Americanism, Then and Now: Our Pet Heresy

Christopher CheckOn January 22, 1899, Pope Leo XIII addressed an encyclical (Testem benevolentiae nostrae) to James Cardinal Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, intended “to suppress certain contentions” that had arisen in America “to the detriment of the peace of many souls.” In essence, Leo feared that some American Catholic intellectuals, including a number of bishops, were finding canonical and theological lessons for the Church where they should not be looking for them: in the American cultural and political experience of democracy and individualism.

“The underlying principle of these new opinions,” wrote Leo,

is that, in order to more easily [sic] attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.

Leo XIIILeo named this heresy Americanism, after the country that had spawned it. Debate continues to this day over what, exactly, the elements of the heresy are, and some question whether those whom Leo addressed in his encyclical were guilty of any doctrinal error. One priest at the center of the controversy as it played out in Europe, Abbé Felix Klein, called Americanism the “phantom heresy,” and Cardinal Gibbons assured the Holy Father that he and his brother bishops were prepared to defend and promote the Catholic Faith—all of it—in America. Nonetheless, Leo’s concerns were not without warrant. He knew well the end of a soul encouraged “to follow out more freely the leading of his own mind” and where “the assumed right to hold whatever opinion one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world” would lead—even though he did not use the word blog. Indeed, 70 years after the promulgation of Testem benevolentiae nostrae, progressives would celebrate as the great glory of the Second Vatican Council a revolutionary idea that nowhere appears in the Council’s not inconsiderable documents: “freedom of conscience.”

For dissident Catholic priests and theologians, this high-sounding phrase became the reason to reject centuries of Church teachings, particularly those pertaining to sexual morality. Charles Curran, Daniel McGuire, Michael Novak, and other celebrity dissenters promoted artificial contraception to an all too easily manipulated faithful. Divorce and abortion followed. Today, not a few Catholic politicians defend abortion and think that cohabiting homosexuals should have the right to get married.

Americanism, doubtless more virulent in our day than it was in Leo’s, combines a collective sense of Christian exceptionalism (America as the “Shining City on a Hill”) with the hubristic conviction that America can draw up her own moral code—or, rather, a limitless number of moral codes, arising from each individual’s conscience. Acknowledging the heresy and its internal contradictions helps us understand why Americans today can insist that we are a Christian nation while indulging in all manner of public and private behavior that is decidedly not Christian, from delighting in degenerate diversions, to sanctioning the murder of children, to supporting and prosecuting an unjust war. Although the heresy began as a Catholic controversy, it is hardly less manifest in American Protestant denominations where far too many are eager to cooperate with the “spirit of the age,” using “freedom of conscience” as an excuse to relax some of their own severity.

If the chief Catholic scandal that finds its origin in Americanism is the widespread flouting of the Church’s immutable teaching on contraception, the chief Protestant scandal is the high divorce rate found even among regular churchgoers. For some time, of course, many Protestant denominations have permitted divorce (and subsequent remarriage) in cases of adultery or abandonment. However, in, for example, the United Methodist Church, these terms have been relaxed. As the self-proclaimed church with “open hearts, open minds, open doors,” the UMC, in its Book of Discipline, declares that,

God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. . . . However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness . . . [D]ivorce publicly declares that a marriage no longer exists. . . . Divorce does not preclude a new marriage.

To put a friendly face on this mush, a divorced Methodist man shares his experience on the UMC’s website:

Both my ex-wife and I were pleasantly surprised by how easily things went after the first few times in church as a separated couple. In fact, the reactions and support of the people there helped make this very difficult time somewhat less trying. They not only demonstrated how to be nonjudgmental with us, but we were able to carry that into our divorce proceedings and were nonjudgmental with one another most of the time, too. . . . And although my ex-wife and I will never again be married, we have been able to find a depth of Christian love for each other that was completely unexpected. What a blessing!

Divorce rates are even higher among those American denominations, such as the Baptists, in which the promptings of individual conscience are afforded even greater authority. This would come as no surprise to Leo, who rejected out of hand the idea that the teaching Church is outmoded because the Holy Spirit now speaks directly to souls, “the contention being that the Holy Spirit pours richer and more abundant graces than formerly upon the souls of the faithful, so that without human intervention He teaches and guides them by some hidden instinct of His own.” To Leo, it was a “sign of no small overconfidence to desire to measure and determine the mode of the Divine communication to mankind.”

Today, in the absence of objective rules and standards, ready divorce is, according to one study conducted by well-known evangelical researcher George Barna, no less a part of evangelical culture, in particular, than it is of American culture, in general. In fact, Barna’s data indicates that “born-again” Christians divorce at a higher rate than self-professed agnostics and atheists. Roughly 25 percent of the general population is now or has been divorced. Barna’s study puts the figure at 34 percent for nondenominational Christians, 29 percent for Baptists, 28 percent for Presbyterians, and 26 percent for Methodists. Only Roman Catholics and Lutherans have divorce rates below the national average.

Where sexual morality is concerned, the Episcopal Church—a thoroughly American institution—is a piece apart. As recently as 1998, Anglican bishops had, if somewhat tepidly, maintained much of traditional Christian teaching on marriage: “[I]n view of the teaching of Scripture, [the Conference] upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.” Nonetheless, the Episcopal Church has ordained a lesbian bishop and permitted the “blessing” of same-sex unions. In March, when asked by the Anglican primates to renounce what amounted to the approval of homosexual acts, the Episcopalian bishops refused to submit to correction. Nonetheless, they stated their desire to remain part of the Anglican Communion because, in their words, membership in the Church of England gives them “the great privilege and unique opportunity of sharing in the family’s work of alleviating human suffering in all parts of the world.”

What of proclaiming the Gospel? Well, the Episcopalian bishops “proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God’s children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ’s Church,” and they proclaim “a Gospel that welcomes diversity of thought and encourages free and open theological debate as a way of seeking God’s truth.”

As Leo XIII predicted, this Americanized Christianity has led to a mess of contradictions. Remarkably, bishops of the Episcopal Church are bold enough to declare the reprimand from the Anglican primates to be “spiritually unsound,” as it points out that their

pastoral scheme encourages one of the worst tendencies of our Western culture, which is to break relationships when we find them difficult instead of doing the hard work necessary to repair them and be instruments of reconciliation. The real cultural phenomenon that threatens the spiritual life of our people, including marriage and family life, is the ease with which we choose to break our relationships and the vows that established them rather than seek the transformative power of the Gospel in them.

And this from a House of Bishops that includes divorced men.

Is this advanced religious confusion and the moral decay it sires unique to America? Hardly. Pornography is more readily available on European television than on American television. With the possible exception of Las Vegas, there is not an American city that can compete with Amsterdam in the public approbation of moral rot. In Moscow, the average number of abortions per woman approaches four. In Prague, a city whose architecture testifies to the Faith, churches are empty on Sundays. In France, Italy, and Spain, the descendents of crusaders and conquistadors are contracepting themselves out of existence even as they invite the enemies of Our Lord inside their borders to make up the demographic difference. Unlike America, however, the nations of Europe—excepting, perhaps, the Poles, the Slovaks, and the Maltese—have long given up on insisting that they are Christian. Indeed, the European Union is determined to reject Europe’s Christian roots, and its subjects, by and large, are not protesting. The remnant in Europe know that they are a remnant.

Americans, on the other hand, ignoring the signs that indicate that we are on the same cultural path as Europe, continue to insist on the thinnest evidence—“under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” on our currency—that America is a Christian nation, whose material prosperity and political dominance are, like the atom bomb (as one famous professional conservative put it), signs of God’s favor. (If any country is permitted to make so astonishing a claim, it is France, to whom God did directly and obviously send a military advantage—and a moral one—in the person of Saint Joan of Arc.)

The American soul, if it is to be saved, will require more than a list of proscriptions to obey, no matter how energetically they are thundered from the nation’s pulpits. Fire and brimstone sermons do not stop Baptists and evangelicals from divorcing. Nor will a mere understanding, however widespread, of the social consequences of deviant behavior suffice. Men shackled by unnatural desires are intimately familiar with the physical toll their sins exact, yet far too few of them refuse to indulge themselves. That divorce harms children is universally acknowledged, but the rate of divorce has not slowed. By now, any honest abortion enthusiast knows that abortion takes a human life, but mothers still murder their children.

The churches in America have failed to hold the line on the fundamentals of morality, but their deeper fault lies in their failure to lead the transformation of the culture in Christ. American society is not one in which a person can cultivate the kind of piety that illuminates his understanding of his relationship to God. In such a culture, man can see the real value of his nature and struggle against Original Sin to live up to it.

There are some signs of hope among the American hierarchy. Bishop Robert W. Finn of the diocese of Kansas City-Saint Joseph recently issued a pastoral letter on pornography that is well worth reading. Noting that “disciples of Jesus Christ are called to the happiness that comes from a clean and undivided heart,” Finn condemns the “steady increase of pornography in our culture,” calling it a “plague in our society, reaching epidemic proportions.” Although Finn is clear in calling the “[u]se of pornography . . . a serious sin against chastity [that] . . . robs us of sanctifying grace,” and in insisting that “sin is real and it is destructive,” he takes care to explain that “sin makes us less human” and that only by living up to our nature as sons of God, made in His image and likeness, can we overcome the culture in which we live, “one that is increasingly dark and death-dealing.”

As Leo did a century before, Finn centers on the supernatural virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, which are the products of a sacramental life. Such a life, he explains, cultivates an “awareness of the presence of God”—the surest antidote to the besetting sin of Americanism.

June 2007Christopher Check is the executive vice president of The Rockford Institute.

This article first appeared in the June 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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