Jason A. Crook. The Rational Faith: A Review of the Evidence for Christianity. 2020, 267 pp.
In his new book The Rational Faith, Jason Crook, an international business lawyer by trade, turns his attention to developing an apologetic of the Christian faith. The book consists of nine chapters and seeks to build a systematic apologetic that Christianity is the one true faith. I was going to post a single review of the book. But I had sufficient disagreements with the first chapter that I found it necessary to pause and post a review of this chapter before moving on to the main argument of the book.
Chapter One is titled “The Cult of Reason” and aims to provide a sweeping history of religion and Christianity in the West. The story opens with the ominous rejection of Catholic religion during the French Revolution in favor of a Cult of Reason. This is a harbinger of things to come, for Crook then backs up all the way to the death of Socrates in 399 BCE and moves forward through the history of religion in the West while lighting on particular touchstones such as the Reformation and Peace of Westphalia. The overall drive of the story is to reflect the dissolution of religion generally, and Christianity in particular, in providing an architectonic framework for making sense of the world. The chapter ends with the sardonic critiques of the New Atheists.
I recognize that in a quick historical overview like this, one must paint with a broad brush and I appreciate the point that Crook wants to make about the decline of the Christian plausibility structure and its adverse effect on societal flourishing and the apologetic enterprise. However, I still found myself being tripped up by some significant disagreements.
Consider, for example, the long-term trend of declining church attendance (19). Crook seems to view this in wholly negative terms, but I see it quite differently. I share Soren Kierkegaard’s critique of Christendom and the stultifying and corrosive impact that nominal church identity has on genuine discipleship. In short, when everyone believes they are a Christian, it becomes that much more difficult to understand oneself as being called to radical discipleship. To my mind, declining church attendance is in significant part a re-ordering of the church to a healthier state following the decay of Christendom and back to the prophetic and radical stance of discipleship in the pre-Constantinian period.
Much of the chapter highlights the struggle in the twentieth century between the Soviet Union and the United States with the Soviets representing the advance of secularism and the post-WW2 United States standing for religious freedom and Christian values. As Crook writes, “To secure the world against the evils of communism, the United States would have to fight what amounted to a holy war.” (17) And so, he observes that “When President Eisenhower took office in 1953, he continued many of Truman’s religious policies. At his inauguration he led the nation in prayer, asking God to ‘Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly from right and wrong’.” (17)
Unfortunately, it looks like God didn’t answer that prayer because 1953 was also year that the United States orchestrated a coup called Operation Ajax to overthrown Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, the new democratically elected leader of Iran, in order to install the corrupt Shah. Why did the United States overturn a democratic election in a foreign nation? Because Mosaddegh was planning to nationalize oil reserves to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth to the population and the United States was worried that would upset their supply of cheap oil. (The 1979 fundamentalist Revolution in Iran was a predictable result of the United States’ subsequent 25-year support for the corrupt Shah.) Sadly, this is not an anomaly. Historians and political scientists place the United States as being the number 1 country for interfering in foreign democratic elections. (See, for example, Ishaan Tharoor, “The long history of the U.S. interfering with elections elsewhere,” Washington Post). In short, the United States government welcomes democracy in other countries when the results favor their own interests: otherwise, not so much.
And so, when Crook writes that Eisenhower “became the first president to be baptised in office, and in 1954 the words ‘under God’ were added to the Pledge of Allegiance'”(17), I don’t look back at that as a golden age to celebrate. Rather, it looks to me as a cynical exploitation of religion to serve the self-interests of Realpolitik.
Fast-forward to the 1960s: having set up the “Sexual Revolution” as a negative societal trend toward the contemporary morally dissolute world, Crook describes Woodstock as a social disaster (20). However, this is how Max Yasgur, the dairy farmer who hosted Woodstock, viewed the event in retrospect: “If a half million young people at the Aquarian Festival could turn such adverse conditions — filled with the possibility of disaster, riot, looting and catastrophe — into three days of music and peace, then perhaps there is hope that if we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future.” (Cited in Bob Spitz, Barefoot in Babylon (Plume, 1979), 439). By the way, Yasgur was a Republican supporter of Nixon and the War in Vietnam. Woodstock was far from perfect, but it also was very far from the debauched hedonistic frenzy of the popular conservative imagination.
In contrast to Woodstock, Crook seems to look negatively upon the “domestic opposition forced the United States to end its war against the communists in Vietnam.” (20) I respectfully disagree. In my view, those protesters were on the side of the angels: if we want to talk Vietnam, what about Napalm Girl, the My Lai Massacre, or Nixon’s secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia? What is more, history has thrown into doubt the entire basis for escalation following the second Gulf of Tonkin Incident (1964) much as history undermined the alleged WMD that provided the pretense for George W. Bush invading Iraq.
In short, when I look back on this history as a Christian, I find myself in far greater sympathy with the Woodstock peaceniks and the Kent State protesters than the foreign policy hawks who purported to defend a “holy war” against communism in Vietnam. But don’t just take my word for it: just read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Address. As a victim of the Gulag Archipelago, he understood the evils of communism as well as anybody, but as a true prophet, he could see the danger in a facile valorization of the United States.
By Crook’s telling, society has been slowly unraveling with the growing secularization since the 1960s. He writes of the “coarsening of society since the 1960s” (23) with respect to the “sexual revolution” and the rise of abortion. This is a popular conservative narrative. But what about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and subsequent movements for Women’s Liberation (e.g. the ERA), disability rights, and other justice issues? Even if you lament the legality of elective abortion and a more lax attitude toward sexuality in our day, I would submit that on the whole society today is far more just than it was fifty or sixty years ago. I most emphatically do not view the 1950s era of Eisenhower as a more godly and Christlike era than today.
On page 25, Crook seeks to support his narrative with a chart contrasting the rise in divorce and illegitimate births between the year 1900 and the year 2000. But the idea that this dual metric provides a reliable guide for a society becoming less moral or more unchristian is profoundly misleading. Women didn’t have the vote in 1900, blacks were regularly being lynched, Jim Crow reigned across the south, discrimination of other immigrant groups was rampant, there was no social safety net to speak of, animals were treated with little regard for their sentient well-being. Again, I would submit that society is, on the whole, far better off today than it was a century ago.
If you don’t believe me, think of John Rawls’ thought experiment for a just society. Imagine that you are to be born into a society without knowing your gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or level of ability. Would you rather be born into the western world in the year 1900 or today? I believe that the answer is obvious: today is the clear choice. And by Rawls’ criterion, that suggests we now have a far more just and equitable society. I agree with him.
To close, Finland has ranked again this year as the happiest country on earth. And yet, approximately 2 percent of the population attends church. The story could be applied to Scandinavia more generally: these are among the most secularized countries on earth and also among the happiest and well-adjusted with low levels of crime and admirable safety nets for the most vulnerable populations. Perhaps some of that can be attributed to the amount of heavy metal that Scandinavians listen to. (Heavy metal makes people happy!) Perhaps some can be attributed to the lingering effects of a Judeo-Christian tradition as I imagine Crook would suggest. But at the very least, facts like these present a distinct challenge to Crook’s overview of history including his claim of general social decline and his attempt to link said decline to decreasing religiosity and rising atheism.