As expected, the response to a recent Pew report finding a precipitous decline in religious believers in the United States has generally been doom and gloom among most Christians. But as an article in the Washington Post rightly points out, the issue of declining piety — and its subsequent impact on society and policies — is a lot more nuanced that meets the eye.
Most of the actual decline in believers from 2007 to 2014 was concentrated among Roman Catholics and the Protestant mainline, and among those most loosely tethered to religious faith. Evangelical Christians held pretty steady, which set up an odd chain of reactions. Secularists were pleased about the decline of Christianity. Some conservative Christians were pleased about the decline of theological liberalism. The latter is evidence of an old grudge.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Protestant mainline decisively won the battle for cultural preeminence — triumphing in public battles such as the Scopes Trial and leaving fundamentalists to retreat into a subculture. So the mainline’s comeuppance is met with uncharitable satisfaction in some conservative circles — call it William Jennings Bryan’s revenge. The language of “decline”, however, is imprecise. The mainline has not so much declined as faded into the broader culture. “Liberals have learned that it’s difficult for the church to survive”, says historian George Marsden, “if there’s nothing that makes the church distinct from culture”.
Indeed, with most liberal Christians being, in effect, deists — denying retrograde doctrines and theologies — it makes sense that the natural progression would be towards outright irreligiosity, agnosticism, or atheism.
Liberal Christianity by definition has eroded the fundamentals of the faith in favor of a more socially progressive worldview, albeit one at odds with Biblical teachings and tradition. It is difficult to square the circle of making Christianity more pro-LGBT, pro-religious pluralism, etc. — given clear theological, historical, and Biblical opposition to these and other socially progressive causes. Hence why so many people who liberalize their social and theological views ultimately realize that there is little left in their views and lifestyle that is truly, distinctively Christian, other than the sense of identity and familiarity (which is why so many continue to identify as Christians despite having de facto secular dispositions and morals).
And this is what the Pew study is describing: the advance, particularly among the young, of an appealing, powerful culture that has its own standards and values (expressive individualism, moral relativism, lifestyle liberalism) but no longer presupposes religious belief and finds traditionalism to be repressive. For much of the post-World War II period, saying you were a Christian was another way of saying you weren’t a Jew (those being the two available options). This left a large number of Americans identifying with a religious tradition they did not practice. The assumption of faith has gradually — now more rapidly — fallen away. There may or may not be a decline in Christian practice. But we are certainly seeing the collapse of casual Christianity and of religious belief as a civic assumption.
The media are focused on the implications of these changes for family structure and sexual mores. Many reporters and commentators seem pleased and surprised that the values they absorbed at Sarah Lawrence College or Brown University have gained sudden cultural traction.
For conservative Christians, a psychological adjustment is taking place. In a de-Christianized culture, it becomes harder to imagine yourself part of a “moral majority”. This was never quite true, but now, with the decline of casual Christianity, it is incredible. So how do 62 million evangelical Christians and other theological conservatives — not a majority but a significant minority — view themselves and their cultural role?
One option, clearly, is for conservative Christians to imagine themselves as an aggrieved and repressed remnant. This attitude is expressed as stridency, but it is really the fear of lost social position. America, once viewed as the New Israel, becomes the new Babylon. The church engages the world to diagnose decadence and defend its own rights.
There is, however, another option being explored. Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family — once mission control for the family-values side of the culture war — calls Christians to be “a joyful minority”. “We are no longer effective at persuasion because we lack humility”, says Daly. “Some in the faith community are losing legitimacy among younger people because many Christians only speak truth and fail to do truth”.
And “doing truth” leads back to the personalism at the heart of Christian faith — a belief that every human being is valuable, and broken, and in need of grace. “We must always consider the person”, says Pope Francis, a heavy influence on evangelicals seeking a new model of social engagement.
A faith characterized by humility and considering the person would be busy enough. The prevailing culture counts both virtues and victims. The broad decline of institutions leaves many people betrayed, lonely and broken — not only unaffiliated with religion but unaffiliated with family, with community and with all the commitments that give meaning to freedom.
Were Christianity, Evangelical or otherwise, to take a more humanistic approach — one that focuses on materially improving human flourishing and well-being — then I would count myself an ally in those endeavors (if not still an opponent towards the propagation of unscientific views and values).
But the religious right’s consistent focus on social issues that look increasingly antiquated, if not bigoted — namely opposition to same-sex marriage — in lieu of increasingly bigger issues like climate change and inequality (which are often denied to exist outright), is detrimental to both the future of humanity and the survival of this particular strain of Christianity.
With future generations, and a fair number of older folks, increasingly more concerned with these more pressing matters “material” matters, sects that focus wholly on social and moral causes that are retrograde or irrelevant will naturally be left behind — though not if they can help it.
It will be interesting to see how both the religious and secular segments of society — each hardly monolithic and diverse — deal with these demographic changes and the mounting problems being presented for the future.