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Why Christians Feel Marginalized in Contemporary America Part II

In the previous post it was my desire to help Christians understand the broader context for The Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision on June 6, 2015, which ruled that states may not prohibit same-sex marriages.  The post highlighted the importance of understanding classical republicanism as the background to much of the Founders of the American Republic.  Classical republicanism stressed that for self-government to work the individual citizen needed to be virtuous, by which they meant one who controlled his inherent selfish patterns and lived for society’s common good.  The virtuous man was the free man because he was able to control his selfish passions.  Recognizing the inherent selfishness of human nature and the impossibility living virtuously without the support of religion, the Founders looked very favorably upon the role of religion as a source of civic health and freedom in American society, even if they did not always agree on the specific form that role would take.

In this post I want to look briefly at the philosophical and theological currents that have led to the contemporary radical change in attitude toward religion.  The four points below represent a shift in how people view reality or what is often called their worldview.

  1. Fact vs. faith. Becoming quite prominent in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was the idea that natural science was able to explain reality fully by means of the natural laws of cause and effect discovered through reason and experimentation. Science was true because it was based upon the facts.  The existence of God was not demonstrable by science, being by definition outside of the physical realm of cause and effect.  Religion was based upon faith, which was often seen as opposed to reason and without a factual basis and thus lacked a legitimate claim to truth.[1]
  2. Individual vs. society. Since faith in God was not supported by reason, man was born into a world without moral obligations to one another based upon universal divine authority. In contrast to classical thought—Christian and pagan—man was not by nature a social being with responsibilities toward his fellow human beings, but was an autonomous or self-ruling individual.  Consequently, society was no longer a positive field for the practice of virtue, but rather was a kind of necessary evil for the survival of the individual.  Therefore, working for the common good was a decision by the sovereign individual to help him survive and not a moral obligation or virtue as in classical republicanism.
  3. Negative vs. positive freedom. In a world created by God a person is not only obliged to obey God’s commandments and exercise love in society, his true freedom is to live according to his nature. This is what is meant by positive freedom.  In a world created by God one must conform his or her sexual practices to God’s will and there is no right to change the definition of marriage.   Indeed by living within God’s design for marriage the couple experiences a fully human relationship.  The predominant contemporary understanding of freedom is the lack of external constraints or negative freedom.  One must sacrifice some of his freedoms to live in society, but the truly free person may follow his passions as long as they don’t harm others.   In such a world individuals can demand that society permits them to fulfill their desire to have sexual intercourse with anyone who consents and to marry a consenting partner of the same sex.
  4. Self-divinization vs. sanctification. In Existentialism and Human Emotions the famous atheist existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “There is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. … Man is nothing else but what he makes himself.” Sartre recognized that without a creator God, it is up to humans to make themselves what they want to be.  Humans become their own creators, their own gods.  With a creator God out of the picture and the freedom to create ourselves, it is not surprising that the transgender movement is following right on the heels of the successful efforts to legalize same-sex marriage.  As our own gods, we are free to decide whether we are male or female.[2]  In the Christian view God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). We do not create our own nature.  We have received it and by sin have perverted it.  The Christian gospel promises the restoration of our human nature by means of the process called sanctification.  The free person through faith in God’s grace escapes the corruption of sinful passions and is able to practice virtue (2 Peter 1:3-7) in conformity to Christ, the true image of God (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

What then is the place of religion in American society today?  The contemporary worldview that dominates not just America but Western society as a whole is hostile to most religion.  Religion is no longer is seen as a bulwark of civic health and freedom. The significant public role for religion at the beginning of the American republic was the product of a cultural-philosophical situation that no longer exists.  With the current worldview described above religious beliefs and practices are quickly being relegated to the strictly private sphere and necessarily so.  Many view membership in a church or a synagogue as on a par with belonging to a private club, except that a private club does not hold a philosophy of life that runs counter to the current cultural norms.  Also, the ever widening public sphere of increased government involvement in the daily lives of American citizens is resulting in a shrinking private sphere, which means that religion will play an even smaller role in American society.

These changes are why Christians feel increasingly marginalized in American society.  In my next post I will examine how Christians and the Church should respond.

[1] A similar approach taken by Dr. Steve Turley is worth reading.  See


[2] This is not to deny that there are people who suffer from a psychological and/or physical disorder that causes gender confusion.  They should be treated with compassion and professional help, but the transgender movement does not want that.  They want to have the right to decide for themselves what their gender is and to have everyone else accept that decision.

6 thoughts on “Why Christians Feel Marginalized in Contemporary America Part II

  1. See, I’m not really sure that “Christians” are feeling all that marginalized. If you’re talking evangelicals, then absolutely. But I grew up in northern Wisconsin where/when everyone was a Christian, from the staunchest fundamentalist to the town drunk. But the word Christian was defined by an adherence to an amorphous civic religion, meaning the word was virtually a synonym for “nice person who attends church semi-regularly.” It was this civic religion the founders seemed to look to for upholding the fabric of the republic. And I suspect those who today still hold to that same amorphous civic religion don’t feel particularly marginalized at all.

    1. Thanks, Kipp. Your clarification is important, however, I would add traditional Roman Catholics, Orthodox, etc. to Evangelicals. I just don’t want to get into making a long list. One of things that I’ll be referring to is that these polls that talk about a certain percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christians or believing in God don’t really tell us much about the people’s actual beliefs and practices. By the way, I’m not quite referring to civic religion when I mention classical republicanism. There is an overlap to be sure, but civil religion often makes the Constitution a sacred document, Lincoln a martyr, etc. I’m actually referring to a certain way of looking at the world, society and the human person that does depend on a belief in God.

  2. Hi Bill. I greatly appreciate you working through this complex issue, in such a scholarly manner. There are a couple of issues I’m wrestling with when it comes to validating the feelings of Christian oppression, with regards to this definition you gave: “Classical republicanism stressed that for self-government to work the individual citizen needed to be virtuous, by which they meant one who controlled his inherent selfish patterns and lived for society’s common good. The virtuous man was the free man because he was able to control his selfish passions.”

    In my dialogues with people of faith and of none, one of the biggest contentions people have regarding the conservative reaction to the legalizing of gay marriage, is that Christians/conservatives who talk about the benefits of what you are calling classical republicanism, refuse to apply the concept of controlling selfish passions, to issues of economics or environmentalism, gun rights, etc. While my observation is a generalization, those who support legalization of same-sex marriage have a big problem understanding the outcry against government invasion into these other issues. Is that not a reason for the more liberal sides of our society to say “Apply those religious values to your own ‘houses’ first?”

    1. Thanks, Kristi. In my next post I am going to address some of the issues the Church needs to deal with, although in a more general way than with regard to specific political issues. The reason I decided to do these pieces is because I think that the same-sex marriage and transgender issues cut very deeply into the meaning of human nature. The one distinction made among humans as the image of God in Genesis is the male-female one. Confusion on this issue I think is going to wreak havoc in people’s lives. I’m especially concerned about children and young people growing up in this era.

  3. Hi Bill, Can you show the basis for your statement that “the ever widening public sphere of increased government involvement in the daily lives of American citizens is resulting in a shrinking private sphere”. Is this a general statement, or are you thinking of specific measurements? Thanks!

    1. Well, it’s a little of both. In general there is a shrinking of the private sphere in relation to the public, which has also modified the nature of the public sphere. This has been the subject of discussion among sociologists for a good while. Thus the general point is that if religion is relegated to the private sphere and that sphere is shrinking, we are going to see a decline of the importance of religion and its free exercise. Some of this trend can be seen in language that substitutes freedom of worship for freedom of religion. The free exercise of religion in the 1st Amendment was meant to allow for the exercise of one’s religion both in the private and public sphere. I think that in contemporary American society this free exercise in the public sphere is being severely limited. Freedom of worship would mean that one can practice their faith in the confines of the church or synagogue walls, but not necessarily outside of it. The other worrisome trend, which dates back to the late Medieval and Renaissance is the notion that there can only be one supreme ruler in a community. This is more than I want to discuss in a reply to a comment, but this kind of thought can lead to significant conflict with religious practice, especially with biblical faith which is by nature both public and holds to a dual citizenship.

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