Wednesday, April 8, 2009

the end of Christian America (??)

The title of the pre-Easter cover story of Newsweek by Jon Meacham...

It's a bit surprising that the title omits a question mark.
This punctuation choice may have stemmed from a desire to be provocative OR common ignorance-- among non-Christians and many Christians-- about the nature of "Christianity" (at least as it's defined biblically).

For example, from the polling data in the article, "self-identifying" Christian (SIC) is even weaker than Kyle's point about being a fan (vs. a follower) of Jesus. SIC is a cultural or perhaps a "Chreaster" (Christmas/Easter only) Christian. (Have you heard the joke about the person who thought churches always have poinsettias or Easter lilies in the front?) A "fan" would be somewhere between a SIC and a regular attender who is not a disciple of Jesus. (Their life is largely unaffected by the teachings of Jesus and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.)

My semi-educated guess is that Christianity-- defined or measured as SIC, fans and disciples peaked in the 1950s. But where are we at today in terms of believers and disciples? We may be in better shape by that metric. In any case, overall, I don't see things as much worse (if at all) from a Kingdom perspective.

Meacham starts with Al Mohler being struck by survey data on New England going more secular. I don't know why this struck Mohler as surprising; perhaps it was just one of those things that you know but then it sinks in differently.

"That really hit me hard," he told me last week. "The Northwest was never as religious, never as congregationalized, as the Northeast, which was the foundation, the home base, of American religion. To lose New England struck me as momentous." Turning the report over in his mind, Mohler posted a despairing online column on the eve of Holy Week lamenting the decline—and, by implication, the imminent fall—of an America shaped and suffused by Christianity. "A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us," Mohler wrote. "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."...

I think Mohler is correct here. But note that he is speaking of American culture rather than the health of the Church in America per se. And it is easy to imagine that American culture has been living off of a Judeo-Christian history for some time, rather than relying on those beliefs.

This is not to say that the Christian God is dead, but that he is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory. To the surprise of liberals who fear the advent of an evangelical theocracy and to the dismay of religious conservatives who long to see their faith more fully expressed in public life, Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population....

Yes and no. The decline in Christian influence on culture is entirely predictable. The decline in political influence may be temporary-- or may be a result of Christians who have tired of politics as a means to godly ends &/or whose idolatry toward politics may be fading.

Meacham gets to these points later:

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....

From there, Meacham provides an interesting history of the term/concept "post-Christian" and a questionable assessment of Christian (declining) influence on the culture.

UPDATE: For another Schansbergian take on this, click here.


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