Whose Church?

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University  

Riding through some winter-soaked mountain villages in the hills of Corfu with a friend, I passed a gorgeous and surprisingly large Byzantine church, surprising to me because we were in the middle of comparative nowhere. 

 “What church is that?” I asked her.

 “The Church of Saint George,” she replied. 

And it suddenly hit me: these people invoke saint’s names the way Protestants invoke denominations. The Church of Saint George, the Church of Saint Spyridon, the Church of Saint Stephen, the Church of Saint Catherine, the Church of the All Holy Mother of God… all Orthodox churches, and all different too. 

On a casual drive through any major American metropolis, you’ll see a similar string of various and varying Christian churches. I’ll take my home city of Atlanta as an example. If you drive down the central section of Ponce de Leon Avenue, a Lutheran Church is followed by a Mormon Church, then a Melkite Church, then a Presbyterian Church, and then an Antiochene Church, all within under a mile. On Peachtree Street closer to downtown, the situation is even more dramatic: two Methodist churches, one Episcopalian, one Lutheran, one Presbyterian, one Catholic, one Baptist and one non-denominational, all within one city mile. 

This is actually a fascinating situation, the significance of which is easy to miss. Every one of these “denominations”—even ones like the Catholic and Orthodox churches that technically claim to be the church universal and not a denomination—is believed to have the right to a place on that public street. They belong on the street. That doesn’t mean that I, in my church on Sunday morning, have to believe that your church’s doctrines are legitimate; clearly, what is preached in these various pulpits on Sunday morning are incompatibles. But I believe in the legitimacy of the church’s presence on the street, whatever I may think of what goes on inside. We are neighbors, after all, and that’s just being neighborly. 

We tend to take this form of denominational pluralism for granted, and hence we often fail to realize historically how it came to pass, and politically what it means. Historically speaking, English and American (and other) streets began to look like this in the 1700s, after 150 years of seething religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics had burned a lot of the older streets to ash. By the early 1700s, it had become clear to most people that the fact of religious pluralism was not going to go away. Protestants and Catholics, most of them at any rate, no longer held onto the hope that one more argument, or one more pitched battle, was going to turn the tide in their favor. No more once-and-for-alls. Religious differences were here to stay. And the new political challenge was how to allow for and accommodate that pluralism, not to deny it or try to make it disappear. 

To see the power and the novelty of the religious rapprochement symbolized by the new  denominationalism, we need look no farther than that most eloquent spokesperson for the European Enlightenment, Voltaire. Exiled from France to England between 1726 and 1728, they were English streets like Peachtree that grabbed the philosopher’s attention. Here is how he described it in his Sixth Philosophical Letter: 

If there were only one religion in England, one would have to fear despotism; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but they have thirty, and they live happy and in peace. 

“Happy and in peace”… that’s the dream of an effective secular politics that takes religious pluralism for granted. 

But now comes the twist. Something else had happened to England between the early 1500s, when the trouble and the beheading began, and the early 1700s when thirty different religions seemed like a happy compromise. Namely, England got richer. A lot richer. 

The British Empire and British Navy, sure. But think the East India Company. Think the global commerce that empires are designed to protect. To the eye of many a wealthy British burgher, religious wars were simply bad for business. 

I’d like to suggest that we see something similar happening in the United States in this election season. Until fairly recently, the field of Republican presidential hopefuls looked a lot like Peachtree Street in Atlanta: an evangelical Protestant who used to be Lutheran, who was born in Iowa and lives in Minnesota; a lukewarm Mormon who was born in California and recently returned from China; a lukewarm Baptist who was born in Tennessee and lives in Atlanta; a fiery Roman Catholic who was born in Virginia and lives in Pennsylvania; an evangelical “born-again” Protestant who was born and raised in Texas; a Mormon who was born in Michigan but who has lived and worked all over the place; a former Baptist who used to be Lutheran and later converted to Roman Catholicism, who was born in Pennsylvania but also lives near Atlanta now; and a nominal Baptist who was born in Pennsylvania, lives in Texas, and almost has to be an atheist to be consistent with his Libertarian philosophy. What power could be more absolute and unchecked than God’s, after all? 

Now that is one complicated American street. And sure, we’re down to just four candidates now, but the situation is no less complicated for the reduction: one lifelong Roman Catholic; one Roman Catholic convert; one Mormon; and one quasi-Baptist Libertarian. And let’s face it, we’re really down to two: a lifelong Mormon and a Roman Catholic convert. So who represents the religious mainstream of the United States? The point is, there isn’t one. There never really was. Because religious wars are bad for business. 

None of this is to say that religion does not matter, deeply so, to some of these candidates and to some of their constituencies. There are a great many evangelical and fundamentalist churches in which the idea that the Pope is Antichrist is preached on a regular basis, and these tend to be the same churches that argue forcefully for the view that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is an heretical Christian offshoot. But precious few of these churches argue that a Catholic or Mormon church does not belong on an American street. Their right to exist is fairly settled. 

Can a Mormon or a Catholic run for president? Of course they can. In this election cycle, they are being asked to run against a US President who was born in Hawai’i and lived in Chicago, who was not raised religiously, but who came to a fairly loose and undefined Christian faith that is Protestant in its basic tenets, and whose middle name (Hussein) leaves some still confused about his true religious identity. 

(Mitt, Newt, Barack… they’ve all got funny names this time around.) 

There is a lot more to this campaign than religion and a lot more to North American religious pluralism than doctrine. It’s about the right to happiness and the quest for peace. Both of which are good for business. 

In 1980, Ronald Reagan presided over a powerful new coalition that linked long-entrenched business interests with a conservative Christian social agenda. That coalition proved formidable for a decade. Since then, the Christian conservative members of the Republican coalition—those who are honest with themselves, at any rate—have begun to wonder if they weren’t being played all along. Whenever the chips are down (as they are now) and a choice between economic conservatism or religious conservatism is demanded, then the Party goes with business. 

Saint George or Saint Spyridon doesn’t really matter here. What we have learned since the South Carolina primary, and re-learned in Florida and Nevada, is what matters most in this moment of deep economic unsettlement. Mitt Romney declared an income of $21 million last year, the vast majority of it from investments. Newt Gingrich declared an income in excess of $3 million, the vast majority of it suspicious-sounding. 

In other words, these are very wealthy men who are very political and very, very well-connected. And this is what their Party represents.

Filed Under: FeaturedLouis A. RuprechtPluralismPoliticsViews, News, & Issues

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