Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia’s new book, released on Tuesday, takes a hard look at how Catholics in the United States can live their faith in a public square which has become post-Christian.
EWTN News recently spoke with Archbishop Chaput about Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, published Feb. 21 by Henry Holt and Co.
During the conversation, the archbishop discussed the changes seen in American public life in recent years, the role technology has played in these changes, and the place of law in the country’s ethos.
He also touched on Christian hope, the central importance of fidelity to Christ, and the temptation of conformity to cultural norms.
Please read below the full text of EWTN News’ interview with Archbishop Chaput:
Why did you feel the need for a new book after “Render Unto Caesar”?
I think the nine years since the release of Render Unto Caesar have seen a generational change in America. Boomers are aging out of leadership. Younger people are moving in. Their civic formation and memory – their understanding of the nation, the role of religious faith in public life, the nature of the Church – are very different from my age cohort.
The 1960s generation, my age group, had the benefit of moral and intellectual capital built up over many decades. We borrowed on it, even while we attacked it. Now a lot of it is used up. That has political consequences for the country and pastoral consequences for anyone trying to preach and live the Gospel. For example, what does a word like “salvation” mean to people who’ve been told since birth that they’re basically pretty good already, and if they’re not, it’s the fault of somebody or some force outside themselves?
As Christians, we’re offering a salvific message in a therapeutic culture. It’s a tough sale.
Doesn’t “Strangers in a Strange land” as a title suggest a rather pessimistic view of the place Christians have in society today?
Realistic, yes; pessimistic, no. Optimism and pessimism are equally dangerous because both God and the devil are full of surprises. About three-quarters of Americans still self-identify as Christians. Tens of millions of them actively and sincerely practice their faith. I know dozens of young clergy and lay leaders who are on fire with God, and they’ll make a real difference in the world with their witness. So biblical faith still has an important influence on our public life.
But we’d be foolish to ignore the overall trends in American religious affiliation, which are not good.
You make the case in your book that we’re living in a “post-Christian world.” How so?
By “world” I mean mainly the developed countries of the north. In the global south, Christianity is generally doing very well and growing rapidly. But the north has the wealth and power, and therefore the ability to shape much of the dialogue about international trade, politics, and even history. Take a creature like the European Union. The EU very deliberately ignores 1,500 years of Europe’s Christian heritage and defines itself in purely secular terms, as if a huge part of its own past never happened. In effect, it tries to create a new reality by erasing its own memory.
That’s a harder trick to pull off in the United States, because we have no negative experience of religious wars or state Churches, the nation’s religious roots are still fresh, and religious practice is still high. But if you unpack the subtext in some of today’s militancy about tolerance and diversity, you find the same disdain for Christian faith and morality.
What do you see as the main factors that have changed America’s religious landscape?
Some of the change is inevitable and good because we’re a country built on immigration, and our demography naturally changes over time. More important, I think, is that many of the developments in our legal and educational philosophies and our sexual mores over the past 60 years have not been friendly to religious belief, and especially to Christian faith. At the same time, technology has fundamentally altered the way we learn, live and work, how we imagine the “supernatural,” and even how we think, or whether we think at all, about God.
You mention the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision as an emblem of the “many issues creating today’s sea change in American public life.” How so?
America is an invented nation. It has no history before the age of progress. It’s a country created and held together by law; and law not only regulates, it also teaches. Americans have an instinctive bias toward assuming that if it’s legal, it’s also morally acceptable. So what the law says about marriage, family and sex has a huge influence on how we actually live as a society. Obergefell was a watershed in how we view these things, and not for the better.
Can we find in our current circumstances some practical reasons for real hope, or are we Christians destined to live sort of “by hope alone”?
Jesus changed the world with 12 very flawed men. We have plenty of good men and women, and more than enough resources, to do the same. But not if we’re too self-absorbed and too eager to fit into the world around us to suffer for our faith. We’re not short of vocations. We’re short of clear thinking and zeal.
What makes Christian hope so radically different from the “hope and change” kind of political slogans common in the secular world?
Political slogans are designed to bypass the brain and go for the heart. They’re a shortcut that relieves people of the hard work of thinking. “Hope and change” is a classic example. The real issue in those words, which is never addressed, is why we should hope, and what kind of change do we want – because some change can be bad.
Christian hope is not an emotion. It’s based on our faith in a loving God, no matter how hard our circumstances. There’s a wonderful line in the King James Version of the Book of Job, where Job – who’s bitterly tested by God – says, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (13:15). That confidence, despite all the seeming evidence to the contrary, that’s the virtue of hope. And it’s very different from just choosing a positive outlook.
How does your vision of a great Christian past and a hopeful future differ from “Making America Great Again?”
The Christian past was great only to the degree that Christians were faithful to Jesus Christ and his Gospel. All the beauty of Christian art, music, architecture, culture and scholarship that we’ve inherited – all of it – depended on and derived from that fidelity. The same applies to how we build the future.
As for the country: We’ll make America great when we make America good. And that means laws and leaders and communities that embody justice, charity and a respect for the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, and including the refugee and immigrant. Otherwise, “making America great again” is just the latest version of “hope and change.”
You say in your first chapter that there are things we Christians “should not bear, should not believe, should not endure in civic life.” Wouldn’t that make us “culture warriors” rather than evangelizers?
Preaching, teaching, defending and suffering for what we believe about God and his love for us are part of a culture war that goes back to Golgotha. These things are also called witness.
You quote Václav Havel saying that “the only way to fight a culture of lies…is to consciously live the truth.” What would it mean to live the truth for rank-and-file Catholics today?
Every Catholic every day has little opportunities to speak up to explain or defend his or her faith. Nearly 200 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville – the great early chronicler of our nation’s life – noticed that Americans, despite all our talk about individual liberty, have a terror of being out of step with public opinion.
We don’t need more resources to renew the Church in the United States. We need more courage. And that begins with the honesty to live what we claim to believe as Catholics, whether public opinion approves or not.