At First Things, Matthew Schmitz warns his fellow Catholics of “country club Catholicism,” a sophisticated language game by which categories like sin and righteousness are diluted so as to no longer refer to what is good and bad, but what is dignified and what is offensive.
Specifically addressing his comments to current Catholic debates about doctrine, Schmitz asks:
Does the church oppose sin, or only sordidness? When a man abandons his wife, does it
matter whether the other woman waits for him in a house or in a hotel room? Is adultery a
sin committed only by the impulsive, the cash–strapped, the
time–pressed? Or can it also be executed by men with ample capital and orderly habits?
Country club Catholicism, Schmitz writes, is Catholicism where respectability is the test of morality. The sins of adultery and divorce become are less problematic if they come accompanied by strong social activism or a polished veneer of “having it together.”
Schmitz writes specifically to and for Roman Catholics, but I don’t think the application of his observations ends there. Country club evangelicalism is real, too. And it is not one whit more compelling or obedient than country club Catholicism.
Consider contemporary evangelical literature. Much of it is about “brokenness,” about how “broken” we all are without the redemptive power of Christ. Often this language of brokenness pops up in the same places where previous generations would have used the words “sinful,” and “rebellious.” But the word “brokenness” is more palatable to many modern evangelicals because it denotes a condition rather than a moral responsibility.
To be sure, there is biblical warrant for speaking of our humanity as being broken. But the Bible does not classify us foremost as patients but as inmates. We are broken because of sin, and that includes our sin. By farming out the language of moral culpability to more contemporary vocabulary—often vocabulary that is borrowed from the secular liturgies of pop psychology—we may perpetuate a country club Christianity, where our own personal sin becomes less scandalous to our own consciences, provided that we are sensitive to our own “brokenness” and “humble” enough to cop to it (even if we aren’t humble enough to admit fudging on our tax return or stealing a second glance at the model on the computer screen).
Country club evangelicalism comes in many flavors. There’s the blue collar, Christian Republican variety, in which animus towards those of different skin color or income levels is OK as long as the teens don’t get pregnant. There’s the progressive, Christian social justice flavor, in which the task of decrying the excesses of “purity culture” completely absolves one from actually having to practice chastity or modesty. And there’s even a Reformed seminarian version, where preaching the Gospel can be used as an excuse to neglect the poor practice a technologically savvy kind of materialism.
Country club evangelicalism can come in any flavor the suits your individual temperament. Gospel Christianity, however, does not. Whether we come to Jesus as self-righteous Pharisees, weary serial adulterers, or materialistic yuppies, we receive from him exactly what we need: A new birth. The problem with us is not that we scandalize ourselves but that we scandalize our Creator. We are both sinful and sordid, immoral and unjust. Deciphering which rebellions against Christ will get us shamed by our friends and which ones will not is only an exercise in self-deception. We don’t need to cover our sin with tireless commitment to the Real Issue; we need Christ to cover our sin with his blood.
The problem with country clubs is that you can be thrown out at any time. There’s no safety in belonging to them. Country club Christianity is a poor substitute for the savior who says, “Anyone who comes to me, I will in no way cast out.”