Matt Walsh. Church of Cowards. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2022; 2020.
In May of 1994, a group of Christians signed an agreement titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” The work, which was penned by a number of conservative Catholics and Protestants, including the then (and later cardinal) Fr. Avery Dulles, Bishop (and likewise later cardinal) Francis George, Chuck Colson, and George Weigel. The work affirmed a political alliance between two groups, Evangelicals and Catholics, who have traditionally held each other in mutual suspicion for much of America’s long and sordid religious history. This alliance would, the document implied, challenge the new reign of William Jefferson Clinton (at the time the most progressive president in the country’s history) and establish a set of policies that would, as it turns out, define conservative American politics until the advent of the Trump Era.
Although, at the time, this group was considered “the religious right,” its views were largely in sync with the dominant threads of American culture which was still informed by Christian morality. While there were cracks in the surface of the dominant Christian culture, committed Christians could rely on the support of the majority of the American population who still largely identified with the cultural and social norms and mores of Christian morality and identity.
After years of seeming decline, in the mid-1990s, the Catholic Church in America was experiencing an upswing which was inspired by John Paul II’s 1993 visit to Denver, Colorado for World Youth day. John Paul’s visit helped to galvanize a new conservative Catholic movement with its own magazines, television stations, and even universities that would revitalize a weary post-Vatican II Church. An entire generation of conservative Catholics emerged from this movement, eventually being known as the John Paul II or “JP-II” Generation. This spurred energy for ecumenical relations with evangelicals and other conservative Protestants who shared conservative Catholic views on culture and morality.
The world of the 2020s seems a long way from that of the height of the Catholics and Evangelicals Together moment. Evangelicalism is in a state of decline. The Catholic Church in America has been rocked numerous scandals. Moreover, the reign of Pope Francis, filtered through the lens of increasingly frenetic traditionalist media, has produced tremendous confusion among American Catholics used to having the clarity of Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II.
Once a Protestant nation with a sizeable and vocal Catholic population, America is rapidly joining the rest of the West as being “post-Christian.” Millennials are leaving the faith in droves though many still identify as “spiritual.” Social conservatives have less and less influence in the public sphere and the culture wars appear to have been lost with mainstream pop culture becoming increasingly indistinguishable from pornography.
Some Catholics have chosen to adopt a “Benedict Option” posture and retreat to “40 acres in Wyoming” or even to join various communities and movements seeking to weather out what feels like the slow demise of the American Empire. However, other Catholics have argued for a reengagement in Catholic political actions, not unlike the earlier generations of social conservatives.
In Church of Cowards, first published in 2020 but as relevant now two years later, Matt Walsh of The Daily Wire has penned a call to arms to Christians whose faith is slipping and who are giving over the public square to an aggressive atheism that at best sees progressive Christians as useful idiots who will help them in the process of finishing off Christianity in the West.
Walsh takes note that while many people in America still identify as Christians, their behavior is little different from their nonreligious fellow citizens. Many Christians including conservative Christians have abandoned the defense of Christian morality (especially sexual morality), which was one of the key planks of the religious right. Moreover, Walsh points out that after receding for decades the religious left has, since the Obama era, been making a profound comeback which has aided the progressive drift of American culture where such left-leaning Christians support all the major secular progressive social causes. Walsh attributes this return to the seeming cowardice of many Christians who refuse to live their faith boldly and who seem to have themselves embraced many of the platitudes of twenty-first century secular humanism.
Walsh further engages in a critique of the aesthetics of postmillennial Christianity, telling a humorous personal story about him and his wife attempting to enter a mall and then realizing they were in an evangelical church. Catholics are familiar with jokes about “felt banners” and bizarre (and perhaps even sacrilegious) depictions of Christ and the saints in their churches. However, since the conservative renaissance it was expected that the days St. Louis Jesuit hymns and liturgical dance were over. However, under Pope Francis (whether or not the Holy Father is responsible for it) the old days of Catholic forms of worship influenced by the New Left faction of the Baby Boomer generation have made a profound comeback further creating a sense of being besieged by those Christians with conservative, or tradition, and orthodox sentiments.
Likewise, Walsh argues that the “homeboy” or “buddy” version of Jesus trivializing the majesty of Christ and allows for Christian faith to grow flaccid. However, Walsh does not simply critique liberal Christians. One of the most critical passages in Walsh’s book is when he takes to task conservative Christians for idolizing the iconography of America while neglecting Christian reverence. Walsh further argues that Christians have forgotten the centrality of suffering to Christianity and to human existence in general and have instead adopted a New Age feel good positivity in place of the cross. Walsh is completely correct here, and confrontation between this sentimentalism and the harsh realities of human existence has proved to be a catalyst to the weakening of the faith of many Christians.
On the other hand, this recognition of the suffering endemic in human life does not lead Walsh to a morbid and pessimistic faith. Rather, he acknowledges that his life when living dedicated to materialism was ultimately empty. This is one of the key arguments that Walsh gives. It is further an argument very reminiscent of the earlier optimism of the JP-II era.
Walsh also rightly criticizes the “cult like” fear of the world that some Christians have while, at the same time, noting that the public-school system as well as contemporary media are extremely powerful and will very likely engulf anyone immersed in them. This is a delicate line to tread. On one hand, Christians run the risk of becoming “Branch Davidian Catholics” terrified of the world and living in a state of paranoia. On the other hand, the world is very seductive and at least some Christians have found themselves engulfed by various forms of popular and social media that is usually unhealthy for the spiritual life.
Walsh also takes aim at the alleged flaccidness of American evangelical culture, making special note of alleged hollowness of the God’s Not Dead film series. Walsh’s primary point is that Christian art should be beautiful and intellectually informed. One of the key points Walsh makes in his attack on God’s Not Dead is that it excessively simplifies life and has a consumeristic tilt to it that makes it essentially identical to the current anti-Christian culture. The atheists and Muslims in the film are almost cartoonish villainous while the Christians are noble and good. The film’s message is also excessively sentimental and bereft of any deep theology or spiritual insight.
Not excluding Catholics from critique, most of the scandals and failures with the Catholic Church have been at least facilitated by the belief that if someone is on “team Catholic” he or she is a good person. During the first stage of the abuse crisis, this manifested itself in trust of a priest simply as priest. As the (dubious) narrative arose among conservative and traditional Catholics that the abuse crisis was a phenomenon of the reception of Vatican II among liberals, it was thought that if a priest was wearing his clerical garb, believed in the Real Presence, and had a devotion to the Virgin Mary, then he was trustworthy. However, it became apparent that conservative orders and individual priests were not immune from scandal. Many had trusted a priest simply because he dressed and acted and spoke a certain way—only to have their hopes dashed and, in some cases, their lives severely damaged—such a phenomena have also occurred in some traditionalist communities.
Matt Walsh is completely correct to argue that life is complex and Christian art should reflect the complexity of original sin, the fall, and the arduous path of redemption which is not akin to sentimentalist evangelical filmography. Moreover, Walsh rightly acknowledges this corruption among some clergy and pinpoints it is a symptom of wider corruption and evil in the world at large. In short, just because an organization or fellowship presents itself as orthodox or conservative doesn’t mean it will be squeaky clean of its own demons.
Church of Cowards is not a perfect work. The book is much more of polemic than it is a history of twenty-first century American Christianity. At times, Walsh seems underemphasize the differences between Catholics and Protestants. Nonetheless, there are a number of valid points that Walsh makes in his work that Christians in America worried about the state of its culture and society should wrestle with. Christians have become weak and flaccid and have surrendered the public square to forces largely hostile to Christianity. However, this Christian faith cannot simply be a culture war (although it must certainly be one). As Matt Walsh recognizes, the heart of Christianity is love and reverence for God and one’s neighbor. It is this love, coupled with authentic Christian truth, that must be the driving force of an authentic twenty-first century American Christian politics which can recover the lost souls who are turning to everything but God and reverent service to neighbor in search of deeper meaning. Even in the darkness, there is light—Christians must be willing to undertake that journey through the darkness and bring others with them.
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