Impulses Of Common Purpose: An Interview with Mark Silk

Mark Silk is a writer, scholar, and a preeminent commentator on the religious scene. In the 1980s he coined a term – spiritual politics – to describe the ever-changing interplay of American religion and political life. See his book Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II (Touchstone, 1988). Today he is director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. His Religion News Service column, “Spiritual Politics,” can be found at religionnews. com/columns/mark-silk. He is co-author of One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) and co-editor of the Columbia University Press series, The Future of Religion in America. He spoke to Reflections in August.

REFLECTIONS: In the US, Protestants are now a statistical minority. How significant is this?

MARK SILK: It’s being called a post-Protestant time, but the fact is there are still millions of non-Catholic Christians – neo-Pentecostals, evangelicals, nondenominational churchgoers. They simply don’t call themselves Protestant anymore, even though their theology or structure is often Protestant.

Nevertheless, there is a sense of decline. So many churches have been part of the majority culture so long, they don’t know how to reverse it. Many feel as if they are strangers in their own country: “This isn’t America anymore.” Interest in Calvinism is increasing, and my hunch is it’s a way for many to make sense of the decline – as if to say, we’re in a time when only the elect, a remnant, can survive to carry the faith forward.

REFLECTIONS: How do evangelical politics today compare to the days of the Moral Majority in the 1980s?

SILK: We’ve seen some startling changes. I can understand that it makes sense to go with the political party that you’ve affiliated with for decades, but by now it’s striking how partisan that world is. Perhaps the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage have cast the Democrats into the outer darkness. Perhaps many want a war of religion – two, really – one against secularism and another against Muslims. Overt anti-Muslim public comment was off the table when George W. Bush was president. He held the line against that kind of talk. The second decade of the century has departed from that. The controversy about a mosque at Ground Zero in New York – also the debates in various states about Sharia law – brought anti-Muslim opinion into the open. IMPULSES OF COMMON PURPOSE: An Interview with Mark Silk

REFLECTIONS: Can mainline churches keep a national presence in reform politics?

SILK: Mainline churches still play a significant role in cities and towns all over – they continue to feel their social responsibility. In Connecticut, churches have partnered with other organizations to underwrite Syrian immigrant families.

Having gotten past the same-sex debates, a lot of denominations might find an opening on issues that will give churches a role.

One looming issue is global: All of humankind is facing climate change, which could reanimate a spiritual impulse of common purpose, both here and everywhere.

Up to now, what’s lamented across the board, mainline or otherwise, is an inability of American Christianity to generate figures who are real leaders. It’s not a matter of, “Where are the Reinhold Niebuhrs of yesteryear?” There was only one Reinhold Niebuhr. No, the very idea of a person of the cloth as a voice on the national scene seems to be falling away, even on the evangelical right. People should feel that their institutions matter for these huge problems we face. You can’t do that with just a gathering of 60-somethings.

That’s the real freak-out, which cuts across all religious traditions: young adults. They just aren’t joining. It’s disturbing. For so long, these institutions were expected to set young families on the right path. But what if the young families don’t show up?

REFLECTIONS: Are we on the brink of change in our spiritual politics?

SILK: I think it’s possible to be optimistic that the next period will see a new rallying around some important themes. I think we’ll see a lessening of tensions regarding Islam. In this country, a “war on Muslims” doesn’t poll well. The nation is resistant. Pluralistic ideology is pretty deeply rooted. It has been part of the American civil religion from the beginning of the Republic. Pushback against recent anti-Muslim rhetoric has been strong, reflecting some hard-won principles of religious diversity.

Further, with Pope Francis we’ll continue to see a deeper focus on global poverty and climate change. More people are asking how we human beings will live on this planet together. I think we’re going to see a shift in all parties around climate change. I mean, if you live in certain parts of Florida or other coastal regions, you are going to see the changes. You’re going to be under water. Climate change mobilization – on a World War II scale – isn’t some 50-year project that we can delay. It needs to happen now, and it will require a moral, spiritual mobilization if we are going to succeed.