(Rev. Michael P. Orsi) — America’s Founding Fathers were a mixed group of religious thinkers. But despite their philosophical differences, they all understood the practical importance of faith to civic order.
In his Farewell Address, George Washington captured this shared outlook when he stated forthrightly, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
That wisdom has been proven, time and again.
In a 2005 book, The Churching of America, sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark observe that what we call the Wild West was indeed a wild, violent, lawless place. It was tamed not by gunslinging lawmen like Wyatt Earp, but by the gradual planting of churches, chiefly Methodist churches, that spread Christian morality and exalted the values of civil behavior and strong family life.
Sadly, today’s churches don’t contribute much to maintaining order in a society that is increasingly disturbed, chaotic, and dangerous.
Many have become little more than outlets for distribution of food, clothing, and other physical necessities to the poor and homeless.
They’ve embraced the concept of Social Justice as their primary mission. And while this may express a certain kind of Christian charity, it has too often forced churches to ignore (or at least significantly downplay) their essential purpose, which is spreading the Gospel and saving souls.
The problem is that this charitable work is usually done hand-in-hand with government. Churches are recruited to serve as sub-contractors to various public agencies, thus extending the reach of welfare services. When you take government money, you must operate by government rules.
Participating churches are restrained from evangelism, preaching, public prayer, or the giving out of pious items and catechetical materials. Even display of religious symbols is tightly controlled.
Essentially, the intention to be charitable — in itself a worthy impulse — induces churches to submerge their faith identity. It negates the Great Commission which Christ gave his followers.
Don’t assume that religious leaders are necessarily pressured into this loss of purpose. For many, Social Justice itself has become a kind of substitute doctrine. The “preferential option for the poor,” which is a prominent feature of Catholic social teaching, can too readily be transformed from a call to conscience into a perverse expectation of entitlement.
And so charity morphs into socialism. The Gospel, which preaches Jesus Christ, is set aside in favor of an ideology that claims to help people, but in reality diminishes freedom. Churches function according to government dictates, rather than exercising their traditional role of spreading God’s Word and providing the moral guidance needed for a good life.
This tendency receives extra encouragement by certain ideas currently in vogue. The big push for “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion,” vague and elastic as those ideas might be, plays readily into the Social Justice outlook.
It has a corrupting influence on the churches themselves. The preferred attitude among church people right now is to be “open” and “welcoming.” The push for “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” — which is to say, embracing everyone regardless of lifestyle or moral perspective — necessarily requires a less than vigorous assertion of fundamental principles, especially in the area of sexual ethics.
Thus we have witnessed the emergence of “woke” churches, where everybody is “nice,” and no one’s faith walk is burdened by stern moral demands.
The churches have lost their sense of mission, of who they are, and of what they’re supposed to be preaching. Many denominations are splitting apart over “wokeness,” especially the Methodists who did so much to tame the Wild West. (More than 6,000 congregations have left the United Methodist Church.)
Society is paying a high price for all of this. The country itself is splitting apart.
Surveys that show declines in personal religious affiliation are paralleled by other polls that show increased anxiety about the future, as Americans realize the depths of our divisions and the extent of our moral problems.
It’s becoming clear to people that the churches must reverse their course, and reassert the countercultural influence which the Lord expects us to exert as Christians. Or else we will lose everything.
But perhaps there’s hope.
Even as they hung on the cross, the Good Thief repented and asked Jesus to “remember me when you enter into your kingdom.”
The time is at hand. Pray for the churches.
This essay is based on a homily delivered by Fr. Orsi. It has been published with permission.
A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues, and his writings appear in numerous publications and online journals. His TV show episodes can be viewed online here.