Christians at Cornell and across the world this month observe the season of Lent — a religious tradition that calls upon adherents to re-embrace their faith through commemoration of the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the Judean Desert following His baptism. Lent is a solemn season, and an important time for Christians to examine their own religiosity and the state of the church more broadly. This Lent, at least at a glance, the church appears troubled and on the defensive. The unfortunate truth is that Christian churches, like most religious institutions in the United States, have been a diminishing feature of public life for some time. The Pew Research Center notes that 20 percent of Americans are “religiously unaffiliated,” a number that has increased by five percent over the last five years.
Separating a goal from the methods employed to achieve it — distinguishing between an end and its chosen means — may at first appear to be a rather academic distinction. However, mixing and muddling of the two has serious consequences. While the exact natures of both ends and means are frequent sources of disagreement, it is important to separate the two, a fact which is increasingly neglected by our society. Public structures and organizations have become de-instrumentalized — rather than serving as means for achieving society’s goals or representing supporters’ interests, Americans today consider national institutions as ends in themselves and acknowledge the primacy of those institutions’ self-interest over their role as means of achieving ends. Institutions and collectives at any level have always sought to further their own goals and concerns, for disregarding their self-interest prevents institutions from orienting themselves within society and presenting a coherent agenda for action.