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The Future Of Christian America

Book, magazine, and newspaper publishers love headlines announcing the "end" of this or that -- because they sell books, magazines, and newspapers. And so we have this week's issue of Newsweek, announcing "The Decline and Fall of Christian America" in red letters laid-out in the shape of a cross on a black background. Powerful. Dramatic. Exciting. Chilling. Inside, the lead article, by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, is titled "The End of Christian America." Really? Christian America is coming to an end? It seemed just a few years ago that we were on the verge of succumbing to a theocratic coup that was about to install a distinctly American form of Christian fascism. And now we're living through the end of Christian America? So soon? I'm so relieved! I better buy this issue of Newsweek and read that story!

But wait: Don't bother. Not only can you read the article online for free, but what you'll find if you plow through its 4,000 or so words is nothing very remarkable. Meacham quotes some widely reported statistics: For instance, 8 percent of Americans in 1990 claimed no religious affiliation, whereas now 15 percent do. Over that same 18-year period, the number of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points, from 86 to 76 percent. That's right, over four-fifths of Americans used to call themselves Christians, while now merely three-quarters of them do. And that means we're living through the end of Christian America. Or something. Eventually. Down the road. If trends continue unchanged for a very long time. I guess.

All snarking aside, what Meacham's statistics show is something far less monumental (and far more interesting) than his headline would have us believe. Fights over the role of religion in American public life nearly always concern the question of how much theology, and what style of theology, can and should be incorporated into the nation's civil religion. Will it be the theology of liberal (mainline) Protestantism, as it was through the middle decades of the twentieth century? (Meacham seems to favor a return to something along these lines.) Or will it be a synthesis of traditionalist evangelical Protestantism and orthodox Roman Catholicism, as the religious right has advocated over the past decade or so? As we learned during the presidency of George W. Bush, the problem with the latter option is that makes huge numbers of Americans (including non-Christians, those Christians who are less fervently religious, and those who aren't particularly religious at all) feel like second-class citizens for failing to conform to traditionalist Catholic-Christian moral teaching. And that has produced a backlash. Somewhat fewer Americans are identifying as Christians; somewhat more are identifying as secular. And even those who remain religiously traditionalist are a bit less likely to believe that they should work for the transformation of the nation through the medium of electoral politics.

To my mind, these are all encouraging trends. (Though they are merely trends, and so could be reversed given the right circumstances.) And yet they leave the most important and interesting question unanswered: What will provide the theological content of the nation's civil religion now that the "mere orthodoxy" of the evangelical-Catholic alliance has proven unsuitable for a pluralistic nation of 300 million people? To my mind, the most likely and salutary option is moralistic therapeutic deism. Here is the core of its (Rousseauian) catechism, in the words of sociologist Christian Smith:

1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."

2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."

3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."

4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."

5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."

Theologically speaking, this watered-down, anemic, insipid form of Judeo-Christianity is pretty repulsive. But politically speaking, it's perfect: thoroughly anodyne, inoffensive, tolerant. And that makes it perfectly suited to serve as the civil religion of the highly differentiated twenty-first century United States.

Would this mark "The End of Christian America"? Only if we define "Christian America" the way the religious right prefers to -- namely, as a nation with the soul of an orthodox Catholic-Christian church. Viewed in broader terms, a nation in which a majority embraced something like moralistic therapeutic deism would still be Christian in all kinds of important ways. Its moral and civic outlook, for example, would be a distillation of the Christian ethic of loving one's neighbor. Meanwhile, the millions of Christians who crave more from religion than New Age comfort food would be perfectly free to take advantage of their religious liberty to worship in more orthodox parishes. Hell, they might even stop talking endlessly about taking the "Benedict Option" and actually join or start a monastery. An America in which all of this is happening would still be Christian is significant senses. It just wouldn't be the kind of Christian nation that makes a theocon feel all warm and fuzzy. And that's a very good thing indeed.

UPDATE: Rod Dreher doesn't like this post at all. And why? Because if it weren't for traditionalist Christians like Dreher and Martin Luther King, Jr., there would have been no civil rights movement. Because apparently you need to be a traditionalist Christian to stand up for social justice and human rights. Gee, that's a pretty confusing way of using the term "traditionalist Christian." Let's see if I follow. All those devout Christian racists (and slave owners) in the American North and South over much of the past 400 years -- they weren't traditionalists. But the abolitionists  -- they were traditionalists. And so were Christians who protested for civil rights. But not the bigots beating those protesters to a pulp in the name of Christian tradition and authority. They weren't traditionalists. And yet, those who at this very moment proudly oppose the expansion of civil rights to gay men and women in the name of Christian tradition and authority -- they're traditionalists. As I said, this is pretty confusing. And ridiculous.