My Thoughts on “Christianity’s Decline in the Northeast”

@roddreher makes an interesting, if somewhat open-ended analysis of the subject:

…my general sense was the same I had when I lived in NYC for five years: that the region overall is cool to Christianity in a way that I have not seen anywhere else I’ve lived (except for South Florida).

Needless to say, the last phrase caught my attention. As a South Floridian who is a product of a “bi-cultural” family in that regard, I’d like to dodge the food fight he’s having in his comment section and try to take a run at explaining the phenomenon he’s looking at.

Let’s start with the obvious: the main reason South Florida is “cool to Christianity” (and Dreher is being charitable here) is because many of its inhabitants started out life in the Northeast.  That’s less true now than it was when I grew up there, mainly because of major Latin American immigration, but it still marks the region’s character.

With that out of the way, we can speculate about things such as education, “belief” in certain things as opposed to others, and of course lifestyle issues.  But this is supposed to be a country of opportunity and upward mobility, and I think the simple explanation is that people in the Northeast don’t see Christianity as part of the “way up” as Southerners have and to a large extent still do.

Let’s start by looking at the structure of Christianity itself in the Northeast.  In colonial times same was a hodgepodge of Purtians and other nonconformists who moulded the various colonies based on their preference. Puritanism in particular is a hard religion; they burned witches in Salem.  But the 900-pound gorilla which really messed things up was Roman Catholicism, which rapidly became the bane of the rest of Christianity.  The lack of unity among these groups made using Christianity as an upward vehicle in a civic society problematic.  That was compounded by the fact that most of these churches lacked a vision for incorporating that success in a Christian life. The main offender in that regard again is Roman Catholicism; conservatives have been reminded of late of the real nature of Catholic social teaching, but it’s always been out there.

Some mention should be made of a group well entrenched in the Northeast that isn’t Christian at all: the Jews. These highly resourceful people had no use for church, and the result was a society where the Gentile-Jew divide was very sharp.  (That, too, was replicated in South Florida).  So we had yet another split in the way up.

When we turn to the South, we have an entirely different situation.  All of the Southern colonies were Anglican until after Independence, at which time the Church of England (becoming the Episcopal Church) got disestablished. That, however, put a Christian presence at the top of society; Southern churches, for their differences in polity and doctrine, moved as a unity, albeit a class-stratified one, where one chose one’s church based on where one wanted to be in society.

For all the blubbering we hear from secularists about Southern “fundamentalists” and “fanatics” Southern Christianity never indulged itself in some of the really suppressive tactics of their Northern counterparts.  For example, they burned witches in Salem, not Savannah. Things were “banned in Boston”, not “banned in Birmingham”.  Southern churches’ biggest sin was racism, but it’s worth noting that black churches, taking a cue from their white counterparts, stuck together for their progress during the civil rights movement.

Under these conditions church could, was and is used as a way of moving up in a way that hasn’t been the case in the Northeast in at least a century.

For me, it’s made for a strange ride.  When growing up in Palm Beach, I read (or heard) the Gospels and realised that I would have to give up things to walk with God.  Most people won’t make that sacrifice and thought I was crazy to think about it. I come to the South and such a concept was considered absurd, but for a different reason: where you went to church was part of the “way up”.

Which idea is closest to what Our Lord wants is beyond the scope of this post. For the aforementioned reasons any real Christian in the Northeast (and of course South Florida for that matter) will hit a glass ceiling in a hurry, and that’s why Christianity is in trouble there.

A Unique South Florida Tribute to Christianity

Former Miami cop Marshall Frank lays it out:

I am not a Christian.

That being said, I love and support the Christian religion for adhering to a loving faith. I may not be a believer, but I have enjoyed the Christmas holidays all of my 75 years…

How despicable it is to hear and see people within myriad organizations across America — and throughout the world — who would malign and disparage a religion whose primary message is to love others and render healing and care to those afflicted with disease and poverty. Sure, some are fanatical, but fanatical Christians are not beheading anyone, nor setting off suicide bombs or swearing to their God that they will shed blood to conquer the world.

This is a wonderful piece and I urge you to take it in and to visit Frank’s own website as well. Many will find it strange that someone who is not a Christian would stand up for the faith in a country where it’s not fashionable to do so any more.

I spend a lot of time talking about the land “where the animals are tame and the people run wild”. South Florida is a transient region where people have few roots and very little feeling of community. It also tends to be the last stop of just about every criminal drifter in the hemisphere, especially the area from Boston to Washington.  (There are a few exceptions). As Frank joined the Dade County Sheriff’s Office in 1960, he had to deal with my contemporaries, which I deeply regret.

The result of this is that he has had to enforce the law on some of the surliest, rudest, and most cold-hearted people in the Western Hemisphere. Under these circumstances, being a cop for any South Florida county, city or metropolitan area (to say nothing of the state troopers who draw the short straws and get assigned there) is an especially thankless job.

My first traffic ticket was in Ocean Ridge for running a red light. I was raised to respect authority and to say “yes, sir” and “no, sir”. That so impressed the officer that pulled me over that he mentioned it to the judge when we went to court.  Evidently such manners were a rare commodity. He also overlooked the speed I was travelling at, although speeds such as that weren’t easy in a 1971 Pinto.

Although Frank talks about his growing up around Christians and Christmas, I suspect that his years on the force gave him a greater appreciation for a faith that exhorted its adherents to be at peace and reach out in charity to those around them.  Today the hippie dreamers–and Frank had to deal with those in their younger days–have declared open season on the police, which only underscores Frank’s point.

Today’s atheists and secularists bawl incessantly about how Christianity needs to be wiped from society. You’d think that people who supposedly proclaim that all you see is all there is would look around as Frank has and concentrate on the results. But today’s atheists are fundies with a new religion; such an observation is beyond most of them.

Frank ends his piece with the following:

I may not be a Christian, but I look to the Christian churches in America as the last-bastion defense from those who would overtly threaten our way of life, with deadly promises of conquest. Let’s stop denigrating the Christians.

They are a hugely significant in the foundation of our great country. I love them as much as they love me.

We love you too.  I’d like to think that someday, before he meets God, Frank will join up with us.  In the meanwhile, Marshall Frank, from one South Floridian to another, Merry Christmas.

The Silence and Admiration of Mary and Joseph

This is the last in the Christmas series from Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, in this case XV-XII. You can see the earlier post here and thread back through them. It has been a difficult year for us, and the news hasn’t been the cheeriest either. For the season I have opted for something to inspire, and there is no more inspiring preaching than Bossuet’s. I trust that you have been blessed by the series, and may you have a Merry Christmas.

We have seen the shepherds return glorifying God and making him glorified to all those who heard; but now something more marvellous and edifying. But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2:19 DRB) And to follow: And his father and mother were wondering at those things which were spoken about him. (Luke 2:33 DRB) I do not know if it is worth more to unite in silence with Mary than to explain the merit by our words; for what is more admirable, after what was announced by the Angel, after all which passed there, than to hear everyone speak and meanwhile wait with closed mouth? She carried in her bosom the Son of the Most High; she saw him come out like a ray of sunlight from a cloud, to say so, pure and full of light! What had she not felt by his presence? And if, approaching him, John, in the bosom of his mother, felt a shaking so miraculous; what peace, what divine joy, would the Holy Virgin not have felt at the conception of the Word which the Holy Spirit formed in her? Could she not say the same thing about her dear Son? However, she allows everyone to praise him; she hears the shepherds; she says not a word to the Magi who came to worship her Son; she hears Simeon and Anna the Prophetess; she only poured our her feelings with holy Elisabeth, whose visit made her a Prophetess; and without opening her mouth to anyone else, she was moved and unknowing. Erant mirantes; Joseph enters his silence in part as his secret; him to whom the Angel told such great things and who had seen the miracle of the virgin birth. Neither one of them spoke of what they saw all the time at home, and never took advantage of the many miracles. As humble as she was wise, Mary let herself be thought of as an ordinary mother, and her Son as the fruit of an ordinary marriage. The great things which God does inside of his creatures naturally work in silence. To grasp it, I do not know what of the divine which suppresses all expression. Because what does one say, and what could Mary say, that would equal what she felt? Thus the secret of God is held under seal, unless he enlivens the tongue and makes it speak. Human advantage is nothing, if they are not known and the world does not take them. That which God does himself, the inestimable value which cannot be tasted except by God and the creature himself. Men, you are vain and vain is the ostentation which you press to make valuable in the eyes of men, vain as you are, all your feeble advantages! Children of men, how long will you have a heavy and carnal heart? Until when will you love vanity and please yourself with lies? All of the goods you parade are false in themselves: the only opinion which makes things valuable and there is only value to him who tastes alone in the silence with God.  Place yourself in a holy place to know that I am God: taste and see how the Lord is sweet. (Psalm 46:10; Psalm 34:8) Love the retreat and the silence: pull back from the tumultuous conversations of the world; be silent my mouth, do not block my heart from hearing God, and stop from interrupting or troubling attention so sweet. Vacate et videte: gustate et videte quoniam suavis est Dominus. Gustate et videte. (Psalm 46:10; Psalm 34:8)

The Shepherds at the Manger of Jesus Christ

Again with Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, XV-XI:

After the song of the Angels, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath shewed to us. And they came with haste: and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.  See this about the Saviour which was announced to us! Alas! What sign will let us know him! The sign of poverty which had nothing like it! No, we should not be full of our misery; we prefer our cabins to the palace of Kings; we live happy under our thatch; and too glorious to carry the character of the King of Kings. Let us go and above all spread this happy news; let us go above all to console the poor in telling them the marvels which we have seen. As God has prepared the way by his Gospel! Each was stunned to hear this beautiful account from these innocent and rustic mouths. If it were from celebrities, the Pharisees or Doctors of the Law, which told of these marvels, the world would easily believe that they had seen them make a name for themselves by their sublime visions. But who dreams of contradicting simple shepherds in their naïve and sincere account? The fullness of their joy breaks out naturally and their discourse is without artifice. Such testimonies are necessary to him who opted to choose fishermen to be his first disciples and the future teachers of his Church. All is, to say so, of the same adornment in the mysteries of Jesus Christ. Let us attempt to save the poor and to make them taste the grace of their state. Let us humble the rich of the world and confound their pride. If we lack something, and who doesn’t lack something? let us love, worship, kiss this character of Jesus Christ. Let us not wish to be rich; for what will we gain? for after all, when we will have piled up dignity on dignity, land on land, treasures on treasures, we must detach, we must lose the taste, we must be ready to lose all, if we want to be Christians.

The Beginning of the Gospel

More from Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, XV-X:

The beginning of the Gospel is in the words of the Angel to the shepherds: I announce to you, literally, I evangelise you, I give to you the good news which will be the subject of a great joy, and that is the birth of the Saviour of the world.  What happier news is there than to have a Saviour? After leaving the desert, which is found at the start of the book, in the first preaching he did in the synagogue, he said: The spirit of the Lord is upon me. Wherefore he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, he hath sent me to heal the contrite of heart, To preach deliverance to the captives and sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of reward. (Luke 4:18-19 DRB, also Isaiah 61:1-2) What equal joy can be given to men of good will and what greater subject of joy? But is not God’s glorification the greatest subject while at the same time to be able to want people to well understand God exalted by such a marvel? Here is what is in the Gospel: it is in learning the happy news of the deliverance of man, who rejoices to see the highest glory of God. Let us go up to the high places, to the most sublime parts of ourselves; let us go up above ourselves and look for God in himself, for us to rejoice of his great glory with the Angels.

The Song of the Angels

The latest instalment from Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, XV-IX:

Glory to God in the highest: and on earth peace to men of good will. Peace is published throughout the earth: peace of man with God for the remission of sins, peace of men among themselves, the peace of man with himself by the harmonisation of all his desires to want what God wants. This is the peace that the Angels sing and which they announce to the entire universe.

This peace is the subject of the glory of God. Let us not rejoice in this peace because it makes us feel good in our hearts, but because it glorifies God in the high throne of his glory: let us ascend up to the high places, to the highest place of the throne of God to glorify him in himself and not love what he has done in us to bond ourselves to him.

Let us sing in this spirit with all the Church: Glory to God in the highest.  Each time when we start singing this angelic song, let us enter into the music of the Angels by the symphony and the agreement of all our desires. Let us remember the birth of Our Saviour who gave birth to this song. Let us say from our heart all the words which the Church added to interpret the song of the Angels: we praise you, we adore you, and above all, we give you thanks for your great glory. We love your benefits because they glorify you and the good things which you do for us, because your goodness is honoured.

 On earth peace to men of good will. The word of the original which is translated by “good will”, means the good will of God for us, and tells us that peace is given to men cherished of God.

The original says, word by word: Glory to God in the high places, peace on the earth, good will from the side of God into men.  It is such which is always read in the Eastern Churches. Those of the West come back and sing peace to men of good will, that is to say in the first place to those to whom God wills well, and in the second place to those who themselves have good will, thus the first effect of the good will which God has for us is to inspire us to to have good will towards him.

Good will is that which conforms to the will of God, as that is good by essence and by itself, that which is conformed to it is good by extension. Let us control our will by that of God, and we will be men of good will, to see that this be not by senselessness, or indolence, or negligence or to avoid work, but by faith, that we throw all on God.  Soft and lazy souls would rather do this in speaking all at once; may God do what he wants, and they are only concerned about fleeing pain and worry. But to be truly conformed to the will of God, it is necessary to know to make a sacrifice of the dearest thing, and with a torn heart, say to him: all is yours, do what you want; like the holy man Job, who lost in a day all of his goods and children, the news coming to him blow by blow.  He throws himself to the ground and says: the Lord gave all that I have, and the Lord hath taken away: as it hath pleased the Lord, so is it done: blessed be the name of the Lord.  He who worships in this way is the true man of good will; and elevated above the senses and his own desires, he glorifies God in the high places. It is in this way that he has peace, and he tries to calm the trouble in his heart, not just to avoid being sad, but because this trouble blocks the perfection of the sacrifice which he wants to make to God. Otherwise he only seeks a false rest, and see that this is good will.

Good will, it is the sincere love of God and, as St. Paul says, it is love from a pure heart, a right conscience and a faith that does not fail. Faith is weak in those where it is not underlain by good works; and good works are those where one seeks to please God and not one’s own mood,  inclination, or wish.  Then, when you search God with a pure intention, the works are full, otherwise you receive this reproach from Jesus Christ: For I find not thy works full before my God. (Revelation 3:2 DRB)

The Signs to Know Jesus

Again with Bossuet in Elevations on the Mysteries, XV-VIII:

Let us look again at the words of the Angel: You will find a child in swaddling clothes, on a manger; you will know by this sign that it is the Lord. Go in the Court of the Kings; you will recognise the newborn Prince, by his coverings gilded with gold and a superb crib, which would make a throne. But to know the Christ which is born to you, this Lord so high that David his father, King that he was, called him Lord, only the sign of a manger where he lays is given, and the poor clothes where his feeble infancy is wrapped.  That is to say that he is given a nature like yours; weaknesses like yours; a poverty below yours. Who among you was born in a stable? Who of you, poor as you are, gave to your children a manger for a cradle? Jesus is the only who was left to this extremity, and it is by this sign that he wants to be known.

If he wanted to use his power, what gold would crown his head? What purple would drape his shoulders? What jewels would enrich his garments? But, Tertullian follows, he had judged all of this false brightness, all of this borrowed glory, unworthy of himself and those who are his; thus in refusing them, he devalued them; in devaluing them, he proscribed them; in proscribing them, he lined them up with the glories of the demon of this world!

Our fathers, the first Christians, spoke in this way; but unhappy us, we only breathe ambition and softness.

The Angels Announce Jesus to the Shepherds

Continuing on in Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, XV-VII:

The shepherds, imitators of the holy Patriarchs and the most innocent and simple flock in the world, guarding and keeping the night watches over their flock. Holy angels, accustomed to converse with the shepherds of old, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, announced to those in the country that the great Pastor was come; that the earth would now see a shepherd King, who is the son of David.  The angel of the Lord: let us not ask his name as Manué; he will maybe answer: why do you ask my admirable name? It is not necessary to hear that it is the same angel who appeared to Zachariah and the Holy Virgin. Whoever he was, without presuming where the Gospel does not say a word, suddenly the Angel of the Lord presented himself to them; a heavenly light surrounded them and they were seized with a great fear. All which is divine at first stuns human nature, sinful and banished from Heaven. But the Angel reassured them by saying: do not fear: I announce you a great joy: in the city of David, remember this place which long ago was marked for you by the prophet, today the Saviour of the world is born, the Christ, the Lord. And here is the sign which I give you to recognise him: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. At this unique sign of a child lying in a manger, you will recognise him who is the Christ, the Lord, small child which is born for you, son which is given for us; who in the same time, is named the Admirable, the strong God, the Father of eternity, the Prince of peace. Also, at the same instant a great flock of the heavenly army joined the Angel, which praised God and said: Glory to God and peace on the earth.

Let us note here a new Lord to whom we belong: a Lord who receives anew this supreme and divine name with that of Christ. It is the God who is anointed of God, to whom David sang: Your God, o God, has anointed you: you are eternally God. But you are newly the Christ, God and man at the same time, and the name of Lord is ascribed to you, to express that you are God, the same title as your Father; from now on following the example of the Angel, you will be called the Lord in all sovereignty and elevation. Command your new people. You do not speak yet; but you command by your example.  And what? The esteem of the least and the love of poverty; the disdain for the image making of the world, the simplicity: do I dare say it? A holy unsophistication in these new worshippers which the Angel sends you which make all of your heart, agreeable to Joseph, to Mary and the same adornment as them, so that they are equally clothed with the outfit of poverty.

 

The Stable and the Manger

Continuing in Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, XV-VI:

God prepared the world a great and new spectacle when he made a poor King to be born and he made him a palace and a suitable cradle. He came unto his own: and his own received him not. They found no place for him, when he came. The crowd and the rich of the earth had filled the inns: for Jesus there was only an abandoned and deserted stable and a manger for him to sleep: worthy retreat for him who when he grew older said: The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air, who are the most vagabond families of the earth, have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. He was not complaining: he was used to being left this way, and literally from his birth he had no place to lay his head.

He himself wanted it that way. Let us leave the places inhabited by men: let us leave the inns where disorder and schemes reign: look for me among the animals a retreat more simple and innocent. One has found a place worthy of being left. Leave, divine child, all is ready to publicise your poverty. He comes like a beam of light, like a ray of sunlight: he mother is stunned to see him appear all at once: this birth is exempt from cries of pain and violence. Miraculously conceived, he is born more miraculously, and the Saints found it more surprising to be born than to be conceived of a virgin.

Enter into possession of the throne of your poverty. The angels will come and adore you. When God introduces you to the world, the command comes from the high throne of his Majesty: And again, when he bringeth in the first begotten into the world, he saith: And let all the angels of God adore him. (Hebrews 1:6 DRB) Who can doubt that his mother, and his adopted father did not adore him at the same time? Jesus was prefigured by Joseph, himself adored by his father and mother; but the adoration which Jesus received was at a new level, as he was blessed and adored as God above all, to the end of the age.

Do not think of approaching this throne of poverty with love of riches and great things. Do not be mistaken, deceived or put up a front, at least in spirit, you who come to the manger of the Saviour. Who does not have the courage to leave all to follow poor the King of the poor? Let us leave all, at least in spirit, and in place of surrounding ourselves with a lavish lifestyle, let us blush to be such where Jesus Christ is naked and left.

All the while he was not naked: his Mother wrapped him in swaddling clothes with her chaste hands. It was necessary to cover the new Adam, who took the character of sin, which the air would devour and which modesty would clothe, out of necessity. Cover, Mary, this tender body: bring him to the virgin breast. Do you understand your giving birth? Do you have too much modesty to see yourself as a mother? What child dares to approach these divine hands! Worship him in feeding him, while the angels bring him other worshippers.

Joseph and the Trip to Bethlehem

More from Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, XV-V:

After the dream of Joseph and the word of the angel, this holy man was changed. He became a father, he became a husband by the heart. Others adopted children: Jesus adopted a father. The tender care which he gave Mary and the divine child was the effect of his marriage. He began this happy ministry by the trip to Bethlehem and we will see him soon.

What do you do, Princes of the world, to set the universe in motion, by proclaiming an enrolment of all your empire’s subjects? You want to know the power, the tribute, the future soldiers and you begin, to say so, by enrolling them. It is that or something like it which you think you are doing; but God has other plans which you carry out without regard for your human desires. His Son ought to be born in Bethlehem, humble homeland of David: he predicted it by his Prophet five hundred years before, and see that all the universe is moved to carry out this prophecy.

When they arrived at Bethlehem, ostensibly to obey the Prince who ordered them to register themselves in the public roll, in effect to obey the order of God whose secret program led them to carry out his purpose, Mary’s time to give birth came: and Jesus son of David was born in his town, where David had been given birth. His origin was attested by the public registry: the Roman Empire gave witness to the royal descent of Jesus Christ and Caesar, who did not know it, carried out the order of God.

Let us go also to write of Bethlehem: Bethlehem, the house of bread; let us go there to taste the heavenly bread, the bread of Angels which became the nourishment of man. Let us regard all Churches as being the true Bethlehem and the true house of the bread of life. It is this bread which God gives to the poor in the birth of Jesus, if they love poverty with him; if they know true riches: the poor will eat and be satisfied, if they imitate the poverty of their Saviour and come adore him in the manger.