Ninety-year-old evangelist Billy Graham has announced through his son that he is not in the running for unofficial White House chaplain, an informal position he has sometimes held in previous administrations.
This grand old man of traditional Protestantism has managed to maintain respect among the assorted Christian and non-Christian church families in the United States for many decades.
Possibly the Reverend Robert Schuller of Anaheim’s Crystal Cathedral might also approach a similar non-denominational esteem within America’s civil society. Catholics and other Americans warmed to the gruff but affectionate demeanor of Richard Cardinal Cushing, mid-century religious confidant of the Kennedy family and later of Mrs. Onassis. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was also one of those religious celebrities who transcended denominational differences, gaining access to many assorted venues. Pope John XXIII in his day might also have enjoyed this position as universally accepted spokesperson for religion in public life. The Dahli Lama remains a less vocal but still visible worldwide spiritual symbol.
These religious personalities of the latter part of the 20th century were fortunate that they thrived in an era when the general Christian consensus endured intact and respected. The Bible was still the word of God. The Ten Commandments expressed a generally accepted natural law. Church attendance was reassuring. Divorce was the exception. Reproductive experimentation was unknown. War protesters were considered the fringe. Sexual preference was rarely voiced. Patriotism was a virtue; family life was clearly defined. Sadly and gradually, the old Protestant consensus began to fall apart in the late 1950s. The Catholic consensus began to unravel after the Second Vatican Council. By the turn of this new century, religious thought was broadly and contentiously divided between liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, modernists and reactionaries. It would be difficult to nominate a universally accepted voice for the Christian community today.
Pope John Paul II was a religious genius for many but an out-of-touch Pole for others. Pope Benedict XVI is an eminent theologian in some minds and a regressive traditionalist to others. Father Richard McBrien speaks obviously for the left; Father John Neuhaus writes unmistakably for the right; Andrew Greeley thinks he is in the middle. EWTN buoys up many traditional believers; the National Catholic Reporter thrills its liberal fans.
The attempted ordination of women energizes some and scandalizes others. Some blush at same-sex unions and others embrace the prospect. Iraq is viewed as a duty by some and as a disgrace by others. The recent elections testify to a blatant pluralism within American Catholicism. Some fault the bishops for speaking too clearly on abortion and immigration; others regret that the bishops did not speak plainly enough on the war and the economy. As Yeats wrote prophetically decades ago, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Freedom of religion has sadly degenerated into freedom from religion, actually freedom from a religious consensus, freedom from religion in public life. Any harmony inspired by common religious values is seen as an infringement upon individual liberty. Each American today lives with his or her own private beliefs. A religious consensus is viewed as a menace to religious freedom, not a support to national destiny. America is threatened, not strengthened, by strongly held beliefs.
Still, the venerable observer of early American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote, “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.” Lacking a tyrant, a free people need to share strong, inner convictions to guide them through life. For a free people, inner convictions are more important than external laws; a consensus is more important, frankly, than a constitution.
John Adams knew this when he remarked that the American constitution was made “only for a moral and religious people.” Citizens need values that are both loftier and deeper than any written text; otherwise there cannot be any principled continuity, any enduring community, any shared sense of country. Christian tradition recognizes not only priests and kings but also prophets – men and women who summon mankind beyond rituals and beyond laws to the common ground of human nature and the noble ideals of the divine call.
John the Baptist challenged the people of his day to recognize what was truly central, truly integral, truly fundamental to their lives. A similar voice is needed again today.