March 27, 2012, (LifeSiteNews.com) – Summarizing the broad contours of America’s commitment to religious liberty, from the time of the Founders until its present low-ebb, is no easy task. However, it is one Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia ably carries off in his new e-book, A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America.
At 19 pages, this treatise is more an addendum to his 2008 book Render Unto Caesar than a successor, one that single-mindedly focuses on America’s waning commitment to her roots and the American Catholic Church’s concomitant loss of self-confidence.
His thesis is as stark as it is compelling: America is in the process of losing its culture, its moorings, and the philosophy that informed its constitutional order for two centuries. An increasingly inflexible tide of popular opinion has pushed aside religious faith – often with a friendly assist from within the Church gates. The “next America” will be increasingly hostile to religion, contemptuous of its value, dismissive of its suggestions, and heedless of its free exercise unless members of the Church kindle the love of Christ in their hearts and bring its light to the public square.
After appropriately quoting George Orwell on the constricted public debate, the archbishop surveys a nation in the process of shrugging off the Christian religion. The “rigorously intolerant” press “has its own unstated orthodoxies, its own vanities, prejudices, and targets of disdain.” The government’s leaders are “frankly hostile to religious engagement in public affairs here at home” and “in the wider culture, many of our leaders no longer seem to regard religious faith as a healthy force.” When sexual minorities “routinely use the state’s power and friendly mass media to break down traditional definitions of marriage and the family,” they are met with a confused and disengaged response.
Linking together American legal and cultural history in a patchwork that includes James Madison, John Adams, John Bunyan, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Abp. Chaput begins with the Christian faith’s centrality to the American Founding. The old faith refused to be confined to the church doors but demanded to be expressed in every area of life, including politics.
“The United States was never a Christian nation,” Chaput writes. “But it didn’t need to be. Its public life and civic institutions were deeply informed by biblical thought, language, and morality.”
“It’s true that God was left out of the Constitution—but not because he was unwelcome. In effect, God suffused the whole constitutional enterprise.”
As fidelity to religious orthodoxy began to subside, subservience to public opinion filled the philosophical void. An ever-changing moral compass led to a culture sinking deeper into its foundation of sand.
Because of poor formation, by the church and post-Christian society, today’s young adults lack the reasoning ability to apply moral principles to contentious debates. This lack of common ground leads to the birth of a vigorous and expansive government to moderate countervailing sympathies. “Without the restraints of a moral consensus animated and defended by a living religious community, the freedom of the individual easily becomes a license for selfishness,” Abp. Chaput writes. “The meaning of right and wrong becomes privatized. And ultimately, society ends up as a collection of disconnected individuals whose appetites and needs are regulated by the only project they share in common: the state.”
The future their outlook will create is not a joyful thing to behold. “The America emerging in the next several decades is likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country’s past,” he writes. “In the years ahead, we’re going to see more and more of this trend, along with attempts by civil authority to interfere in the life of believing communities in the name of individual rights. We’ll also see less and less unchallenged space for religious institutions to carry out their work in the public square.”
“It’s not a question of when or if it might happen,” he writes ominously. “It’s happening today.”
Tempting as it would be to lay the blame at a secularizing media, a corrupt entertainment industry, or an overburdened public education system, A Heart on Fire singles out the role of Catholic higher education. When such institutions separate intellectual pursuits from moral formation, call for the autonomy of academia, or attempt to curry favor with their institutional peers, they lose that which most defines them: their faith. Without passing on the Faith once delivered, new generations of “Catholic” leaders are mentally and spiritually indistinguishable from their contemporaries. Thus, the paradox of an ever-increasing number of Catholics in the highest echelons of power – Joe Biden, Kathleen Sebelius, Sonia Sotomayor, Nancy Pelosi, et. al. – and the dwindling impact of the traditional values their religion holds dear.
Abp. Chaput argues the solution to the leadership vacuum is renewed Christian and Catholic leadership. “We make the future, not the other way around. Nothing in this world is inevitable except the victory of Jesus Christ; and that includes what history finally says about the character of the nation we call America.” And this leadership begins when potential leaders ignite the spark of faith in Christ that alone truly makes one Christian. “Politics is important,” he writes, “but it’s never the main focus or purpose of a Christian life. If we do not know and love Jesus Christ, and commit our lives to him, and act on what we claim to believe, everything else is empty. But if we do, so much else is possible—including the conversion of the world around us.”
Our ultimate victory in the cultural battles depends less on political organization, curriculum selection, and media visibility than it does with our communion with the Victor over sin and death. “Do we really believe in Jesus Christ, or don’t we?” he asks. “And if we do, what are we going to do about it?”
America’s hope, and that of the American church, is to set our hearts aflame like that of St. Augustine, to whose experience the title alludes. That alone can unleash “the only kind of revolution that really changes anything: a revolution of love.”
If the revolution is not yet begun, with Archbishop Chaput’s book, it now has a fitting Declaration of Independence.