Meeting the Lord in the Air

The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America

by Richard John Neuhaus
Eerdmans, 280 pp., $16.95

Religion in the Secular City: Toward a Postmodern Theology

by Harvey Cox
Simon and Schuster, 304 pp., $16.95

The other day, in a coffee shop, I overheard a conversation between two men evidently engaged in the insurance business. They were discussing, after they had dispatched some professional matters, “the Rapture.” At first I couldn’t think what this was about. But when the conversation moved on to the topic of Armageddon, when and where this event was to take place, I began to see that the Rapture was a reference to Paul’s first Letter to the Thessalonians, in which it is said that those alive at the second coming of Christ “shall be caught up…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” What was startling was the conjunction of a sober conversation about questions of insurance with a discussion, equally sober in tone and, as it were, at the same level of concern, of the Rapture, understood as a happening of the same kind as the flights of astronauts, and of Armageddon, understood as a battle that would, when it happened, have the same reality as the war between Iran and Iraq.

I knew I had encountered for the first time something I had only come across in news reports or received as messages from bumper stickers. This is the revived fundamentalism that has already had an effect—how great is disputable—on American political life. Overhearing this conversation made me curious, moved me to inward laughter, slightly nauseated me, and frightened me a bit. This response was, I knew, typical of a person of my age and education (that is, someone over sixty and educated in a British university). That I happened to be a Christian didn’t, so far as I can tell, determine my response, though perhaps it accounted for the quickness with which I caught on to the subject of the conversation. I suppose I had taken it as obvious that the fundamentalist movement was not uttering a genuinely religious challenge but was merely the ideological froth on a movement stirred by issues that had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the history of marginal groups in American society.

Harvey Cox and Richard Neuhaus try to convince us that the Moral Majority and movements like it present us with serious problems for theological thought. They admit that in its prejudices, its style, and its political preferences, it is troublesome. Its leaders know little history and have an exceptionally poor acquaintance with the complexities of American history. Their ignorance of the theology of even their own tradition is great. Renouncing modernity, they take up some characteristic expressions of modernity. They belong to television show business, to the world of The Johnny Carson Show, General Hospital, and Love Boat; they exploit the synthetic nostalgia purveyed by such programs as The Little House on the Prairie. Sometimes they affront public decency, as in the conferring by the Bob Jones University of an honorary degree on the Reverend Ian Paisley. In their ways of life the fundamentalist leaders are indistinguishable …

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