Churches Don’t Need to Be Strong: They Need to be Antifragile

Blood, sweat, tears and toil are the marks of true Christianity.

By John Zmirak Published on March 13, 2015

One of the great lessons of the American experiment is that Christian churches can thrive without government support — that in fact, religious life does much better when clergy must rely on attracting and keeping congregants, instead of sitting back and waiting for the state to pay their salaries. (Some clergy still enjoy such cozy arrangements today in England, Germany, and Scandinavia — enough said.) Likewise, ordinary believers are much more likely to see faith and its demands as urgent issues when a creed is proposed to them as a challenge — instead of imposed by the state as part of the worldly status quo, like zoning regulations or taxes on cigarettes.

Alexis de Tocqueville articulated this truth in his justly famous Democracy in America. There, he explained the surprising vitality of Christian churches in the U.S. to his countrymen back home in France — who had experienced Christianity in only two forms: either as an inherited institution imposed and controlled by the government, or as an underground movement, hunted down by the savage agents of an intolerant revolutionary regime.

What Tocqueville saw in America was a new, vital “third way” between these ugly alternatives. Here was a society created by revolutionaries where Christianity thrived; where the state neither funded the churches nor hunted them, but allowed broadly Christian mores to infuse its laws and social code, while carefully refraining from interfering with the churches, or exalting any one of them as superior to the others.

As Rev. John Courtenay Murray recounted in his classic We Hold These Truths, after the American victory in the Revolutionary War, the Vatican contacted Congress for permission to appoint a new bishop in America — and was puzzled by the American response: that the U.S. government didn’t meddle with churches, and the pope was free to appoint whomever he wished. In no officially Catholic country did the church enjoy such freedom, nor would it for many decades. As late as 1903, the results of a papal election were canceled when Kaiser Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary “vetoed” the winning candidate.

With well-known exceptions and imperfections, religious liberty prevailed for most of American history, with the result that Americans are much more overtly religious than the people of nearly any other developed country. As Rodney Stark has pointed out, churches here were subject to competition, which compelled them to stay vital or be replaced — whereas churches in other countries that enjoyed state protectionism grew flabby, corrupt and lethargic — like the Post Office before FedEx.

As critical as our First Amendment freedoms are, and as valuable as competition is to keeping Christians honest, it isn’t always enough. American churches that grow too rich and respectable, even without the support of a clerical state, are prone to drift and decay. See the “mainline” Protestant denominations that make up the National Council of Churches — many of which are turning into real-estate holding corporations and leftist Non-Governmental Organizations promoting anti-Christian agendas on marriage and human life.

Nor are Catholics immune. In The Faithful Departed, journalist Philip Lawler identified an even darker outcome of churches becoming worldly, and churchmen learning to love their bricks-and-mortar infrastructure above the Body of Christ: He argues that the clerical sex abuse crisis, from which the Catholic church is still struggling to recover, was the direct outcome of bishops and other administrators seeking first the things of earth — the church’s reputation and its financial bottom line — instead of the safety and souls of children entrusted to their care.

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains an important principle that applies here: Any living thing, person or organization of people can only stay strong and thrive when it is regularly tested by adversity, and learns to respond to crises by becoming leaner, smarter and tougher. Neither fragile nor rigid, but antifragile.

If we are to “run the race” as St. Paul did, we need consistent training in the natural virtues of courage, prudence, temperance and fortitude. Perhaps competition in honest contests among our fellow believers in the marketplace of ideas might help whip us into shape. And perhaps the prospect of persecution by an intolerant secular state can help prime us for the real fight, and real persecution.

If the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, then perhaps the sweat of the faithful is the rain that waters the soil.

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