Saturday, April 4, 2009

The End of Christian America?

A Brief Synopsis of
Jon Meacham's Latest Article


Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek and author of the book, American Gospel, has written an interesting piece on the apparent decline amongst Americans who identify themselves as Christians. This comes on the heels of the recent study conducted by the American Religious Identification Survey (an issue we have discussed on this blog in the past), which revealed a dramatic drop in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves Christian, while at the same time pointing out the obvious increase in those who classify themselves as having "no faith."

In his article, Meacham sites the statistics of the aforementioned survey, along with the opinions and observations of a number of religious leaders, whose concerns over America's Christian piety have grown in light of this and other recent surveys. Meacham quotes Robert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who stated:

A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us...The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.
For Meacham and others, this "cultural crisis" is a blessing in disguise. Meacham writes:

While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago. I think this is a good thing—good for our political culture, which, as the American Founders saw, is complex and charged enough without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance. It is good for Christianity, too, in that many Christians are rediscovering the virtues of a separation of church and state that protects what Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious dissenters, called "the garden of the church" from "the wilderness of the world." As crucial as religion has been and is to the life of the nation, America's unifying force has never been a specific faith, but a commitment to freedom—not least freedom of conscience. At our best, we single religion out for neither particular help nor particular harm; we have historically treated faith-based arguments as one element among many in the republican sphere of debate and decision. The decline and fall of the modern religious right's notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment and, for many believers, may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life.
But Meacham isn't quite ready to come all the way out of the closet and declare to all the death of Christian America:

Let's be clear: while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian. A third of Americans say they are born again; this figure, along with the decline of politically moderate-to liberal mainline Protestants, led the ARIS authors to note that "these trends … suggest a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more 'evangelical' outlook among Christians." With rising numbers of Hispanic immigrants bolstering the Roman Catholic Church in America, and given the popularity of Pentecostalism, a rapidly growing Christian milieu in the United States and globally, there is no doubt that the nation remains vibrantly religious—far more so, for instance, than Europe.

Still in the new NEWSWEEK Poll, fewer people now think of the United States as a "Christian nation" than did so when George W. Bush was president (62 percent in 2009 versus 69 percent in 2008). Two thirds of the public (68 percent) now say religion is "losing influence" in American society, while just 19 percent say religion's influence is on the rise. The proportion of Americans who think religion "can answer all or most of today's problems" is now at a historic low of 48 percent. During the Bush 43 and Clinton years, that figure never dropped below 58 percent.
And while these numbers may very well indicate a drop in America's current collective consciousness with regards to religion, it would be foolish, as Meacham points out, to assume that the nation is entering a bona fide "post-Christian" era. As history teaches us, America has been at this crossroads before. Meacham writes:

To be post-Christian has meant different things at different times. In 1886, The Atlantic Monthly described George Eliot as "post-Christian," using the term as a synonym for atheist or agnostic. The broader—and, for our purposes, most relevant—definition is that "post-Christian" characterizes a period of time that follows the decline of the importance of Christianity in a region or society. This use of the phrase first appeared in the 1929 book "America Set Free" by the German philosopher Hermann Keyserling.

The term was popularized during what scholars call the "death of God" movement of the mid-1960s—a movement that is, in its way, still in motion. Drawing from Nietzsche's 19th-century declaration that "God is dead," a group of Protestant theologians held that, essentially, Christianity would have to survive without an orthodox understanding of God. Tom Altizer, a religion professor at Emory University, was a key member of the Godless Christianity movement, and he traces its intellectual roots first to Kierkegaard and then to Nietzsche. For Altizer, a post-Christian era is one in which "both Christianity and religion itself are unshackled from their previous historical grounds." In 1992 the critic Harold Bloom published a book titled "The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation." In it he cites William James's definition of religion in "The Varieties of Religious Experience": "Religion … shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine."
To be sure, America's Christian roots are alive and well. Perhaps they have been severely scorched in recent years but the simple fact that roughly 2/3 of Americans still consider themselves Christians constitutes a real dilemma to anyone advocating for a "post-Christian" America in the here and now.

But not all hope is lost for those "post-Christian America" apologists. Near the conclusion of his article, Meacham points out where he believes America's "Christian Nation" movement has gone terribly wrong:

If we apply an Augustinian test of nationhood to ourselves, we find that liberty, not religion, is what holds us together. In "The City of God," Augustine —converted sinner and bishop of Hippo—said that a nation should be defined as "a multitude of rational beings in common agreement as to the objects of their love." What we value most highly—what we collectively love most—is thus the central test of the social contract.

Judging from the broad shape of American life in the first decade of the 21st century, we value individual freedom and free (or largely free) enterprise, and tend to lean toward libertarianism on issues of personal morality. The foundational documents are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (though there are undeniable connections between them). This way of life is far different from what many overtly conservative Christians would like. But that is the power of the republican system engineered by James Madison at the end of the 18th century: that America would survive in direct relation to its ability to check extremism and preserve maximum personal liberty. Religious believers should welcome this; freedom for one sect means freedom for all sects. As John F. Kennedy said in his address to the Greater
Houston Ministerial Association in 1960: "For while this year it may be a
Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has
been, and may someday be again, a Jew—or a Quaker—or a Unitarian—or a Baptist … Today I may be the victim—but tomorrow it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped."

[...]

"The worst fault of evangelicals in terms of politics over the last 30 years has been an incrediblenaiveté about politics and politicians and parties," says Mohler. "They investedfar too much hope in a political solution to what are transpolitical issues and problems. If we were in a situation that were more European, where the parties differed mostly on traditional political issues rather than moral ones, or if there were more parties, then we would probably have a very different picture. But when abortion and a moral understanding of the human good became associated with one party, Christians had few options politically."

When that party failed to deliver—and it did fail—some in the movement responded by retreating into radicalism, convinced of the wickedness and venality of the political universe that dealt them defeat after defeat. (The same thing happened to many liberals after 1968: infuriated by the conservative mood of the country, the
left reacted angrily and moved ever leftward.)

The columnist Cal Thomas was an early figure in the Moral Majority who came to see the Christian Americanmovement as fatally flawed in theological terms. "No country can be truly 'Christian'," Thomas says. "Only people can. God is above all nations, and, in fact, Isaiah says that 'All nations are to him a drop in the bucket and less than nothing'." Thinking back across the decades, Thomas recalls the hope—and the failure. "We were going through organizing like-minded people to 'return' America to a time of greater morality. Of course, this was to be done through politicians who had a difficult time imposing morality on
themselves!"
So, is America entering a "post-Christian" era? I think not. But at the same time one cannot help but wonder what might be on the horizon, especially in light of these recent trends.

Thoughts?

6 comments:

Pinky said...

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Excellent subject material, Brad.
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I think, put together, your report points at the sociological implications of how America came into being and still is evolving. Thanks for putting it together.
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Who knows what tomorrow will show us?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Much has been made of this survey. I think some of the questions are misleading---"no faith" could mean no faith, or it could mean the individual's beliefs don't conform with any one church's.

Still, it's pretty clear that American religious faith isn't immune to the forces that have already pretty much taken over Europe, which can't be called "Christian" in any meaningful way anymore.

[By contrast, 62% of Americans still "think of the United States as a 'Christian nation'."]

Europe, we'll see. Some historians have argued that today's Europe is an exception in history, that there has never been a truly secular society before. And of course, the rising demographics of Islam [immigration, birthrates and conversions] and the declining birthrates among the secular folks leave Islam filling a void---soon, the major cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and several others will be majority Muslim. Europe may not be secular anymore in a century or two, who knows?

I find Meacham's analysis a pedestrian stew of the prevailing orthodoxy:

As crucial as religion has been and is to the life of the nation, America's unifying force has never been a specific faith, but a commitment to freedom—not least freedom of conscience.

This conflates a secular belief in liberty with freedom of conscience---pluralism---that had much religious support as well. Further, political liberty was seen as an outgrowth of natural law, and not an end in itself. Liberty is not license, Locke reminded us. We have "liberty" only within the dictates of natural law.

Meacham obviously sees liberty as an end in itself, as if that had been the Founding dynamic. But it wasn't: natural law was.

In the prevailing orthodoxy that Meacham apparently shares, "freedom of conscience" becomes relativism, a denial of the existence of objective right and wrong---it's all a matter of opinion. This is not and was not a Founding dynamic, or an American one until the past half-century. Relativism answers only to itself, and it is not American pluralism, which is still accountable to a higher power.

It is true that America may continue to grow in choosing relativism over natural law, as Europe has already done, and as the mainline American Protestant sects are now doing. [The decline of the American mainline Protestant churches always seems to go unaddressed in these essays.]

Whether Europe [or the mainline Protestant churches] can sustain with relativism as its highest virtue remains to be seen. It certainly appears that Islam is putting that proposition to the test in Europe, as are the less relativist churches in America.

Pinky said...

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As I reread the article I cannot help thinking how much a large part of the American psyche is forged by our law.

The fact of the Bill of Rights is so important to so many court decisions and that the outcomes point us down the road we are traveling as a people.
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Gradually, gradually, the law continues to grind away and ever so slowly.

But, time gets us to where we are.
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JOE TODD said...

My own personal opinion is::
"In many cases Christianity needs a little more Spirituality"

Pinky said...

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Joe Todd seems to hit the nail on the head with his comment.
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The facts seem to support the idea that so-called "orthodox" Christianity has mixed the physical world with the spiritual world in order to create a religion that can be used to control society, for whatever purposes. In the Case of the Holy Roman Empire it was, obviously, for political purposes.
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Maybe that's what is going on today.
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God is Spirit?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

"In many cases Christianity needs a little more Spirituality"

I'm always intrigued when the word "spirituality" pops up, as it's invariably used by those who don't consider themselves very religious.

So too, Meacham's touching sentiment

The decline and fall of the modern religious right's notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment and, for many believers, may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life.

It seems this type of concern for the souls of men never extends to the black churches or American Judaism, both of which tend to vote Democrat in the 80% range.

You'd be tempted to think Meacham is sliding in partisan argument under the guise of impartial analysis, or even worse, is unconcerned with the spiritual welfare of Democrats!