Leaving Conservatism Behind

That deeper affinity our faith had for American-style conservatism came from the spirit of voluntarism and individualism that defined this version of Christianity. It held out the prospect that a person could transform their life by ‘asking Jesus into his heart.’ The past could be put away, sins could be forgiven in an instant, and a new life begun with just a simple prayer. Religious experience was direct and unmediated. We had no sacraments that served as the means of grace: tradition was scorned and rituals were condemned as merely human inventions. Even the church was viewed as a kind of local, democratic association. We were ‘members’ of one particular church, not incorporated into the mystical body of Christ.

This vision of the spiritual life was based on an exalted understanding of human freedom. Our wills were not bound and our ultimate fate was dependent on nothing but our own decisions. Sanctification came through individual effort and personal reform. It should be no surprise that this Christianity of the altar call proved a ready ally of all the fantasies and political and economic pieties we nurture about America: our belief in our capacity for self-invention and our trust that nearly limitless rewards could be gained through toil and travail. Suffering was ultimately the result of bad choices. You were, in the most profound sense, on your own.
— Matthew Sitman