Conspicuously Absent

Michael Metzger

Did you notice? One institution was conspicuously absent amidst the parade of officials explaining the ISIS-inspired massacre at an Orlando nightclub. Why?

Two Sundays ago, the nation awoke to the news of a massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando. The alleged shooter was 29-year-old Omar Mateen, born in America to parents of Afghan origin. Americans were treated to a parade of officials, including presidential candidates (and obligatory imams) explaining why this sort of thing happens. Most were reluctant to connect the killer with anything suggesting Islam.

More importantly, the parade of officials didn’t include church leaders. That’s not to say individual believers and churches aren’t helping victims. They are. But the church was largely absent from the national conversation. It wasn’t asked to mediate any solutions. If you read Yuval Levin’s new book, you’ll see why this was a missed opportunity.

Levin is the author of The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. It’s one of a litany of books describing America as coming apart at the seams. Levin’s contribution is noting how Americans, not just baby boomers, are longing for a return to the past—to the 1950s and early ’60s. Liberals see this as an era of high employment levels and economic stability. Conservatives see a time of cultural unity around a set of shared values. But both views are built on historical circumstances that cannot be duplicated.

As a result of this, Americans are coming apart—lurching toward the Left or Right. In so doing, they hope to recover a past that cannot be recovered. Levin says the solution is coming together, finding ways to strengthen our mediating institutions that stand between the individual and government. Until recently, the church would have made this list of institutions. That’s less likely today. Why?

For starters, ask yourself when was the last time you described your church as a mediating institution? Few believers would even know what the phrase means. Mediating means the church historically assisted in, or facilitated, the flourishing of societies. It found ways to stitch together coalitions that solved problems such as the slave trade.

The idea of institutions comes from the Judeo-Christian view of God. God is three persons sharing one nature—Father, Son, and Spirit. Judaism and Christianity believe in a Trinitarian God. He is not a single individual. He is Three in One. Institutions operate this way—individuals in mutual mission, submission, and purpose that transcends the individual. Many become one. Marriage is an institution. Two become one. The church is an institution—or at least it was viewed that way until recently.

Over 30 years ago, Robert Bellah, a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, authored a little book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Bellah took his title from a phrase in Democracy in America, where Alexis de Tocqueville describes cultures as “habits of the heart.” America’s heartiest cultures are individualistic. They’re unmindful of institutions. Bellah found this to be particularly true of evangelicals. They’re drawn to churches that cater mainly to consumer demand, operating more like a mall, as James K. A. Smith puts it.

For decades, evangelicals have been the fastest growing faith tradition in the U. S. This might be why the United States is the only country in the world displaying a strong correlation between high religiosity and high individualism. That’s unprecedented. In times past, an individualistic religion would have been considered heretical.

The term heretic was originally applied to people who made their own decisions about faith. “In a pre-Enlightenment society, there are only a few heretics in the original sense of the word,” writes Lesslie Newbigin, “that is to say, only a few people who make their own decisions about what to believe.”[1] Today it’s the norm, especially among the fastest growing churches. The eminent sociologist Peter L. Berger calls it “the heretical imperative.”[2] By imperative, he means most Americans feel that it’s non-negotiable that they be free to choose for themselves what to believe.

There’s an irony here. Evangelicals are acting Islamic without knowing it. Islam doesn’t believe in a Trinitarian God. That means there is no basis for institutions. That’s why Hezbollah’s spiritual leader Muhammed Hussein Fadlullah rightly notes that “America is ruled by institutions. We, in the Arab countries or in the East, we don’t have institutions.”

Since institutions play such a large role in America, and most Americans are unfamiliar with the influence that institutions enjoy, it makes sense to read a primer on them. I recommend Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. You’ll learn why any institution, including the church, will decay if its leaders don’t think institutionally. If enough Christians read it, the church might one day be conspicuously present in national conversations.


[1] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 39-40.

[2] Peter L. Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (New York: Doubleday, 1980)


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  1. One of our best. Many thanks for writing it. Thinking intuitionally and being a mediating institution also involves occupying ‘middle-ground’ not necessarily ideologically but between interest groups.

  2. I found the definition of how institutions works to be helpful: Institutions operate this way—individuals in mutual mission, submission, and purpose that transcends the individual. Many become one.

  3. I question ‘Judaism believes in a Trinitarian God.’ I was of the understanding it doesn’t recognize the Son at all and would not recognize the Spirit as a separate person. Please explain.

  4. The word catholic (with lowercase c; derived via Late Latin catholicus, from the Greek adjective ????????? (katholikos), meaning “universal”[1][2]) comes from the Greek phrase ??????? (katholou), meaning “on the whole”, “according to the whole” or “in general”, and is a combination of the Greek words ???? meaning “about” and ???? meaning “whole”
    (from wiki)
    Sadly the ‘protesting’ spirit can break the common unity in the interests of mainstaining dominance.Tension between the personal and public temple. Tension between the mind the body and the spirit. Rhythms of grace.

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