Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pilgrims and Local Institutions

"Evangelicals, often with benevolent intentions, have long been busybodies. Going back to the Second Great Awakening, they have organized any number of social or moral crusades. They did this, of course, thinking that the fortunes of the kingdom of God were at stake in the kind of society the United States would be. But while evangelicals were busy establishing a Benevolent Empire, even to the point of creating formal mechanisms for conforming non-evangelical residents to Protestant American ways, other Christians- Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and ethnic Protestants- were building churches and parochial schools designed to nurture a differently calibrated Christian faith. These Christians did not identify the kingdom of God with America but located it within the church, which had the responsibility for shepherding the spiritual flock from the cradle to the grave. While American evangelicals looked for public institutions to embody Protestant norms, these churchly Christians sometimes resisted the rule of Protestant America in hopes of establishing their own colonies of faith and practice.

In contrast to the evangelical ideal of the earnest Christian as crusader, churchly Christians lived more like pilgrims. As people whose ultimate home was in another world beyond this one, they believed that the American nation was not their home, but only their proximate residence. These Christians may not have done as much to change the nation, though the pursuit of a national and centralized set of institutions to enforce Christian ideals would come back to haunt evangelicals. Still, if the churchly Protestants' calibration of eternal realities was accurate, they may have been more faithful than evangelicals in preparing for and establishing a heavenly kingdom.

Today's evangelicals want many of the same things that these ethnic Christian groups did- strong families, good churches, and healthy schools. If born-again Protestants hope to gain those cultural and religious goods, they need to consider the model of pilgrimage practiced by those older Christian groups and the place that political activism occupied in their faith. Granted, social life in the United States today is overwhelmingly different from nineteenth-century America. Even so, the practices of ethnic groups in the U.S. are fitting ones for believers who are supposed to know that the American nation is not their final resting place, but only a way station to their eternal home."

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