Communion of the Saints

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heaven.jpgA few days ago, Ed Kilgore over at Beliefnet’s Progressive Revival lamented that the old-time creedal beliefs no longer define the body of the faithful the way they used to. These days, a “conventionally orthodox Protestant” like himself is likely to considered a bad Christian in many conservative Protestant circles because he supports abortion rights and favors gay marriage. No doubt he’s right.
This is not the first time in American history that social issues have become the dividing line among believers. Slavery split many a denomination prior to the Civil War. But in our time, the genital issues really do seem to be substituting for theological ones. As revealed in the latest Pew survey of religious exclusivity, two-thirds of Americans with a religious commitment believe that many religions can get you to heaven. That’s down from three-quarters six years ago, but still shows a quite remarkable commitment to what some call universalism.
Not that the odium theologicum has entirely disappeared. Focus on the Family recently removed an interview with Mormon author Glen Beck from its website, evidently because it failed to supply the necessary warning label that Beck’s faith might be dangerous to your evangelical health. And of course, prominent conservative Christians of various persuasions periodically cause a certain amount of Jewish heartburn by noting that Jews won’t be going to heaven. Why in God’s name the Jews should care is a question to which the only sensible answer is that the belief somehow leads to hostility or discrimination. These days, there’s not much evidence of that.
The downside of the impetus towards widespread embrace of a “My Father’s House Has Many Mansions” ideology,” it seems to me, is that it makes it harder to differentiate the sacred from the secular spheres of life. There are real public benefits in having a robust understanding that there are certain doctrines and practices (extending beyond the means of salvation to marriage and divorce and abortion and drinking and dancing) that we have in our religious communities that are not the same as what applies in secular society. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a ratcheting up of that sacral identity that always lurks in the background of American consciousness. This may help explain that high 2002 number for belief in the accessibility of heaven to many faiths. We can all get to heaven–providing we all obey the sacred American moral norms.
So if religious exclusivity is enjoying a bit of a comeback, that may signal a ratcheting back of Sacred America and a return to a clearer sense of church-state separation. Not a bad thing, even though it probably won’t get Ed Kilgore back in the good graces of his old Southern Baptist church.