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Living out of sin

Paul Vallely

Whatever became of sin? It's not a question you expect to hear a bunch of journalists discussing. But I've just come back from the United States where a group of that nation's top secular reporters and commentators are brought together with interesting religious figures in an attempt to deepen media understanding of faith issues and religiously-grounded moral arguments. Given the level of theological illiteracy in the British media it is something we could definitely do with on this side of the water.

Called the Faith Angle Forum it is funded by a Washington think tank with the original aim of promoting a better understanding of the position of conservative Christians in the mainstream media, though it now includes religious thinkers from a more wide-ranging background with the aim of exploring how faith affects and informs public life at a deeper level than is evident from much superficial political debate.

Twice a year the group brings together a different group of writers and thinkers for two days in a swish hotel in South Beach, Miami, for what are clearly some fruitful and mutually-enlightening exchanges. The group is kept small to facilitate a proper dialogue, but they include some of the most influential voices in US media including columnists from the New York Times, Washington Post, the New Yorker, LA Times, and various serious weeklies and monthlies.

Many of them are secular atheists but, unlike their British equivalents, they share an understanding of the importance of religion in the public square. As one seasoned political commentator, Molly Ball of The Atlantic magazine, put it: 'You don't get very far in American politics by being an atheist because the American public is overwhelmingly religious'.

Some of the agenda is on the news; I was there to talk about the Pope. Ball was part of a dialogue with the conservative Russell Moore, the President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, on the religious divide over the issues of gay relationships and abortion which Americans categorise as 'culture wars'. Interestingly these are moving in to a new phase.

Younger evangelicals, with their tattoos and noserings, said Moore, are often less political, in the old party political sense, than their parents. They are less likely to demand Christian voter guides with a line on every law before Congress. They are less concerned to advance the line of one political party. And they are far more concerned about issues like sex trafficking, domestic violence and the environment. But they are no less robust on abortion and the family. 'They are not moving to the left but to the right of their parents and grandparents on the issue of abortion,' Moore said.

A similar trend can be seen in the wider population said Molly Ball. Culture war barometers have changed. On gay marriage the US public has moved rapidly; in 1996 only 27 per cent supported it where now 54 per cent do. By contrast, attitudes on abortion are remarkably static, with just over half saying it should legal in most circumstances and just under half saying it should not.

It was an academic, Cornelius Plantinga Jr, of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, who got us onto sin. Google it, he said, and you'll find that most mentions nowadays are metaphorical or frivolous. The concept of sin has decayed in meaning in US culture, he said. It's true in the UK too, where the media are most likely to use it in connection with the eating of cream cakes.

But interestingly Plantinga saw the problem as rooted in the Church as much as a reductive secular culture. Evangelical worship tends to omit penitential songs, psalms or prayers, he noted. The USA now has a no-fault culture in which tolerance is the great virtue and intolerance is its unacceptable obverse. The result is worship which is unrelievedly cheerful to attract 'seekers' to come to church and stay there.

Words like evil by contrast have had a resurgence since the United States experienced its first major homeland terrorist attacks at 9/11. But it is Hollywood as much as serious thinkers which is most likely to engage in that way. Evil is there in Harry Potter or The Hunger Games because in Hollywood there lingers the notion that the guilty must get their just deserts. 'Screenwriters,' said Plantinga wryly, 'don't go to church so they haven't learned that sin, guilt and punishment are out of fashion'.

Plantinga had an intriguing distinction to make between evil and sin. Evil, he said, is the disturbance of shalom where sin is its culpable disturbance. There were revealing political glosses on that. Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic columnist on the New York Times, insisted that the language of good and evil among the liberal elite has shifted to focus on structures: rape culture, racism, homophobia and other institutional sins were the contemporary focus of evil rather than the bad behaviour of individuals. The structural view of sin, he lamented, becomes purely impersonal.

But it is more complicated. The old distinctions between natural and moral evil was too neat. Sin plays a part in natural disasters. Shoddy bridge-building, macho disdain and a host of other failings could become part of non-moral events. And what of psychopaths? Is their failure of empathy moral or neuro- chemical? To sin is to abrogate a code but can those with psycho-social pathologies be said to have ever accepted the code in the first place? More generally, relativist morality has led to a shift or erosion in social consensus on what is moral.

Yet what is inescapably the case is that when evil replaces sin it lets us off the hook somewhat. Perhaps there's life in the old dogma yet. Either way it's not a discussion that should not be confined to the other side of the Atlantic.