Civil religion is not dead. It has simply gone woke. And in the new form, as in the old, a secularized and domesticated Christianity contorts itself to appear respectable to its cultured despisers.
Over the last few years, I have heard numerous Christians claim that the death of America’s old civil religion is a good thing. The basic argument seems to be that civil religion promotes hypocrisy, both individually and socially, by identifying the Christian faith with particular social or political mores. In this way, it cultivates chauvinistic attitudes detached from any vital religion. The result, a Kierkegaardian “Christendom,” is thus a travesty of biblical religion. And I have to concede that there is much truth to this claim.
I thought of these arguments recently when walking with my wife through Georgetown, the affluent and beautiful part of Washington, D.C., renowned for its university (and for the steps in the movie The Exorcist). It was June: pride month. The town was therefore predictably full of rainbow flags, reminding anyone who still believes about sex and identity what almost everyone believed until the day before yesterday that we do not belong anymore, and that we are no longer welcome even to stroll down a high street without being told that we are vicious bigots. Only Georgetown Tobacco—a place I have long regarded as the last bastion of freedom and independence on M Street—had accepted today’s equivalent of Václav Havel’s challenge and refused to indulge the liturgical tastes of the cultural commissars. No rainbow sign in that shop’s window. But it was not just the flags that struck me. More troubling was the in-your-face homoeroticism displayed on so many of the posters and advertisements throughout the neighborhood.
Years ago, when our children were small, we had a family holiday in the Netherlands. While visiting Amsterdam, we studiously avoided the red light district. If there was a place approximating hell on earth, then De Wallen was probably it. And yet we found that its excesses spilled over into other parts of the city. Frankly, we were glad to leave Amsterdam, disturbed by what we and our children had inadvertently seen. We never took them back and were grateful that, whatever Britain’s problems at the time, pornography on the streets was not one of them.