The End of Christianity in America

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:

1) Mobility

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….

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

29 thoughts on “The End of Christianity in America

  1. “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. ”

    This is one area where I think conservative dogma about immigration and Islamism are directly at odds. Islam is the world’s largest religion, yet in the US, and really all of the Americas, it makes up only a tiny fraction of the population.

    Unskilled immigrants coming from the Americas are almost exclusively Christian. Immigrants coming from the rest of the world, not so much.

    By maintaining an immigration policy that is particularly restrictive of unskilled immigration, you virtually guarantee that an ever-higher percentage of immigrants will be outside the Judeo-Christian tradition that is allegedly the foundation of American culture.

    So, short of banning all immigration, the best way to minimize the growth of Islam as a percentage of the population is to encourage more, rather than less, unskilled immigration from the Americas. Yet conservative dogma on immigration specifically seeks to restrict unskilled immigration from the Americas.

    DISCLAIMER: None of this is to be taken as a normative statement about Islam one way or another. Instead, it is merely an attempt to point out the conflict faced by conservatives who both seek to restrict immigration and view Islam as a significant threat to the American way of life.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. I agree, Mark. I think it’s odd that conservatives in general oppose the largely Catholic immigration from south of the border. And as I’ve said before, I find the fact that importing low-skilled labor is so much more taboo than exporting good jobs…

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. The best text I’ve come across on how it happened here in Britain is C.G. Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain. See here & here:

    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=IwpPFtId7ugC&pg=PA227&lpg=PA227&dq=c.g.+brown+the+death+of+christian+britain&source=bl&ots=Ik9HN63fWW&sig=IKYgGScILi95KH-VdTTzE-7dIks&hl=en&ei=FEa3SafUJOTSjAe66fWhCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=3&ct=result

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Christian-Britain-Christianity-Society-Modern/dp/0415241847

    Following both the Linguistically Turned approach to history and a more quantative set of methods Brown fairly decisively demonstrates that conventional secularisation theory (which attributes secularisation to industrialisation) is incorrect, indeed some forms of religion were assisted by urbanisation and the rise of a proletariat.

    Instead he claims that Britain saw a steady decline throughout the 1900s, with a slight rise followed by a sudden collapse in the 1960s, from which we never “recovered”. He attributes this to the death of the conception of women as pious.

    Idk if America will go through the same, but I can hope.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. I think the decline in participation is a perception of the pursuit of influence and power (mostly power) that has dogged not only the evangelicals most recently but also the Catholic and mainline churches. Once the groups saw how they could influence society – admittedly often for good such as slavery, civil rights, the peace movements of the sixties although W.S. Coffin may have regretted what happened post-Vietnam – it seems power was more important than individual spirituality. There may not be as many athiests or agnostics out there as there are those who reject the institutional dogmas and political paraphernalia but lack a coherent way of coming together for the hard work advocated by Merton, a’Kempis, Meister Eckhart, the Buddha and many others. Lock-step unity will be rejected in modern, educated society. Perhaps it is time to seriously review Teilhard de Chardin, the modern Cathoclic theologians who have been silenced, as well as the non-Christian advocates of individual contemplation.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. I guess some people consider 7 in 10 people professing to be Christian is a small majority. If it were a vote it would be called a massive landslide victory. A 75%+ majority could amend the US constitution. Mabe you should check out these stats at net-burst.net/hot/decline.htm.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. All who interpret without the Spirit are already caught in a net leading to desolation. These that love bible interpretation without Spirit will find everything they have LEARNED to be a stumbling block to knowing the Spirit.

    The Spirit spoke THROUGH Jesus saying” I am the way” the person Jesus did not speak on his own behalf. The smallest of points overlooked by those seeking a king will render all their interpretations MEANINGLESS!!!

    The Spirit Speaks NOW saying “Let Go of the Veil of interpretation Given You by those that never KNEW ME, for they never knew the “true intentions of the heart” which is only known by the Spirit.
    The hurricanes, Tsunami, Meltdown, Stockmarket and hundreds of other things were predicted stephentree.com/melt1/

      Quote  Link

    Report

  7. All who interpret without the Spirit are already caught in a net leading to desolation. These that love bible interpretation without Spirit will find everything they have LEARNED to be a stumbling block to knowing the Spirit.

    The Spirit spoke THROUGH Jesus saying” I am the way” the person Jesus did not speak on his own behalf. The smallest of points overlooked by those seeking a king will render all their interpretations MEANINGLESS!!!

    The Spirit Speaks NOW saying “Let Go of the Veil of interpretation Given You by those that never KNEW ME, for they never knew the “true intentions of the heart” which is only known by the Spirit.
    The hurricanes, Tsunami, Meltdown, Stockmarket and hundreds of other things were predicted stephentree.com melt1

      Quote  Link

    Report

  8. The Evangelicals are doing well enough: they’re reproducing. LDS is doing quite well on that count as well, and by conversion. If Islam is gaining ground, it is doing so by large family sizes, not by conversion. Catholicism and the Evangelicals are making surprising headway in China and Africa by conversion.

    Europe’s not reproducing. Its magnificent churches became either state institutions or museums and tourist joints.

    Tell y’all another little story, tangentially to the Big Wedding. I went to London as an 11 year old boy. My parents dragged me around the City for a good long while, as tourists will, the Tower of London, Houses of Parliament, etc. It was a hot August day. We entered Westminster Abbey late in the afternoon. The Evensong service was coming up and the tourists were asked to leave. A handful of actual parishioners were left: we sat with the choir for the Evensong service.

    In that sacred space, listening to the choir sing Ralph Vaughn Williams, I held my face in my hands and quietly wept. It was the loveliest thing I have ever heard. I have sung in and conducted choirs all my life, soldiered away at the variously wretched and magnificent pianos in the churches I have attended. Bertrand Russell said music is counting without numbers, but I would say music is worship by the numbers.

    If religion in the age of the atom bomb has failed to engage the hearts of the people, its decrepit gospel of Heaven could not compete with the New Heaven and New Earth of consumerism and its transitory delights. The Catholics wrecked their churches by turning their altar around, away from the Christ and to the people: they abandoned their great traditions in a misguided quest for relevance.

    The Protestants began a disgusting tryst with Politics, knowing it would come to no good. Now their children won’t support their churches. The most precipitous declines have been in the black churches my parents and grandparents knew. MLK said America is never more segregated than it is on Sunday morning. Our kids won’t tolerate my generation’s racially hobbled sentiments: they have evolved away from our stupidities.

    Moses comes down from Sinai to find his people worshipping a calf of gold: we worship that calf of gold still in our hearts. Each new generation must learn the lesson for itself: money is a fine servant but a terrible master. Things won’t make you happy. A better car won’t make your kids love you more. Simplicity is a virtue. It doesn’t matter how much you love, what matters is that you are loved. Simple, obvious stuff.

    Kindness is the light in the darkness that overcomes evil. Our greatest joys arise in helping others, leaving the world a better place than we found it. Religion used to teach these things. It could return to teaching them again. The need is now greater than ever. For within us all is a core of loneliness and anomie, in a world of cars filled with tired commuters and worn-out parents, there is a basic human need to fellowship among people of good will, to know we are not alone. The church/temple is the one human institution where people of all ages have a place, from the infant in the nursery to the elderly in their wheelchairs. It is where we celebrate our greatest moments: christenings, weddings, holidays and funerals.

    Ordinary medieval man is often portrayed as a wretched creature. We call them the Dark Ages. But for all their problems, the peasants would form themselves up, hand in hand, to dance around the perimeter of their churches on holy days. If we live longer than they did, we also work more hours and have less time with our families children. We could do worse than to reinvigorate the notion of church, if only to regain the sense of family and community so lacking in the world today.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • BPascal, sometimes you write things that totally blow me away, and indeed, this blows me away–from first word to the last.

      As in, I LOVE it! It’s a fine piece of writing–I think you should seriously consider publishing a collection of your essays–this one is my favorite, by far, but there are moments, precious moments in several of your other opus’s—and to boot, you’re also a Vatican I Catholic–now that’s what I call amazing beyond words. I,too, will only attend Tridentine Latin masses. When they turned the altar away from God– “in view of Christ, the Redeemer who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature”, they turned the very soul of Catholicism away from it’s mystical Genesis–“At its core, Gnosticism formed a speculative interest in the relationship of the oneness of God to the ‘triplicity’ of his manifestations. It seems to have taken Neoplatonic metaphysics of substance and hypostases [“being”][86] as a departure point for interpreting the relationship of the “Father” to the “Son”[87] in its attempt to define a new theology.[88] This would point to the infamous theological controversies by Arius[89] against followers of the Greek Alexandrian school,[90] headed by Athanasius.[91]”

      And it always ends up with music. Always and forever. My burning bush moment was Mozart’s Dies Irae from his Requiem. This was not the later section written by Sussmayer. It’s power and beauty had smoke coming out of my ears and 12 year old brain! The last three piano sonatas of Beethoven were the fait accompli–I was forever changed–a mad zealot who wanted the world to see God and divine beauty. I’ve since learned zealotry loses friends. Much better to lose friends than the mad divinity of God’s musical utterances.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • I’m a Protestant. Sola fide. The only Catholics I can abide anymore are the Jesuits, the only scientific minds within the Church. The rest of the clergy are test cases for the theory that the Devil wears a dog collar. The scandals surrounding the abuse of children show the clergy from lowest to highest to be the wickedest of reprobates, brimming to the nostrils with the sewage of secret sins, their only motivation is to hide their sins for repentance is beyond them. Not that I hold most Protestants in any higher regard: I’ve seen their evils from the inside. I guess you could say I’m sort of a trans-Protestant, guided by both science and faith, believing that only a God of Truth is worth believing in.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • Blaise Pascal, many thanks for the reply. A couple of my very good high school friends surprisingly took that Jesuit fork in the road–their devilish sense of humor always has them comparing the SS to the Jesuits–except, even the SS had some heart. And inevitably, Drogheda gets into the picture–2000 Catholics slaughtered–and of course, De Medici butchering 75,000 French Protestants—and then Dragonades slaughtering over a half million Huguenots and on and on and on. They say, as an intelligence organization, they, the Jesuits, have NO equals and the restoration of Vatican domination would not end until all heretics were exterminated.

          My biggest mistake was going from choir boy to altar boy. Yes, I too have had my parochial school “experience” but at least have the good fortune to know the perpetrator will be in prison a long, long time. He was the voice and face of evil incarnate. Nothing was more frightening or had more control than the presence of this beast and unfortunately he had his eyes on me from day one. He seemed to get a particular thrill knowing his every word could paralyze me. Not forever, though. And opportunity knocked–if I do say so myself, a very hard swift kick to his shins had him doubling over in pain and I escaped and it was then decided I was a “problem” child that needed to be removed immediately.

          Hallelujah!

            Quote  Link

          Report

  9. As a member of the generation soon to run this country, I think I would have but one thing to say. I and many others do not believe in christianity, not because we do not understand it, but rather because we understand enough of it to find it leaves the bitter taste of bile in our mouths. I look forward to the dissolution of the many churches and the forward momentum of humanity . I hope they all fall. Let us stand and move forward from these archaic beliefs already. I would hope we can learn and evolve and cease these anachronisms that haunt or minds halls once and for all.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  10. Sifernos, your words are the most progressive and honest, I think, that I’ve seen written here in a spell.
    I think you are the proto-typical example of the modern, disordered psyche.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *