“Make the Church Great Again”?

I’m kind of amazed how many people actually took me up on the offer to read a long, untitled post yesterday about Donald Trump — and grateful for the kind, thoughtful responses here, on Facebook, and at Twitter. I’ll likely wait till next week to publish a follow-up, but when I write again on Trump, I want to suggest that the Church has an opportunity to convince Trump supporters that Christianity has something to say to their concerns. For example, that the Gospel both says something other than “Make America Great Again” and speaks to the fear at the root of that desire.

But for today, I thought I’d go off on a bit of a tangent from that slogan…

Trump bumper sticker: "Make America Great Again"

Late last month the New York Times probed the notion that Trump voters are animated by nostalgia, that they are drawn to the promise that their candidate will “Make America Great Again.” Reporter Margot Sanger-Katz pointed to a March survey by Pew, showing that 75% of Trump backers believed that life had been better for people like them fifty years ago. A majority of Republicans overall agreed with that sentiment, while less than 30% of Democrats did.

But when, precisely, was America at its greatest? Sanger-Katz summarized the results of another survey that asked  this question:

  • In general, Republican respondents favored the Eisenhower and Reagan eras. Democrats looked to the much more recent past: the 1990s, or even later. 2016 was the second most popular choice among Democrats.
  • Even among Trump supporters, the year 2015 was one of the 10 most popular choices. But there was no discernible pattern: 1955, 1960, 1970, and 1985 were all mildly popular, and the single most common response (8%) was the year 2000.
  • And that was true in general for Americans, regardless of party or other variables. Sanger-Katz observed that “The year’s popularity may partly reflect people’s fondness for round numbers. But many voters explained their choice by referring to a greater sense of security. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred the following year.”
  • The vast majority of votes were cast for years since the end of WWII, and almost no one opted for a year before 1900. (1776 did get some support.)

All very interesting (and I’d certainly welcome your own answers to that question in the Comments section), but what I actually wonder is how Christians would answer a similar question:

In what year was the Church at its “greatest”?

Now, I’m not sure that “great” is actually an adjective that the Church ought to aspire to. (Any more, to return to my forthcoming Trump follow-up, than I think that it’s one that Christians ought to desire for any particular nation or state.) I’m just coopting some familiar language… What I mean is, when — if ever — was the Church closest to what it was meant to be?

If you know of a study asking something like this question of Christians, please let me know. But let me suggest a few hypotheses and see what you think:

  1. Luther bust in Eisleben
    Bust of Martin Luther at the Luther birth house in Lutherstadt Eisleben – Creative Commons (Con2tto)

    The “fondness for round numbers” would show up again — a tendency reinforced by the fact that there’s so little church-historical literacy among American Christians that they wouldn’t know other options.

  2. But to the extent that people will identify a year not ending in 0 or 5… I suspect that 2016 will be again be popular, especially among progressive Christians who believe that the Church is only now starting to emerge from complicity with some deeply embedded injustices.
  3. Just as you saw some Americans defying the general preference for relative recency and picking 1776, I expect that 1517 would be a popular non-round choice with Protestants. I wonder if a notable number of Catholics would give the start or end date for Vatican II… or maybe the elections of John Paul II or Francis?
  4. At some level, most Christian traditions give special status to the apostolic or early church — as a wellspring of the Great Tradition, the starting point of episcopal church government, the primitive ideal from which the Church is always tempted to stray… I don’t know what year people inclined this way would give, though: 100? 200? (Maybe 30 or 33 as the year of the Crucifixion, Ascension, and Pentecost?)

I should add that lurking in the background of this question are some discussions we’ve been having in my Intro to History course at Bethel. Students just finished giving presentations on how Americans make the past “usable,” drawing on categories from the textbook we’re using, in which John Fea suggests that the past can become an escape (nostalgia), a source of identity (heritage), a source of inspiration, and an engine of change. This week, then, I’ve been having students think about how Christians seek their own “usable pasts” out of church history. I suspect that the choice of “greatest” year may reflect some preference for viewing the Christian past as an escape, a heritage, an inspiration, or an engine of change.

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