Michael Spencer predicts an evangelical collapse in the United States and Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today reports that virtually all Christian sects have lost followers since 1990. The only group to gain in numbers, according to the American Religious Identification Survey, has been non-believers, or as Amy Wellborn terms them, “Non-Joiners.” Wellborn breaks down what, in her opinion, is causing this drift from faith to atheism and agnosticism:
2) Distrust (often deserved) of religious authority
3) The clubbiness of religious groups
4) A sense, in a generally prosperous society (despite recent troubles) that religion is not really necessary – it does not add anything life-changing to the mix, my life is what it is with or without religion…and I’m really busy anyway.
I think these are all good points. I think materialism is a driving factor behind disinterest in religion; and I think the antics and ugliness of much of the televangelist/religious right movement and its unholy alliance with the Coulter wing of the Republican Party is a driving force in turning off a good few people to the whole concept of organized religion. If the sort of vitriolic, hateful things one hears on many a typical right-wing blog are true of Christians in general, then it’s hard to blame people for not only losing faith in conservatism, but also in the religion that, at least through the evangelical movement, is now so tightly linked to the GOP. As Spencer notes:
Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society. The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.
To which Andrew replies:
Christianism has helped weaken and politicize Christianity. It has also helped to gut it of intellectual grit. Evangelicalism does not engage modernity; it simply avoids it. And until Christians respond to a changing world with the kind of intellectual courage of the Second Vatican Council, we will fail to sustain faith in the modern world.
Now my personal take is that the disintegration of the highly political evangelical movement which Andrew identifies as Christianist would be overall a very good thing. But if Evangelicals drift over into the Catholic Church I do think there is cause for concern. I think one thing the Church absolutely does not need is a large population of biblical literalists and fundamentalists swelling its ranks. The problem with protestantism in general, to my mind, is its lack of mooring in history and tradition, something that really forms the foundation of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
What the Catholic Church does need is a Vatican III. What could help save Catholicism, which I think in the long run stands a better chance of survival than evangelical or even mainline protestant churches, is a reform in its priesthood. It’s time to allow priests to marry. This prohibition on marriage in the priesthood is foolhardy, and one of the major stumbling blocks not only in recruiting new priests, but in winning back public trust of the Church itself. Beyond that, the Church needs more transparency. I think there is a case to be made against total transparency, but with all the scandals that have beset the Church in the past few decades, from child molestation to cover-ups, the only way to quell the slow uproar over these seemingly never-ending revelations of deceit is to open up. Let us see what’s going on behind the veil of obsfucation. The wrong thing to do would be to take the Church away from Vatican II reforms. The right thing to do would be to move toward a relevant Vatican III.
This may seem counter intuitive since only moments ago I was lauding the tradition and history of the ancient Churches, but I really think that it is those very things, those very traditions, that not only allow the Catholic and Orthodox churches to survive, it is also those traditions that help them to adapt to changing times. The Pope, after all, is thought of as a sort of modern-day interpreter of the scriptures. This opens the door to institutional changes like Vatican II that essentially compromise in order to ensure the survival of the Church. That’s a good thing. It’s smart, and it’s human, and it’s what people need to keep believing. Otherwise we’d all be stuck in the first century.
Rod Dreher notes that Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox have:
by and large failed to communicate the doctrinal substance of the faith to younger generations, and [have] not developed a strategy to keep the faith alive, with integrity, under conditions of modern American life. Cultural Orthodoxy, like cultural Catholicism, will not endure….
I believe all of us Christians are going to undergo a purification, and that what will emerge is a much smaller church, but one that’s more committed. Pope Benedict predicts this, and he’s right. Perhaps then we can be, as Benedict foresees, the “creative minority” the culture needs for its authentic renewal.
Maybe he’s right, and maybe it will be for the best. I personally have mixed feelings. I think the rise in atheism and agnosticism is actually a good thing. I think thoughtful disbelief can actually strengthen the dialogue between religious and non-religious people, and between peoples of different faiths. I think it adds balance to the spiritual world, and undermines the more destructive elements in the religious community. Perhaps Christianity was never meant to be culturally dominant. Perhaps as a counter-cultural movement it has more power, or more truth.
Then again, the ARIS data shows that of the religions that did grow, Islam was one. I’m very much in favor of anyone believing whatever it is that makes them content and spiritually whole, but I do harbor some concerns over the outpacing of Christianity by Islam in the West. Europe as a model is not a pretty picture, especially Northern Europe and parts of France, Germany and the UK. I’m not sure if the United States would suffer the same sort of cultural shocks as our European friends or not, but I hope we never have to find out. I’ve said before, my brand of conservatism is civilizational conservatism, and I want to see the preservation of Western Civilization. To me this means a healthy balance between preservation and adaptation. To fight the more destructive forces of modernity, compromise must be made with progress that is by and large either harmless or even helpful. This is one reason it’s so vital for conservatives and the faithful to embrace gay rights and eventually gay marriage. I think it will help preserve the relevance of faith for future generations, and help combat the tide of disenchantment we face as a society. Beyond that it’s just the right thing to do, but that departs from my argument for civilizational preservation and enters the murky realm of personal belief.
Likewise, a Vatican III that opened the priesthood to marriage (and perhaps other reforms as well) would do wonders to reinvigorate Catholicism, while in no way discouraging the practice and sacraments of Catholic worship. Having a family can only strengthen a priest’s bond to God, as it strengthens anyone’s bond to God. Love begets love, after all.
And perhaps that’s where Christianity has truly failed. Perhaps love is all we need.
UPDATE. Via a commenter at Crunchy Con:
The fact is, Christianity is a faith which prospers best when most divorced from secular and political authority. The religion itself sprung out of a handful of rebellious men, one of whom got executed just for his views and teachings (I hear he’s important to this story!). It then grew into the religion of the underground, the underdog, the underprivileged. It was the religion of slaves, of those disenfranchised by the Roman Empire. Not only that, but Christianity was, spiritually, vibrant enough to compete within the crowded marketplace of gods and goddesses at that time.
Christianity had to compete with an empire that not only had the Roman gods, but also incorporated mystery cults (ie, the Cult of Isis) from Egypt [nota bene: I use “cult” in the ancient sense of the word where it means more like “sect”, and it should not be confused with our modern sense of the word] and Zoroastrian beliefs, and Greek philosophies. Yet, in all this, Christianity eventually rose to become the religion of an emperor and eventually, an empire. It triumphed, because when it was the religion of the underdog, of the forgotten, of the invisible, it had real teeth. In the ancient world, where it was clear that the rich got monuments that put them next to the gods and the poor just vanished out of existence, the power of something said that there is a great equalizer out there, that you don’t need money, don’t need power, need only faith was immense.
Perhaps this is what I meant when I said that Christianity does best as a counter-cultural “underdog” religion rather than the dominant faith. I know this is counter-intuitive to the whole idea of prosyletizing, but then again I’ve also stated that I don’t believe in that either. Perhaps there’s a good reason for it, too.
UPDATE II. Mike has another suggestion worth thinking about….