Saturday, April 18, 2009

Will liberty replace Christianity in post-Christian America?

In the realm of religion I have made two points several times, which I consider important. One is that the influence of evangelicalism in American politics is plummeting. The second point is that we are entering a post-Christian phase in the country. Both of these trends I consider very positive.

I first used the term “post-Christian” to describe the trend in 2007. It is nice to see that Newsweek recently caught up with the blog. They quoted R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as saying, upon reading the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey as saying that “a post-Christian narrative… is animating large portions of this society. Newsweek gets is slight wrong. Jon Meacham, the author of the Newsweek article, says: Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian.” But post-Christian doesn’t mean that Christians disappear. It means the society itself is officially non-religious and religion remains in the private sphere.

It doesn’t mean there is no Christian presence, or that Christians are hidden away. It merely means that Christianity, or any religion for that matter, is not the motivating force in the public arena. It is total separation of church and state. Public policy debates will take place primarily in the realm of reason, resting on evidence, not promoted because of the theological opinions of some televangelist. Newsweek offered some evidence of the post-Christian trend. In 1994, 64 percent of Americans said that “faith” could help answer the nation’s problems. In the most recent poll they found that this was down to 48 percent. In 1957, 82 percent said religion answered problems.

In 2005, 71 percent of the public said America was a Christian nation. Last year it was 69 percent, and the recent poll puts it at 62 percent. According to 68 percent of the public, religion is declining in influence. In 2000 58 percent agreed, in 1984 it was 39 percent, and in 1962 it was 32 percent while in 1957 it was 15 percent.

Evangelicals themselves are now realizing they have problems. A poll of evangelicals shows that the overwhelming majority of them believe that evangelicalism is either struggling or dying (63 percent). Only 12 percent thought it was thriving while 25 percent believed it was merely holding its own. Evangelical Christian writet, Michael Spencer is predicting a “major collapse of evangelical Christianity” within the next ten years. OneNewsNow reports that Spencer believes this will be due to evangelicalism’s “emphasis on the culture war and affiliation with the Republican Party.” They say that Spencer “expects half of evangelical churches will die off in the next 25 to 30 years due to generational reasons or because their members become more attracted to [a] secular version of life.” The reality is that evangelicals and fundamentalists have driven away their own young. The damage done there is not yet visible because many of these young people are not old enough to walk away on their own. A very high percentage of them will leave the church and leave Christianity entirely.

A minister friend of this blogger writes that he was in Nevada for Easter and “went to one of the local mega-church Bible churches” and was surprised it was half to two-thirds full especially after they had “placed a big colourful ad in the weekend Vegas newspaper on page 1.” His conclusion: “I think their deeds are catching up with them.”

Newsweek’s poll asked Americans to describe their religious affiliation and what they showed is interesting. In 2007 35 percent of Americans described themselves as Evangelical Protestants. But this year it had dropped to 29 percent. Where 2 percent said they were Mormon in 2007 it was one percent this year. One Christian missionary organization quotes a Barna poll stating: “America’s secularization has gone from only 15% in the 1950s up to 40% in 2001; and headed for 60% by 2010!” They describe secularism as “basing the decisions of one’s life on a secular humanist, relativist moral world view.”

This latter statistic, if correct, is actually rather important. The fact that some people privately believe in a deity of some sort doesn’t mean that they aren’t secularists when it comes to how they make moral decisions. Only around 15% to 20% of the pubic are nonbelievers yet well over double that base their morality on secularism not on religion.

Allow me to quote Mr. Spencer in depth since I agree with his analysis completely though we disagree strongly on the benefits of this decline (he’s unhappy with it).
I believe that we are on the verge- within 10 years- of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity; a collapse that will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and that will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West. I believe this evangelical collapse will happen with astonishing statistical speed; that within two generations of where we are now evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its current occupants, leaving in its wake nothing that can revitalize evangelicals to their former “glory.” The party is almost over for evangelicals; a party that’s been going strong since the beginning of the “Protestant” 20th century. We are soon going to be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century in a culture that will be between 25-30% non-religious.
Of course, like a typical fundamentalist type Spencer is über-paranoid and predicts that this decline heralds “an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian west” with “intolerance of Christianity” rising. Odd how these evangelicals automatically assume that non-believers will treat them as badly as Christians treated atheists and gays. Spencer projects that large numbers of evangelicals will simply up and leave the church. He says: “Many of our children and grandchildren are going to abandon ship, and many will do so saying ‘good riddance.’” (Well, as one who left and said just that, I can see the reasons for it.)

Spencer writes that: “The investment of evangelicals in the culture war will prove out to be one of the most costly mistakes in our history. The coming evangelical collapse will come about, largely, because our investment in moral, social and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses.” Spencer says that Christian schooling won’t stop the decline either. “Millions of Christian school graduates are going to walk away from the faith and the church.” Hmm, you mean graduating from a Christian high school didn’t stop me from becoming an atheist? Actually I know of several graduates of my Christian school who are now non-believers.

Will something replace this decline in religion? What “belief” system will dominate American culture when Christian disappears? The most interesting speculation on that comes from the Newsweek article.
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.
I am not so optimistic as to think that a belief in libertarianism or freedom will necessarily dominate our emerging post-Christian culture. But it certainly gladdens my heart that someone at Newsweek thinks that likely. Surely, if an atheist prayed, this would be high on my list.

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