Christians still comprise a significant percentage of the American population, at least according to the polls we see from time to time, but so many people seem to have no familiarity with them. We notice this from time to time in our social encounters with people who assume we share their agnostic or atheistic or otherwise enlightened notions of the universe and proceed to speak of Christians as some sort of remote and primitive tribe, and in widely disseminated news outlets that attribute that all sorts of strange opinions to Christians that we’ve never heard one utter, and in even a symposium at last week’s Catholic-Evagenlical Leadership Summit at Georgetown University featuring a best-selling author and the President of the United States.
Harvard professor Robert Putnam, best known for the book “Bowling Alone,” got the ball rolling with an interview with The Washington Post, in which he said “The obvious fact is that over the last 30 years, most organized religion has focused on issues regarding sexual morality, such as abortion, gay marriage, all of those. I’m not saying if that’s good or bad, but that’s what they’ve been using all their resources for. That is the most obvious point in the world. It’s been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.” When Putnam repeated the claim at the Georgetown, President Barack Obama chimed in that “Despite great caring and concern, when it comes to what you’re really going to the mat for, the defining issue, when you’re talking in your congregations, what’s the thing that is really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians, or as Catholics, what have you, that (fighting poverty) is oftentimes viewed as ‘nice to have’ relative to an issue like abortion.”
This might seem “the most obvious point in the world” to a Harvard professor or a President of the United States, but it will surely come as a surprise to anyone who actually lives among the Christians of America. Even the editors at The Washington Post know a couple of Christians from the Religion News Service who had the numbers at hand to refute such nonsense. They note that in 2009 America’s churches donated more than $13 billion to overseas relief and development, which is more than the secular charities could muster, and even looks pretty good compared to the $29 billion the federal government spent, largely with the taxes paid by Christians. In 2012 the evangelical group World Vision spent about $2.8 billion caring for the poor, which would put them 12th among the world’s nations. The Catholics, whom we also consider Christians, our president’s clumsy locutions notwithstanding, spend about $97 billion on health care networks, many billions more on colleges and schools, and another $4.6 billion to various national charities.
Even the most diligent research will fail to account for all good works done to alleviate domestic by done by America’s churches. Our own small congregation at the rough edges of a working class neighborhood chips in for a local orphanage and offers whatever help it can to anyone who walks in, our parents’ congregation in the Philadelphia suburbs runs a food distribution center with its time and money, and every Christian we share church chat with tells of a similar endeavor. Diligent research shouldn’t even be required to notice this phenomenon, as a daily drive through almost any city or town in America will take one past the various shelters and soup kitchens and hospitals and assorted charities created and run and supported by Christians, and in to contact with someone who has benefited from these efforts, and perhaps even one of those Christians who made who put a buck in the collection plate and did some volunteer work to make it possible. Those professors and presidents who dare to take the daring anthropological plunge in to the most remote portions of Christian America might even find that the natives aren’t quite so sexually obsessed as they’ve imagined.
At our small congregation on the rough edges of a working-class neighborhood that stuff rarely comes up, and in a lifetime of worshipping with this very conservative church we can’t recall many times when it ever did. We listen to the talk radio and read the web sites and newspapers and magazines that conservative Christians follow, and notice that the social issues aren’t such a hot topic there as they seem to be in the more ostentatiously secular media. The combined budgets of the best-funded organizations devoted to the social issues are supposedly American Christianity’s main concern spend in the mere millions, and are vastly outspent by Planned Parenthood alone, and of course the occasional protests heard on those conservative Christian media are vastly out-shouted by the more ostentatiously secular media. To complain that American Christianity is obsessed with the social issues to the extent that it ignores other pressing problems is not only divorced from reality, it seems rather unsporting.
Nor do we concede that those social issues are unrelated to those other pressing problems, or that American Christianity’s last resistance is unjustified. Issues of sexual morality have much to poverty and the general social well-being. A society of people raised by baby mamas and baby daddies will be poorer and more generally unpleasant than one raised by husbands and wives, no amount of federal spending will change that time-honored fact, those crazy Christians out there in the hinterlands and the socio-economic elites of our time seem to be the only ones who understand this, and those crazy Christians out there in the hinterlands and the only ones who will come right out and say it, so we hope they don’t go away or agree to shut up.
Much of American Christianity has already agreed to shut up, and its focus on the social issues has been devoted to accommodating the latest trends, and its churches seem to be losing congregants to whatever’s on television at those hours of a Sunday morning. Many continue to insist on traditional notions of sexual morality, even as they divvy up the church funds to the orphanage or the food distribution center or whatever its charity might be, and at this point they’re just hoping that they’ll be able to be live by these beliefs after the latest trends take root. Those churches are struggling, too, but we expect they’ll persist, as they have the past two tough millennia, and we believe the world will be better for it.
Yet apparently it looks different to a Harvard professor and a President of the United States. Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” was about the decline of bowling leagues and increase of individual bowling and the decline of fraternal orders and social organizations generally, and was well reviewed by both liberal commentators who decried the retreat into private live and conservatives who found proof of a government’s encroachment on the free association of individuals into effective groups, and we’d have expected him to notice that the churches are among the last effective non-governmental groups. We’d also have expected more from any President of the United States, especially one who has proclaimed his Christianity almost as much as he has criticized the faith.
— Bud Norman