The American Character and the Life of the Church

We have been thinking together here on these pages about the parochial ministry of the Orthodox Church in the United States. In the December 2007 issue of First Things, I came upon the following observation (and caution) in an article written by the historian Mark Noll. In “America’s Two Foundings,” (subscription required) he writes:

the strength of religion in American history has been its voluntary organization, religious organizations would be well advised to guard carefully their voluntary character while they carry out their religious and social missions. With the prospect of ­government assistance to faith-based organizations in view, churches and other religious bodies would be wise to adopt the advice of A.B. Simpson, which he offered to his Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination when it faced the question of speaking in tongues. Simpson’s advice was to “seek not, forbid not.” The strength of America’s voluntary religious heritage is not imperiled by a small measure of government funding, but it will be imperiled if religious groups insist on that funding and come to rely on that funding for their existence. Religion in America flourished when it was most acutely aware of corruption from state entanglement; it has always exerted its most beneficial public effects in the shape of the NGO.

While many Orthodox theologians, notable the late Fr Alexander Schmemann, have criticized the volunteeristic character of Christianity in America, such complaints, in my own opinion, miss the mark almost entirely. Let me explain.

I would concede that there is a great danger in assuming that we choose the Gospel in much the same way we choose to purchase this automobile rather than that one. The Gospel is not simply one consumer product among many—but is in fact the way of salvation and a participation in the divine life. So with Schmemann I would say, no, we do not (strictly speaking) choose the Gospel anymore than we choose Christ. Rather, Christ chooses us, He chooses me, even as He calls me to commit myself to the Gospel, to take up my cross and to follow Him.

What Noll is concerned with in the passage cited above, is with religious institutions (and not simply Christian churches) surrendering their independence to federal and states governments through an institutional alliance between church and state. The best way for churches, as he says, to exert “beneficial public effects” is to remain free from “state entanglements.” It is in this second sense that, at its very best, American Christianity is described as volunteeristic. In the American experiment, religious commitment is free from civil compulsion.

The hallmarks of American Christianity—and I think of an American approach to all things religious and spiritual—emerged in the first half of the 19th century. Noll writes (with my emphasis):

The American religion that flourished so luxuriantly in the first sixty years of the nineteenth century was republican: It had internalized the fear of unchecked authority and the commitment to private virtue that drove the ideology of the first political founding. But it was also Christian republican: The virtue that the United States’ energetic itinerants promoted was not classical manliness but humility in Christ. The religion that came to prevail was more antiformal than formal. It did not trust in ascribed authority or inherited bureaucracies but rather in achieved authority and ad hoc networking. It was populist or democratic, championing the ability of any white man to assume leadership in any religious assembly. And it was biblicist, speaking of the Scriptures as a supreme authority that trumped or even revoked all other religious authorities.

While some aspects are now suspect (specifically the “championing of any white man to assume leadership in any religious assembly”) in the main the events that unfolded the first half of the 19th century have come “to shape all of American society by the standards of evangelical religion. Most remarkably, evangelicals even conquered the South, where an honor-driven culture of manly self-assertion had presented a far less propitious field for labor than regions to the North where the Puritan leaven survived.”

Looking at Noll’s analysis, and reflecting as well on my own experiences as a Roman Catholic, I find his words most instructive for me now as an Orthodox priest. If an Evangelical mindset could conquer the “honor-drive culture of manly self-assertion” of the American South of the late 18th and early 19th century, is it reasonable to assume that it will not make inroads into the contemporary Church? Indeed, hasn’t Orthodoxy here in American, as with the Roman Catholic Church for that matter, already taken on many of the qualities that Noll’s associates with Evangelicalism?

Voluntarism was a mind-set keyed to innovative leadership, proactive public advocacy, and entrepreneurial goal setting. Voluntarism also became an extraordinarily influential practice that began with church organization and then mushroomed to inspire local and national mobilization on behalf of myriad social and political causes. Voluntarism also became a foundation for the strength, and weakness, of American society as a whole. Local civilization would be built as local groups and individuals enlisted to address local needs. Not government, not an inherited church, not the dictates of big business, but enterprising connections—forged voluntarily—built American civilization in the decades before the Civil War.

Reading Noll’s I can’t help but think—as more than one Orthodox seminarian has mentioned to me—while the Orthodox Church has maintained a connection with an incredibly rich past we are rather consistently failing in our ability to connect that past with our present situation. Ours is a sublime theology entrusted all too often to ministers who social and interpersonal skills fall far short of the poetry of faith. This dissonance between content and character is pastorally fatal in an American context.

American culture is marked by a real humility. Granted sometimes this humility takes on an unhealthy form (for example, a moral or theological relativism/indifference, superficiality, an uncritical egalitarianism, or an anti-intellectualism), but in the main American culture from the 19th century on has been marked by a combination of moral idealism and practical and personal philanthropy (think for example of the Peace Corps or VISTA). Many Orthodox, and including those who joined the Church as adults, simply misunderstand the anti-authoritarianism, the antiformalism, and populism of American culture. These “-ism’s,” are not inherently ideological. Rather they are in the service of American idealism and practical philanthropy.

For better and worse, American culture is concerned with the contribution that I can make personally. Are my hands dirty and calloused through service to my neighbor?

This “commitment to private virtue,” is not (necessarily anyway) a radical individualism. It is rather grounded in the anthropological conviction that any society, secular or religious, is composed of persons. Thinking about this for a moment, I realize how could it be otherwise? Whatever its immediate founding principles, aren’t all human society, more or less, a reflection of the Divine Society of the Holy Trinity?

That American evangelical society stresses private virtue does not mean that it is necessarily opposed to the tradition of the Orthodox Church. If anything it is precisely this radical rejection of “ascribed authority” and “inherited bureaucracies” in American culture that challenges the Church to recapture for herself the primacy of virtue in the life of the Church. At their best, American Evangelical sensibilities, the personal and cultural commitment to humility, volunteerism, idealism and commitment to practical philanthropy, will buy those in positions of leadership (and again, secular or religious, Christian or non-Christian, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant or Evangelical) a certain deference. But as recent history demonstrates, and again secular and religious, there are limits.

If leaders prove themselves hostile, or even indifferent, to virtues of American Evangelical character, they will simply forfeit all credibility with an American audience. And again, precisely because American culture is practical, words alone are not enough.

Indeed, words alone are suspect.

An enduring concern for the practical and the virtue of prudence in the American character is an echo of the second chapter of the Epistle James. After discussing the necessity of personal virtue, and above all showing no partiality toward the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and the weak (how very American!), the Apostle comes right to the point:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (vv. 14-26).

Reflecting as we have been on the life of the parish in the Orthodox Church, it seems to me we would do well to embrace—as a culture protoevangelium—the best of the American character. And not only that; just as the early Church’s willingness to embraced and then transfigured of Greek thought, allowed her to find new ways of proclaiming the Gospel that is “ever ancient, ever new,” might not American culture likewise provide us with new evangelical and pastoral opportunities?

Are we willing, as St Augustine was in his own way and in his time, to find that God is here, in America, waiting for us to discover Him and respond to His call to repent of our sins? I’ll leave you with that thought and Augustine’s own words from The Confessions:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


3 Responses to “The American Character and the Life of the Church”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I think that you and Noll have summarized my own perspective as an American, as a former Protestant and as an Orthodox believer.

    Absolutely, I believe that unchecked authority is suspect. Perhaps that explains my incomprehension of the weird passivity of the OCA in the face of the current scandals. These authorities have no balances other than my pocket – indeed, if only half of what I hear about Alaska is true, I think that the authorities are in dire need of removal and someone with commitment to the Church – and some common sense -should be installed in their places.

    For another project, I’ve been reading up on volunteer groups/clubs at the turn of the 20th century. These were mostly non-religious groups with good goals – child care/medical care, education, teaching immigrants what they needed to become citizens, etc. This kind of work had a huge impact on the culture that now we can’t even imagine without governmental assistance.

    Ours is a sublime theology entrusted all too often to ministers who social and interpersonal skills fall far short of the poetry of faith.

    Can’t argue with that, but I think “ears to hear” is far more at issue. We are in a culture at war with Christianity, not just Orthodoxy. That we might blame the priests for failing to convey the Faith, does it not fall on all of us to defend and spread the Gospel? If Pastor X fails in one way, should not we in the laity extend grace to him but also find a way to fill that lack?

    As you mention, “dirty hands” of personal effort is the standard we Americans judge our fellows. Perhaps I’m too American to see how it can be otherwise. In our parish, discussions are underway to require a minimum financial contribution or service to the parish. It’s a problematic issue: should not those who are a part of the parish community not have a say, despite their ability to give or serve? Should not the community support the ministry/mission of the parish with their service and funds as is necessary? This post is making me consider what is the American perspective and how that influences me.

  2. Fr. Gregory Jensen Says:


    Thank you for your comments. A few quick thoughts:

    (1) While I was primarily thinking of the clergy when I mentioned “ministers,” it is not simply clergy that I am concerned with. There seems that often in the Orthodox Church we let our theology–sublime though it is–do all the heavy lifting in the spiritual life. This is why I quoted St James, beautiful theology is simply not enough. St Maximos says theology w/o prayer is a theology of demons. So what is theology w/o charity?

    (2) Yes, we are surrounded by a culture of death. I prefer this phrasing to “culture war” since, though I am not a pacificist,I am at war with my passions and no one else’s. That said, you are right, part of the challenge is responding to those who do not have “ears to hear.” And no, that is more than a question of the priest–actually my argument for a while has been that clergy typically have the skills the laity value. Want to improve the clergy? Then improve the laity.

    That said, however, we need to be careful of wanting things both ways. We can’t absolve the clergy for failing to respond to the culture of death AND blame them for not responding to scandals in the Church. Again, this is why I remind myself that I am at war with no one or nothing but my own passions.

    (3) Regarding fallen clergy–yes clergy fall, and even if they don’t fall, they fail. And yes, grace should be extended to them. But this is the problem in focusing on theology to the exclusion of social and interpersonal skills.

    Having made the decision that the poetry of faith is what matters, all of the rather dull human things fall by the wayside. This means that clergy often don’t simply lack pastoral skills, they don’t know they lack them or how to correct the deficit. And because our clergy lack the necessary social and interpersonal skills essential to the pastoral life, our laity are not formed properly in the nitty gritty of being a Christian.

    So even if the priest acknowledges his deficits AND is willing to be corrected and helped–not a sure bet by any means–the laity often don’t have the skills to fill the gap. This is something that afflicts all levels of the Church–but I cannot emphasizes enough–it is something that, in slightly different forms, we all of us rather like.

    I prefer the poetry of faith to the actual working out of my salvation in fear and trembling. This is the real battle isn’t it?

    Again, thanks for your comments–there is much food for thought there.

    In Christ,


  3. Anonymous Says:

    I prefer the poetry of faith to the actual working out of my salvation in fear and trembling. This is the real battle isn’t it?

    (I’ll confess that the poetry I like best comes with heavy metal guitar grinding or techno-pop beats, so the analogy necessarily will make me pick working out my salvation rather than poetry, but that’s just me.)

    What interpersonal and social skills do you feel a priest should be required to master?

    Magdalena, realized at last that “Father, bless” should have been somewhere in these posts.

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