "inculturated" but I'm not sure I have a good enough handle on the terms.) I think the phenomenon of "cafeteria-style" Catholicism has come about since Vat. II, and is a prime example of the A-l-B influence. Of course, as one Episcopalian to another, we might ruminate on our own church's "closet Baptist" tendencies. -JF

Friday, January 14, 2005 7:17:00 PM  

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